North Korea Is Envious of Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Strategy

 In Land, North Korea, Forces & Capabilities, Israel, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste

Here’s What You Need To Remember: The estab­lish­ment of a nuclear triad demon­strates how seri­ous­ly Israel takes the idea of nuclear deter­rence. The coun­try will likely not declare itself a nuclear power any time soon; ambi­gu­i­ty over own­er­ship of nukes has served the coun­try very well.

In a pri­vate email leaked to the public in September of 2016, former sec­re­tary of state and retired U.S. Army gen­er­al Colin Powell alluded to Israel having an arse­nal of “200 nuclear weapons.” While this number appears to be an exag­ger­a­tion, there is no doubt that Israel does have a small but pow­er­ful nuclear stock­pile, spread out among its armed forces. Israeli nuclear weapons guard against every­thing from defeat in con­ven­tion­al war­fare to serv­ing to deter hos­tile states from launch­ing nuclear, chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal war­fare attacks against the tiny coun­try. Regardless, the goal is the same: to pre­vent the destruc­tion of the Jewish state.

Israel set off to join the nuclear club in the 1950s. David Ben-Gurion was report­ed­ly obsessed with devel­op­ing the bomb as insur­ance against Israel’s ene­mies. Although an ambi­tious goal for such a small, ini­tial­ly impov­er­ished coun­try, Israel did not have any secu­ri­ty guar­an­tees with larger, more pow­er­ful states — par­tic­u­lar­ly the United States. The coun­try was on its own, even buying con­ven­tion­al weapons off the black market to arm the new Israeli Defense Forces. Nuclear weapons would be the ulti­mate form of insur­ance for a people that had suf­fered per­se­cu­tion but now had the means to con­trol their own des­tiny.

Ben-Gurion instructed his science adviser, Ernst David Bergmann, to direct Israel’s clan­des­tine nuclear effort and set up and chair the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. Shimon Peres, who later went on to serve as pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter of Israel, cultivated contacts with a sympathetic France that result­ed in the latter agree­ing to supply a large, heavy water nuclear reac­tor and an under­ground plu­to­ni­um repro­cess­ing plant, which would turn spent reac­tor fuel into the key ingre­di­ent for nuclear weapons. The reac­tor was built at Dimona in the Negev desert.

By the late 1960s the United States assessed Israeli nukes as “prob­a­ble,” and U.S. efforts to slow the nuclear pro­gram and get Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty went nowhere. Finally in September 1969, Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir reportedly reached a secret agreement that the United States would cease its demand for inspec­tions and Israeli com­pli­ance with antipro­lif­er­a­tion efforts, and in return Israel would not declare or test its nuclear weapons.

Israel didn’t have long to wait for its first nuclear crisis. The 1973 Yom Kippur War saw Arab armies achieve strate­gic sur­prise, send­ing Israeli ground forces reel­ing in both in the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights. Israeli nuclear weapons were placed on alert and loaded onto Jericho I sur­face-to-sur­face mis­siles and F‑4 Phantoms. Determined Israeli coun­terof­fen­sives were able to turn the sit­u­a­tion on both fronts around, and the weapons were not ulti­mate­ly used.

Not much is known about early Israeli weapons, par­tic­u­lar­ly their yield and the size of the stock­pile. The strate­gic sit­u­a­tion, in which Israel was out­num­bered in con­ven­tion­al weapons but had no nuclear adver­saries, meant Israel likely had small­er tac­ti­cal nuclear weapons to destroy masses of attack­ing Arab tanks, mil­i­tary bases and mil­i­tary air­fields. Still, the rel­a­tive­ly short ranges between Israel and its neigh­bors meant that the Jericho mis­sile, with only a three-hun­dred-mile range, could still hit Cairo and Damascus from the Negev desert.

Israel does not con­firm nor deny having nuclear weapons. Experts gen­er­al­ly assess the coun­try as cur­rent­ly having approx­i­mate­ly eighty nuclear weapons, fewer than coun­tries such as France, China and the United Kingdom, but still a size­able number con­sid­er­ing its adver­saries have none. These weapons are spread out among Israel’s ver­sion of a nuclear “triad” of land‑, air- and sea-based forces scat­tered in a way that they deter sur­prise nuclear attack.

Israel’s first nuclear weapons were likely grav­i­ty bombs deliv­ered by fight­er air­craft. The F‑4 Phantom is thought to be the first deliv­ery system; as a large, twin-engine robust fight­er, the Phantom was prob­a­bly the first air­craft in the Israeli Air Force capa­ble of car­ry­ing a first gen­er­a­tion nuclear device. A new, small­er gen­er­a­tion of nuclear grav­i­ty bombs likely equips F‑15I and F‑16I fight­ers. While some might argue a grav­i­ty bomb is obso­lete in light of Israeli advances in mis­sile tech­nol­o­gy, a manned air­craft allows a nuclear strike to be recalled right up to the last minute.

Israel’s first land-based nuclear weapons were based on Jericho I mis­siles devel­oped in coop­er­a­tion with France. Jericho I is believed to have been retired, replaced by Jericho II and ‑III bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Jericho II has a range of 932 miles, while Jericho III, designed to hold Iran and other dis­tant states at risk, has a range of at least 3,106 miles. The total number of Israeli bal­lis­tic mis­siles is unknown, but esti­mat­ed by experts to number at least two dozen.

Like other nuclear-armed nations, the Israeli Navy has report­ed­ly deployed nukes to what is gen­er­al­ly agreed to as the most sur­viv­able seago­ing plat­form: sub­marines. Israel has five German-built Dolphin-class sub­marines, which experts believe are equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise mis­siles. The cruise mis­siles are report­ed­ly based off the Popeye air-to-ground mis­sile or the Gabriel anti­ship mis­sile. This ensures a so-called “second-strike capa­bil­i­ty” — as long as one sub­ma­rine is on patrol, some por­tion of Israel’s nuclear deter­rent remains invul­ner­a­ble to a nuclear first strike, guar­an­tee­ing the abil­i­ty to launch a nuclear coun­ter­at­tack.

The estab­lish­ment of a nuclear triad demon­strates how seri­ous­ly Israel takes the idea of nuclear deter­rence. The coun­try will likely not declare itself a nuclear power any time soon; ambi­gu­i­ty over own­er­ship of nukes has served the coun­try very well. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and gen­er­al insta­bil­i­ty across the Middle East has ensured that Israel will likely remain the only nuclear-armed state in the region for the fore­see­able future, but a col­lapse of the agree­ment or some new nuclear pro­gram could easily change that. In the mean­time, Israel’s ulti­mate insur­ance policy isn’t going any­where.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and nation­al-secu­ri­ty writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofound­ed the defense and secu­ri­ty blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This arti­cle first appeared sev­er­al years ago.

Image: Reuters.

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