This is General Barry R. McCaffrey’s response to a paper written by Prof. Beres. View the original article by Prof. Beres here.
The brilliant essay linked to above by Professor Lou Beres, examining Israel’s nuclear strategy, is timely and unsettling. The core strategic problem remains preserving the existence of Israel and the Jewish people – and recognizing their fundamental dependence on a suitable nuclear security strategy for their very survival.
I have spent most of my professional career dealing with the realities of nuclear weapons from early years of involvement in the storage, security, and tactical employment of air and land delivered nukes – to senior responsibilities as a General Officer on the Pentagon JCS staff, charged with planning the strategic employment of nuclear weapons to deter the Warsaw Pact. Fortunately, I was also able to help craft the dramatic reductions of both US and Russian warheads and delivery systems as the senior US JCS negotiator during the President George H.W. Bush Administration, while working for the JCS Chairman, General Colin Powell.
The situation facing Israel is fundamentally different from our nuclear confrontation with the Russians. NATO never really faced a believable threat of being overwhelmed by the Warsaw Pact at the tactical or even the operational level of war. Our hugely powerful NATO military ground forces with dramatic air and sea superiority, and our gigantic western economic power, made it extremely unlikely that we would be forced to use nukes in the absence of an actual threat or use of nuclear weapons by the Russians.
The Russians were also rational actors. They were chess players. They were pragmatic. They were realists. Thankfully, deterrence held until the Russian empire fell apart from internal contradictions.
The Israelis have no such safeguards. They are surrounded by a mass of potentially hostile states and populations who have clearly stated a commitment to the destruction of the Jewish state. These state and non-state actors are motivated by rage and religion, not by geostrategic and pragmatic calculations. If these potential enemy states were able in the coming decades to tactically mass their conventional forces, they could without question overwhelm the IDF, and force a nuclear response to an existential threat.
There are clearly also real linkages of Israeli nuclear doctrine to US national security that remain unacceptably ambiguous and unexamined. In the coming decade, the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran will prompt a reluctant Israel and its US defense colleagues to make more explicit these complex linkages.
Israel simply cannot live with the possibility of an Iranian first strike. It would represent the end of national life. The core strategic challenge for both Israel and the US in the coming decade is to make the possibility of the actual employment of nuclear weapons credible but remote. Within a decade, the Iranians will be a declared nuclear power with the delivery capability for a first strike on Israel and US military regional forces. This recognized capability will have terrible consequences. There will be huge security pressures for nuclear proliferation, and incentives to develop a Sunni Muslim nuclear deterrent to the Shia “Persian” threat.
A new Administration will soon take office in Washington. Hopefully, the incoming US President will remain committed as a core US national security principle to maintaining the freedom of a democratic, law based, and capitalistic Israeli state in the heart of the Middle East. This should be a US national security purpose based on both moral and international legal grounds, as well as on sheer US self-interest in preserving regional peace.
Israel has very little strategic, operational, or tactical room to negotiate. It can never absorb a coordinated conventional first-strike attack. It also simply cannot ever depend on international security guarantees or peace negotiations with its Arab neighbors for national survival. The hatred and public commitment to destroy Israel will not fade until several generations have passed – if ever.
Israel must maintain, as a first priority, a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent. It must have a very credible air defense system based on missiles and lasers and energy weapons. It must continue to harden nuclear storage sites and land based delivery systems, to ensure the country can credibly survive a surprise attack by cyber, chemical, terrorist, or nuclear threats. Finally and most carefully, Israel must re-examine its currently ambiguous nuclear strategy, to make more explicit certain new principles most likely to achieve deterrence and maintain the peace, especially given the still-looming reality of Iran as a nuclear state.
The US and NATO can help in this process even while maintaining strong political and economic ties to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf States. We must continue to skillfully engage diplomatically, and at a people-to-people level, throughout the region. The US should without question engage in a direct and continuing dialog with Iran. We may also require a more explicit US nuclear guarantee to our regional allies, until Iran legitimately joins the international security calculus as a genuinely peaceful partner.
None of this will be easy. However, we stand on the precipice of a possible nuclear disaster in the Middle East if global security actors cannot recognize the requirement to contain nuclear proliferation and deter nuclear blackmail, or even an actual nuclear Armageddon. This new article by Professor Louis René Beres can help show the way.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel National News