Israel's Security Strategy; Nukes and the Policy of Pre-Emption

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Byline: Louis Rene Beres, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The core of Israel's active defense plan is the Arrow anti-ballistic missile program. On July 29, an Arrow ABM successfully intercepted and destroyed its target at a test range in California. This was the 12th Arrow intercept test and the seventh test of the complete Arrow system. According to Israel's Ministry of Defense, "The target trajectory demonstrated an operational scenario and all the Arrow system components performed successfully in their full operational configuration."

These test results are significant. They indicate not only continuing close cooperation between Washington and Tel Aviv, but also the intrinsic technical promise of Israel's ballistic-missile defense. But now very serious decisions need to be made. Still, faced with a steadily nuclearizing Iran, Israel must consider whether it can rely upon a suitable combination of deterrence and active defenses or whether it must also prepare for pre-emption.

On its face, it would now appear that Israel's pre-emption option is substantially less urgent. If the Arrow is truly efficient in its reliability of intercept, even an irrational Iranian adversary armed with nuclear and/or biological weapons could be dealt with effectively. If Israel's nuclear deterrent were immobilized by an enemy state willing to risk a massive "countervalue" Israeli reprisal, that state's ensuing firststrike could still be blocked by Arrow. So, why pre-empt?

The answer lies in untenable assumptions. Ballistic-missile defense cannot be appraised simply as "reliable" or "unreliable." Operational reliability of intercept is a continuous variable, and any ballistic-missile defense system - however successful in its tests - will always have "leakage." Whether or not such leakage would fall within acceptable levels would depend primarily upon the kinds of warheads fitted upon the enemy's incoming missiles. Moreover, the Arrow's recent success in intercepting a Scud might not be as easily replicated with faster and more advanced Iranian targets. In evaluating its pre-emption option vis-a-vis Iran, Israeli planners will need to consider the expected "leakage rate" of the Arrow.

A very small number of enemy missiles penetrating Arrow defenses could be acceptable if their warheads contained only conventional high explosives or even chemical high explosives. But if the incoming warheads were nuclear and/or biological, even an extremely low rate of leakage would be unacceptable. A fully zero leakage rate would be necessary to protect Israel adequately against nuclear and/or biological warheads, and such a zero leakagerate is unattainable. This means that Israel cannot depend entirely upon its antiballistic missiles to defend against any future WMD attack from Iran, and that even a very promising Arrow system would not obviate Israel's pre-emption option. …