Israel’s moment of truth: bracing for a nuclear environment


Israel's moment of truth: bracing for a nuclear environment - By David Eshel: On Thursday (Nov. 15, 2007) Reuters news agency quoted a source close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying there were long-term ramifications to be addressed, like how to maintain Israel's deterrent and military response capabilities and that he instructed his ministers to draft proposals on how to cope with a nuclear Iran. Whether Olmert's prime minister's office will confirm or deny this report, it now seems quite obvious, that Israel is preparing itself for a nuclear armed Iran. Indeed, as the issue stands, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Tehran's Shi'ite clerics, will sooner or later achieve their goal: to become the proud owners of a "shi'ite nuclear bomb".

There is no argument whatsoever, that any government’s job is to prepare for all contingencies and in Israel, being under constant threat from a still hostile Muslim world, this issue must be fully addressed by its defense community. Iran has officially declared its intention to destroy the Jewish state and, if Israel wishes to survive, it must prepare itself for even the worst case scenario of a nuclear Iran- which, once having the capability will also try to use it.

The question is not whether Israel has the will to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions – no doubt it would like to, but has it really the means to implement this intention? On the other hand, the US certainly has the means, but will Washington give the order and prevent Iran from becoming an unpredictable nuclear power? At this time, barring a lot of tough talk, no such action seems imminent and nearing the end of George W Bush’s second term in the White House, determined action seems highly questionable. So Iran will probably become the first “rogue” nation to have a nuclear bomb in its arsenal. By all means this itself represents an abhorrent prediction – but unfortunately has to be taken at its realistic face value.Iran's Shihab-3 missile can strike targets in Israel when launched from central Iran. Photo: Iran TV

Last Thursday, the UN nuclear watchdog Mohammed El-Baradei’ presented his report on Iran. Singing its praise, the Vienna placed UN office found Iran to be “generally truthful” about key aspects of its nuclear history, but warned that its knowledge of Tehran’s present atomic work was shrinking. Unfortunately, like such former reports, this one contained more questions than answers: “The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) remained unable to ascertain that Iran did not have a secret, parallel military enrichment program because Tehran was still denying inspector visits to anything but its few declared nuclear facilities” it concluded.

There is no doubt that one man in Tehran was very happy with El-Baradei’s report! “We welcome this, that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found its role and with the publication of Mohammed El-Baradei’s report the world will see that the Iranian nation has been right and the resistance of our nation has been correct,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said glibly.

  • In fact, based on it’s past achievements, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s operational record is rather, to say the least, highly problematic:
    Before the 1991 Gulf War (before Dr El-Baradei’s appointment), the IAEA failed to detect Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. After the war, it was startled by the scale of his work to make fissile material.
  • Under Dr El-Baradei, the IAEA totally missed the Libyan nuclear program, which Libya only chose to reveal after the 2003 Iraq war.
  • It missed, or ignored Iran’s long-time covert nuclear research program, which was already exposed by Iranian dissidents three years ago.
  • Its biggest shamble was probably failing to uncover the “nuclear supermarket” run by the “”father of the Islamic bomb” Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the notorious Pakistani scientist who sold plans and components to Libya, North Korea and finally Iran.

Israel's Arrow-2 ballistic missile  interceptor is well capable of intercepting Iran's current Shihab 3 missiles. (Photo: Israel Aerospace Induustries)Whether Israel, or in fact, any other well armed and prepared nation facing a nuclear threat should however tremble with fear from such a horrible doomsday weapon remains debatable, if the facts be carefully examined and assessed.

There is little argument, that a nuclear warhead can destroy an entire city, or even much more. A small, but increasing, number of nations already possess nuclear missiles. However, no nation has ever launched a nuclear missile against an enemy. Moreover, nuclear war isn’t something one decides en-passant some morning and initiating it on the following afternoon. Such highly complex and dangerous action requires intensive pre-planning and preparation over a period of months and even years. Therefore, special tasks must be carried out to assure post-war recovery, which will not remain one-sided, to assure, what Russian strategists named “nuclear rocket supremacy.” For example, an attacker must quietly move key factories to secret underground locations. An attacker must also stockpile strategic supplies, raw materials, food, fuel, and machine tools for rebuilding vital industries. In fact, the most dramatic advanced measures would no doubt be leaked in vigilant press reports. During the Cold War Russian generals believed that only an extensive disinformation campaign could mask such preparations.

Sofar Israel has staunchly maintained its so-called nuclear ambiguity policy, which has served the nation’s strategic options extremely well. However, should Iran, or for that matter other Arab countries, opt for a nuclear weapon, it seems only logical that the Jewish state would have to adapt a different nuclear strategy in order to maintain its viable deterrent fully convincing. There are some signs that this process is already under new scrutiny. Despite all recent denials by the PM advisory entourage, following last Thursday’s Reuter report, one of the topics of Olmert’s ordered “secret memorandum was being prepared for “the day after” Iran owned atomic warheads”, could perhaps re-assess Israel’s ambiguity policy, coming to terms with the new evolving regional circumstances.

Defensive and Offensive Options

All realistic assessments indicate clearly, that Israel cannot afford to create, neither passive nor a hermetical active defense layer to totally prevent a nuclear warhead-tipped ballistic missile to strike its major cities. In order to create a viable and convincing deterrent ensuring its very survival, Israel has to establish the following strategies:

  • Create a mixed defensive-offensive strike capability – based on long term technological assessments of enemy capabilities
  • Establish a political system, under which critical strategic decisions can be reached and implemented within minutes, once a nuclear strike warning becomes imminent, based on totally reliable real-time intelligence.
  • Maintain “no-fail” rapid reaction infrastructure system of constant high-alert defensive and offensive means – on minute stand-by to implement political decisions once issued, verified and authenticated.
  • Persistent long-range and round-the clock real-time intelligence assets constantly monitoring high-resolution space imagery, covering potential and suspected high-profile launch sites in enemy territory, transmitted through high-security data networks to operational command centers, manned by experienced professionals on 24 hour alert status.
  • Deploy reliable early-warning network giving adequate alert, getting maximum people in potential high-risk targets into some sort of shelter before missile impact, or, as an emergency contingency- implement mass evacuation, if time permits safe implementation.

While passive or active defenses can prevent an accidental or limited attack, and reduce a massive attack, defensive measures have limitations when facing a determined nuclear strike:

  • Passive “fortification doctrine”, supposed to absorb an attack by minimizing the damage of a missile attack on the home front is regarded by experts as illusory, if not totally insupportable through economic constraints. Atomic shelters are considered ineffective, as they can neither fully protect the population against modern nuclear weapons, nor enable those seeking shelter under the attack itself, to emerge unscathed while the radioactive fallout “cloud” is still hovering over the attacked environment.
  • Active defenses by missile interceptors cannot provide ‘hermetic’ defense against massive, determined saturation attacks. Yet, under Israel’s stringent geo-political constraints – even a single nuclear explosion can reap catastrophic, if not actual existential human and economic consequences.

Pre-emptive First or Second Strike Option

Retired Major General Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, former head of the Israel Ministry of Defense ‘Defense Research and Development Directorate’ specified that although Israel’s nuclear deterrent policy remained important in the country’s defense doctrine, developing a pre-emptive strike capability is also necessary. “As a small country,” Ben-Yisrael said, “we cannot go into battle for lengthy periods of time and the option of a preemptive strike is in line with this.”

According to the prestigious London newsletter Foreign Report, published in 2007, the Israeli Defense Ministry is reportedly pressuring government officials to authorize a policy that would allow Israel to retaliate with nuclear weapons, in the event that it suffers a nuclear first-strike attack. The newsletter also reported that the Israeli government is “coming to terms” with the possibility that Israel’s nuclear deterrent will be inadequate, because an Iranian nuclear first strike could disable or destroy Israel’s capability to retaliate.

Much has been written lately in the open Israeli media over Israel’s potential “second strike” option by a submerged submarine fleet, led by the German delivered Dolphin subs. A second strike option may be a viable option, as long as the active defense barrier is considered fully reliable, establishing a ‘full proof’ barrier against a nuclear attack, or keeping their damage within “acceptable” proportion. However, given the geographic and demographic situation of the country, Israel cannot tolerate any nuclear incident anywhere in or near its territory. In other words, Israel cannot absorb or tolerate any ‘lesser’ nuclear strike, weather it is aimed at its heavily populated center or attack strategic or military targets.

Israel’s vulnerability is inherent of its small size and densely populated area. Almost half of the nation’s population (2-3 million) reside or work in and around the Tel Aviv metropolis area, which is also the nation’s business and finance center. 50 km to the east Jerusalem, the nation’s capital and religious center for Jews, Moslems and Christians also has a population of around one million while Haifa, the third largest city located less than 100 km to the north. A nuclear strike on or near any of the cities has the potential to kill hundreds of thousands people in the first instant, tens of thousands more would perish from fires and radiation.

Absence of a ‘retaliatory option’ leaves no other option but ‘pre-emptive strike’, where a nation would launch a preliminary strike against an enemy, once there are clear indications of an imminent attack. A hypothetical, measured pre-emptive strike could use unconventional effects employed as ‘last resort warning’ before attacking sensitive targets. Modern intelligence gathering resources are already available to provide such ‘clear and indisputable indications’ in time for the leaders to take decisive action. When and if such determined action is executed, it should have dramatic, ‘game changing’ effects that could prevent a nuclear collision between democtratic-led moderates and a fanatic rogue statehood.

Before Israel could take such course, it should be prepared to lift the veil off its true capabilities by aborting its decade-long nuclear ambiguity policy. This policy has served Israel well under a nuclear-free Middle East, but will no longer maintain its true value, when, for example Iran declares its new nuclear weapons capability. It will then become imperative for Israel, to bring its full-scale operational capabilities fully to light, in order to convince any “newcomer” to the nuclear club, that further hostile declarations, moreover actual threat will be dealt with, by decisive and devastating response, making any threats a high-risk adventure, with insurmountable consequences for any potential attacker.

“Samson Option” is it still valid?

All Israeli leaders, from every political party have repeatedly sworn that “Never again would the Jewish people be subjected to another Holocaust threat”. Within this solemn pledge, first strikes have characterized the Israeli’s foreign policy. The highly effective Israeli first-strike air assault on June 5, 1967, destroyed the entire Egyptian air force on the ground at the start of the Six-Day War. But more parallel to the urgency surrounding the situation of Iran’s having nuclear weapons is the June 1981 air attack that took out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.

A pre-emptive strike option was mentioned repeatedly when analyzing Israel’s options for a retaliatory strike on hostile nuclear potential, before it is too late. The use of nuclear attack was referred to as a “Samson Option“, described by several fiction and non-fiction authors, as it remind of the famous biblical story of Samson’s war with the Philistines (Judges 16:4-30).

Israel’s geography needs no reminder what kind of existential threat a nuclear attack could pose on its population centers. A nuclear threat from the Tehran “mullahs with nukes” cannot be tolerated. Any such threat, once imminent, must be forestalled by all means.

For further reading we recommend:

Defense Updat Analysis, November 10, 2007:

Defense Update Analysis December 2006:

Defense Update Analysis Sept. 14, 2007: