Israel’s Options for Dealing With a Nuclear Iran

With preemption obviated, the Jewish state will have to rely on a careful combination of active defense and reliable deterrence

U.S. News & World Report                June 17, 2011
By Louis René Beres , John T. Chain

Louis René Beres is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University, and retired Air Force Gen. John T. Chain was commander-in-chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command from 1986 to 1991.

It is the summer of 2011, and even the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna now concedes the obvious. Iran is closing in rapidly on full membership in the “nuclear club.” When, probably in the next two years, such membership can be conclusively confirmed, Israel’s preemption option will, by definition, have been lost irretrievably.

At that moment, the Jewish State’s remaining strategic options will be limited to a hopefully still-optimal fusion of nuclear deterrence and active defense. One may also suppose, under the very best circumstances, that this residual fusion will be complemented by certain presumptively suitable forms of diplomacy. These could include both bilateral and multilateral international agreements.

The core of Israel’s active defense plan for Iran remains the phased Arrow antiballistic missile program. Designed to intercept medium and short-range ballistic missiles, the various forms of Arrow are expected to deal especially with Iran’s surface-to-surface missile threat. Iron Dome, a discrete and critical system designed to deal with shorter-range dangers, is intended primarily for the interception of rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon. For now, threats from Gaza and Lebanon do not have any unconventional or WMD elements.

From Israel’s strictly technical side, everything looks very good. Test results for the Arrow, as well as for Iron Dome, continue to be positive.

It seems, therefore, that the cost implications of Israel’s nearly-lost preemption option may now appear less than existential.

If Arrow were genuinely efficient in its expected reliability of interception, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear and/or biological weapons might, in fact, be dealt with effectively. Even if Israel’s nuclear deterrent were somehow made irrelevant by Iran, or by any other enemy state willing to risk certain and massive “counter-value” Israeli reprisal, an utterly worst-case scenario, that aggressor’s ensuing first-strike could, theoretically, still be blocked by Israel’s ballistic missile defenses (BMD). [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]

But there is a problem with such calculations. It lies in untenable assumptions about any system of BMD. No system of ballistic missile defense, anywhere, can be meaningfully judged as “reliable” or “unreliable.” Reliability of intercept is an inherently “soft” concept, and any missile defense system will have “leakage.” Whether or not such leakage could fall within acceptable levels must ultimately depend, in large part, upon the particular kinds of warheads fitted upon an enemy’s missiles.

In assessing its still-evolving plans for nuclear deterrence, Israeli planners will need to closely anticipate the expected leakage rate of the Arrow. A small number of Iranian missiles penetrating Arrow defenses might still be deemed “acceptable” if their warheads contained “only” conventional high explosive, or perhaps even chemical high explosive. But if the incoming warheads were in almost any measure nuclear and/or biological, even an extremely low rate of leakage would be “unacceptable.”

A fully zero leakage rate would be necessary to adequately protect Israel against any launched nuclear and/or biological warheads. Significantly, however, such a zero leakage rate is unattainable.

It follows from all this that Israel must move immediately to strengthen and refine its nuclear deterrence posture. To be dissuaded from launching an attack, a rational adversary would always need to calculate, among other things, that Israel’s second-strike forces were sufficiently invulnerable to any considered first-strike attacks. By having to face the Arrow, this adversary could then require an increasing number of missiles before expecting to execute an assuredly destructive first strike against Israel. Here, Arrow would improve Israel’s essential security not by offering any added physical protection, but rather by enhancing deterrence.

Still, there is an urgent antecedent question. What if the Iranian leadership did not meet the criteria of rational behavior in world politics? What if this leadership did not necessarily value Iran’s national survival as a state more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences?

In this scenario, admittedly unlikely, but not inconceivable, all “bets” on successful Israeli nuclear deterrence would be off. By definition, it could then become impossible to deter an irrational Iranian adversary with even normally credible threats of “massive retaliation” or “flexible response.”

Nonetheless, Israel must continue to develop, test, and implement an Arrow-based interception capability to match the cumulative threat created by all enemy ballistic missiles. It must also take corollary and nuanced steps to enhance the credibility of its still “ambiguous” nuclear deterrent. More precisely, Israel must: (1) prepare to take its bomb out of the “basement” the moment that Iran crosses the final nuclear threshold; and (2) operationalize a recognizable second-strike nuclear force, one that is hardened and dispersed, and that is ascertainably ready to inflict an unacceptable retaliatory salvo against identifiable enemy cities. [See editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]

With regard to ending its historic position of deliberate ambiguity, IDF planners will first have to determine exactly how much disclosure would be purposeful and cost-effective. The point, of course, would not be to give up any essential Israeli nuclear secrets, but rather to ensure authoritative Iranian perceptions of both usable and penetration capable Israeli nuclear forces.

Israel must also make it clear to any would-be nuclear aggressor that Arrow defenses would always operate simultaneously or together with Israeli nuclear retaliations. In this connection, the prospective enemy state must be made to understand that Israel’s Arrow deployment will never preclude, or render less probable, an intolerable Israeli nuclear reprisal.

In the best of all possible worlds, Iran, a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, would never have been allowed to proceed toward full and illegal nuclearization with impunity. Still, this is not yet the best of all possible worlds, and Israel will now have to deal capably with a persistently recalcitrant regime in Tehran by implementing a steady enhancement of its nuclear deterrence and active defense capabilities. Although changing the regime in Tehran might first appear to be an attractive alternative or supplementary security option, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv should promptly understand that any such transformations would, even ideally, offer Israel only a temporary respite from catastrophic harms. It is also possible, perhaps even plausible, that regime change in Tehran could produce a more dangerous adversary. [See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.]

There is one final important point concerning the growing Iranian nuclear threat. Soon, this unprecedented peril could be directed toward Israel not only via direct missile strike, but also by way of various low-tech delivery systems, operated by assorted terrorist surrogates. For example, if a newly-nuclear Iran should decide to share portions of its weapons-usable materials and scientific personnel with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel might then have to confront a greater likelihood of nuclear terrorism.

In principle, it is always in Israel’s best interest to keep nuclear weapons and supporting infrastructures entirely out of all enemy hands. Still, Pakistan, coup-vulnerable and persistently unstable, is already nuclear, and Iran is almost certain, soon, to join the nuclear club.

Fully acknowledging these sobering facts, Israel must now systematically enhance and integrate its emergent nuclear deterrence postures with the nation’s growing active defenses. This obviously complex effort should include, of course, pertinent cyber defenses. Critically, it should also be made appropriately recognizable to selected regional adversaries, and include certain carefully timed modifications of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”


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