Middle East

Future requirements of Israel’s nuclear strategy


According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare, or niht maere,  the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s famous Dictionary says this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which identified all nightmare as the unholy product of demons. This would make it a play on the Greeke phialtes or the Latin incubus. In any event, in all such interpretations of nightmare, a concept of demonic origin is absolutely central.

But modern international relations play out on a very different sort of stage. For certain threatened states in this always-anarchic (and too often absurd) theatre of world politics, the offending demons are of a distinctly secular form. Although still sinister, it is not because they are plainly hideous – these particular demons are anything but conspicuous – but because they are plausible.

For now, of course, Israel faces no expressly nuclear adversaries. Realistically, however, this favorable condition will not last indefinitely. When it does come to an end, and this eventual cessation is pretty much inevitable over time, Jerusalem should already be prepared with a seriously thoughtful strategy of response.

To best prepare for any impending nuclear adversary, whether Shiite Iran or Sunni Saudi Arabia (non-Arab Pakistan is already a Sunni nuclear power), or both, Israel must be continuously analytic and systematic. This means, inter alia, factoring into virtually every coherent nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality of pertinent enemy decision-makers and (b) the expected intentionality of these decision-makers during any conceivable crisis.

Accordingly, it is already high time for Israeli strategists to be even more scientific, especially in the sense of producing more self-consciously theoretic assessments that explore a large variety of “soft” human factors. Until now, Israel’s defense establishment has been very capably scientific, but mostly in the more limited sense of maintaining hard and glaringly mathematical attention to assorted specific weapon systems and infrastructures. Just as importantly, however, it should now operationalize certain markedly less tangible but still wholly scientific orientations.

An example would be the creation of multiple decisional “templates” that could allow for due consideration of not-easily measurable explanatory factors. Even more precisely, if a very basic dichotomous or two-part distinction could be recognized concerning enemy rationality and intentionality, four logically possible categories or scenarios would result. These potentially instructive narratives could then prove useful to fashioning Israel’s long-term security policies concerning the country’s ultimate nuclear “nightmare.”

To begin, defense planners ought to consider the following more-or-less plausible narratives, a consideration that would allow a more markedly disciplined scientific orientation:

(1) Rational/Intentional

Both Israeli and enemy leaders are presumptively rational (i.e., each set of leaders values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences), and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of fully deliberate decision choices by one or both of the relevant decision-makers;

(2) Rational/Unintentional

Both sets of leaders are presumptively rational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of certain unintended decision choices made by one or both of them;

(3) Irrational/Intentional

Either Israeli or enemy leaders, or both, are presumptively irrational, and any nuclear exchange between them would be the result of still fully deliberate decisional choices made by one or both; and

(4) Irrational/Unintentional

Either Israeli or enemy leaders, or both, are presumptively irrational, and any nuclear exchange between these adversaries would be the necessary outcome of certain unintended decisions made by one or both.

In all such complex strategic matters (Clausewitz reminds, in On War, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is still very difficult.”), nothing could prove more practical than good theory. Always, such duly general and comprehensive policy explanations could help guide Jerusalem beyond otherwise vague, ad hoc or simply “seat-of-the-pants” appraisals of adversarial nuclear conflict possibilities.

By definition, of course, any future nuclear crisis between Israel and enemy states would be unique or sui generis. It follows, among other things, that Israel’s Prime Minister and his principal national security advisors ought never become overly-confident about predicting any specific nuclear crisis outcomes, or about their own presumed expertise in being able to correctly manage such crises. In essence, there are no experts in nuclear conflict situations, even self-congratulating American presidents who all-too-willingly extrapolate “lessons” for national security from commercial real estate transactions.

There is more. Designated Israeli strategic analysts must continuously upgrade any proposed nuclear investigations by identifying the core distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and between unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. In this connection, the relevant risks resulting from these different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. Those analysts who would remain too exclusively focused upon any deliberate nuclear war scenario could seriously underestimate a more salient and cumulative enemy nuclear threat to Israel.

In principle, any such underestimations could sometime produce lethal or even existential outcomes for Israel.

A subtle but still meaningful difference obtains between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. Any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be certain recognizable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental. This difference is not insignificant.

Most critical, in this connection, are prospectively serious errors in calculation committed by one or both (or several) sides. The most evident example here would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that might emerge during the course of any one particular crisis escalation. Such consequential misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage taking place during any ongoing competition in nuclear risk-taking.

In military parlance, this would mean a more-or-less determinable multi-party search for “escalation dominance.”

To achieve a proper start in this sort of required theorizing, Israeli analysts would first need to pinpoint and conceptualize vital similarities and differences between deliberate nuclear warinadvertent nuclear war, and accidental nuclear war.

Subsequently, undertaking various related investigations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s decision-making structure would be necessary. One potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” Hence, a posturing Israeli prime minister who had somehow too “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could unwittingly spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

Alternatively, an Israeli leadership that had begun to take seriously an enemy leader’s self-declared unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first itself. In this opposite or reciprocal case, Jerusalem would become the preempting party that might then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. Under authoritative international law, a permissible preemption could be taken as an expression of “anticipatory self-defense.”

Also worth considering, amid any such chess-like strategic and legal dialectics, is that the first scenario could end not with an enemy preemption, but instead with Israel deciding to “preempt the preemption.” Here, Israeli decision-makers, sensing the too-great “success” of their own pretended irrationality, might then (whether correctly or incorrectly) “foresee” an enemy’s resultant insecurity. They might then decide to “strike first before they strike first.”

“Everything is very simple in war,” as we already learned from Clausewitz, “but the simplest thing is still very difficult.”

One final point warrants concluding emphasis. A future Israeli posture of feigned or pretended irrationality is not inherently misconceived or inconceivable. Years ago, and in this exact regard, an Israeli Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, declared: “Israel must be seen (by its enemies) as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.” Looking ahead, such seemingly “out-of-the-box” Israeli security postures are decidedly uncertain and problematic, but they are also not prima facie wrong or unimaginable.

For Israel, as for the United States and other countries, nuclear nightmares ought never be dismissed out-of-hand. Rather, like the bewilderingly bad dreams of a single individual, they could contain a variety of very consequential and plausibly intersecting meanings. The related task, therefore, especially in Jerusalem, will be to usefully exploit such hallucinatory “dreams” for strategic policy planning purposes. In the end, this would mean combining a more prudent awareness of worst-case possibilities with more genuinely imaginative scientific investigations.

About the author

Prof. Louis René Beres

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), a frequent contributor to Arutz Sheva, is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (DC Heath Lexington, 1986). His twelfth and most recent book is titled Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/surviving-amid-chaos-israels-nuclear-strategy (2nd ed., 2018) In December 2016, Dr. Beres co-authored a major monograph in Israel with General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey, titled Israel's Nuclear Strategy and America's National Security. https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf Professor Beres' articles have been published in Israel Defense; The Hill; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online (Yale University); World Politics(Princeton); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (DOD); Special Warfare (DOD); BESA Perspectives (Israel); The New York Times; The Jerusalem Post; US News & World Report; Jurist; The Atlantic; International Security (Harvard); and Oxford University Press. Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.