Gerald M. Steinberg

Political Studies Department and

BESA Center for Strategic Studies

Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel


RUSI International Security Review - 1999, published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Analysis, UK, pp. 215-224



The threat environment in the Middle East is changing rapidly, reflecting the combined impacts of the uncertain peace process, the end of the Cold War, the unresolved Iraqi threat, concern over developing Iranian capabilities, and, most importantly, the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction in the region. These factors have created new challenges for Israeli military planners and decision makers.

As the dangers of a large scale combined conventional attack that threatened national survival from 1948 through 1973 and beyond, recede (although they have not disappeared), the WMD and ballistic missile threats posed by neighboring and more distant states are growing. In 1991, Iraq possessed a large arsenal of chemical and biological warheads, as well as ballistic missiles to attack targets in Israel. Despite over seven years of UN inspections and sanctions, Saddam Hussein’s regime has developed and implemented a vast program of concealment to hold onto considerable capabilities. Once the inspections and the threat of military action and lifted, Iraq will be able to reconstitute its stockpiles in a very short period of time. As a result, Iraq remains a formidable threat to Israel and to the region.

In addition, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Iran all possess significant chemical weapons capabilities (Egypt has had chemical weapons since the early 1960s, and used them in its campaigns in Yemen, but not against Israel). There is also increasing evidence that many of these states are developing biological weapons.

In the past, the domination of the Israeli Air Force has protected population centers from Arab air attacks, but the proliferation of ballistic missiles has increased the vulnerability of Israeli cities and other civil targets. Syria has Russian SS-21 and North Korean Scud-C missiles, Egypt is obtaining missiles and technology from North Korea, and in July 1998, Iran tested the Shihab 3, with a range of 1300 kilometers (based on North Korean and Russian technology).

These missiles are of strategic importance when combined with WMD warheads, and with nuclear weapons in particular. According to most estimates, the Iraqi nuclear weapons development program had progressed to within a year of producing a weapon before the 1991 war, and reports indicate that much of the Iraqi capability in this area is still intact. According to testimony from former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter, Iraq maintains the completed casings for three nuclear weapons, which will become weapons with the addition of fissile material.

There is also considerable evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, using technology and facilities acquired from Russia, and Syria has signed an agreement to acquire a large research reactor from Russia in order to develop a nuclear infrastructure. These programs are in the first stages, and the development of a nuclear threat to Israel is still likely to be at least five and perhaps 10 years away, (assuming that the inspections and other limitations on Iraq continue, and that fissile material is not obtained from the large and poorly-guarded Russian stockpiles), but the developments will be monitored carefully.

The nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998 may have accelerated the rate of nuclear development in the Middle East. These tests shattered the relatively static global nuclear framework, and it is very difficult to predict the long-term impact of these developments. Although the talk of an “Islamic bomb” and fears of technology transfer from Pakistan to Iran or Iraq may be exaggerated, the weakened international nuclear non-proliferation regime could increase the incentives for Iran, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern states to develop such weapons. If the responses and sanctions imposed by the US and the international community appear to be weak in the views of the major decision makers in these countries, the implications will be drawn, and additional states will be willing to pursue such weapons without fear of censure or stigma. Thus, in the Middle East, the emergence of a multipolar nuclear environment in the next decade seems to be increasingly plausible.



As a result of these developments, Israeli decision makers and analysts have recognized the need for accompanying changes in security doctrine, budgeting, procurement, and training. For many years, Israel relied on the combination of pre-emption (against conventional threats, as in 1967), preventive attack, conventional deterrence, and qualitative superiority to offset the Arab quantitative advantage. In addition, since the 1960s, the undeclared and ambiguous nuclear option provided the perceived “weapon-of-last-resort” to deter threats to national survival. This policy succeeded in avoiding a direct clash with the U.S. government, with its emphasis on non-proliferation.

For some time, American-led export-control policies may have slowed the rate of WMD and missile proliferation in the region. However, in the past decade, these limitations have become increasingly ineffective, in large part due to Russian, Chinese, and North Korean sales. In addition, since the 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear facilities, preventive attacks (under the Begin Doctrine) have become far more difficult to implement. The WMD and missile development programs of Iraq, Iran and Syria are often placed underground and are well defended, and the installations are dispersed over a wide geographic area. Although the combination of tightened export controls and military operations (not necessarily conducted by Israel) might, under optimum circumstances, slow the rate of proliferation, it is unlikely to be stopped. As a result, Israel will have to adapt its military doctrine to this emerging reality and threats to stability and security.

In a broad sense, three general approaches can be identified: strengthened deterrence; defense; and regional alliances. (Regional arms limitation is also a theoretical option, but the experience to date in the multilateral Arms Control and Regional Security talks has not been encouraging, and it is clear that any agreements will take many years.) Each provides advantages and limitations, and the optimum security doctrine should combine aspects of all three in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the disadvantages.



As noted, both conventional and nuclear deterrence have been prominent aspects of Israel security doctrine for many years. In the presence of deep hatreds and in the absence of agreed rules of conduct or recognition of common interests, the development of a credible threat to inflict unacceptable punishment is seen as the best means of enhancing stability and dissuading potential aggressors.

Since defeating the Arab invasion in 1948, Israel has consistently emphasized deterrence policies in preventing attacks. The narrow borders, small population, and image of weakness and vulnerability were seen as inviting attack. In response, Israeli leaders emphasized the creation of a strong army able to defend the state and to deter threats by carrying the war to the territory of the aggressors. Deterrence became more important following the wars between 1967 and 1973, and for the past twenty years, the absence of major wars (with the partial exception of Lebanon in 1982) might be attributed, in part, to the success of deterrence.

Similarly, over the past thirty years, Israel’s “ambiguous” nuclear deterrent has been viewed as very successful. The perceived nuclear retaliatory capability is credited with preventing Egypt from going beyond a limited attack in the 1973 war, as acknowledged by Egyptian military sources. In addition, the evidence indicates that the fear of massive Israeli retaliation Saddam Hussein from using chemical orbiological weapons against Israel before or during the 1991 Gulf War. (It is now clear that the Iraqis possessed Scud warheads with chemical and biological agents, and while Saddam sought to bring Israel into the war, he was not willing to accept the consequences of massive retaliation.) Shimon Peres and other Israeli leaders attribute the growing Arab willingness to accept the existence and legitimacy of Israel, and to negotiate peace agreements, to the recognition that the Arabs cannot achieve a decisive military victory that would put an end to the Jewish state.

However, the Israeli monopoly has been steadily reduced as other states in the region seek to acquire nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. In response, Jerusalem has increased the emphasis on and credibility of the threats of massive retaliation and deterrence. In January 1995, during a Knesset debate on the Iranian nuclear threat, Deputy Defense Minister Gur warned Islamic nations that they will all suffer the consequences of the Israeli response if there is any use of non-conventional weapons against Israel. This warning has been repeated with increasing frequency. After the Iranian missile test of July 1998, Prime Minister Netanyahu noted that "I think it should be remembered that Israel is the strongest country in the region. It has answers, and I think that every country in the region knows Israel's power."

In addition, some Israeli analysts have questioned the viability of an invisible deterrent in the context of an eroding monopoly, and suggested that a more visible and robust deterrence capability, capable of a credible response to different levels of attack, will become necessary in the near term. As long as Israeli vulnerability to a first strike was very limited, survivable second strike capabilities, including the appropriate command and control systems (C3-I) were not a high priority. However, this situation is changing with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and WMD systems. If another state in the region makes progress towards a nuclear weapon capability, Israeli leaders will be forced to reevaluate the ambiguous nuclear posture. (Israel is a signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and although it has not yet ratified the agreement, policy makers are normatively bound by the terms, unless the security situation changes radically.)

With respect to delivery systems, Israel has recently acquired long range F-15 I aircraft from the United States, with the well-publicized capability of striking targets in Iran without the need for refueling. Given Israeli air-superiority and the ability to defeat or evade air defense systems, this provides an important and flexible deterrent capability. In order to assure the maintenance of a survivable second- strike, a number of these aircraft can be maintained on airborne alert during crisis, as was done with other IAF systems during the 1991 Gulf War.

Israel also possesses a long range ballistic missile capability with ranges of at least 4000 kilometers. Although there is no official confirmation regarding the existence of the Jericho missile, the evidence is overwhelming. (The Israeli Shavit launcher, which is apparently based on similar technology, has placed three small satellites into orbit, and any launcher can also serve as a ballistic missile. The range will vary with the size of the payload.) With moderate hardening and underground or mobile deployment, these systems are secure against all threats with the exception of nuclear weapons. There are also unconfirmed reports that Israel is developing a cruise missile (known as the Popeye Turbo) with a range of 350 kilometers, to be operational in 2002. At some point, these could become the basis of a sea-based second strike deterrent.

With respect to deterrence against attacks involving chemical and biological weapons, the requirements are subject to intense debate. Despite some claims that chemical weapons are the strategic equivalents of nuclear weapons, the damage caused by CW attacks, particularly from a small number of missiles with small payloads, is quite limited. As a result, the threat to use nuclear weapons in retaliation may not be credible. Although a response in kind can be considered to provide an effective deterrent, there is no public information regarding Israeli chemical weapons capabilities, if any. This issue is a central factor in the debate regarding ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, with opponents arguing that by ratifying this Treaty, Israel would be weakening the perceived deterrent capabilities and options with respect to a chemical attack.

Deterring BW attacks raises additional problems, particularly given the high degree of uncertainty with respect to the nature of the threat. If biological weapons are, as some analysts contend, far more lethal than chemical weapons, then the threat to use nuclear weapons in response to a BW attack is credible. However, if the scale is closer to the threat posed by CW, the deterrence issues and dilemmas are also similar.

The Limitations of Mutual Deterrence In The Middle East

Any decision to adopt a strategy based on mutual deterrence must face the basic requirements for stability, particularly in a multipolar environment. Although the deterrence system developed during the Cold War, may be deemed to have prevented war (although critics argue that the mutual deterrence strategy was flawed, and nuclear conflict was avoided in spite of these flaws), there are many differences in the Middle East. In this region, the conflicts are ethno-national and not ideological, the major actors share common borders and have fought a number of conventional wars, and there are questions regarding the rationality of the leaders and their readiness to take major risks. Instead of a bipolar deterrence system, as was the case in the Cold War, Middle Eastern deterrence would be multipolar, adding additional complexities and sources of instability. The level and quality of communication is often poor (Israel and Iran do not direct links and misperceptions are common.) The long history of violent terrorism demonstrates the willingness of some individual and groups to kill large numbers of people in the name of a particular cause. In this environment, the creation and maintenance of a stable system of deterrence will be difficult.

At the same time, the options available to Israeli decision makers are limited, and, as noted above, the historical record demonstrates that deterrence based on the threat of massive retaliation has been successful. In the absence of a preferred alternative, strengthened mutual deterrence is likely to continue to be the basis for Israel’s military doctrine in the face of proliferation of WMD and missiles.



Until the past few years, Israeli military planners have not invested significant resources in defensive systems. The very small size of the country and the need to bring wars to a rapid conclusion in order to allow the reserve forces to return to civilian life have led to adoption of an offensive approach, in which battles are fought in enemy territory, before the Israeli population is placed at risk.

However, in response to the acquisition of missiles and chemical weapons in a number of Arab countries, Israel has begun to develop a defensive strategy, both active and passive. The passive approach to defense consists of the distribution of gas masks to the entire population, and the creation of “sealed rooms” in houses and other buildings as barriers to the penetration of chemical and biological agents. This population defense was applied during the 1991 Gulf War, and has been maintained and strengthened since, particularly in the face of renewed concerns regarding the potential for an Iraqi attack.

At the same time, active missile defense programs have been pursued, primarily in the form of the "Homa" (Wall) ballistic missile defense (BMD) project, which includes the "Arrow" missile system, the "Green Pines" fire-control radar system, a cand control system and other sub-systems. Research and development of the Arrow is exto cost over $2 billion, (largely provided by the U.S. government), and most of the technology, including the radar system, is being developed in Israel.

The operational Arrow 2 is designed to provide terminal defense against incoming missiles, by destroying them at an altitude of between 10 km and 40 km. A number of development tests of the Arrow have demonstrated the potential for this system, particularly given the difficulties and much higher costs associated with the American BMD programs (THAAD and the Navy's Theater Wide systems).

In May 1998, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai approved a multi-year project to build and deploy the Homa BMD system. The U.S. government has agreed to provide some of the funding for three Arrow batteries ($80 million per battery), with the first operational capability expected towards the end of 1999. In September 1998, a successful test of the integrated system, which tracked and “destroyed” a simulated target, marked a major milestone in the development process.

However, there are a number of obstacles to wider deployment of the Arrow. These include an unfavorable cost-exchange ratio (each Arrow defensive missile is expected to cost approximately $1 million, and an average of two Arrows must allocated to each incoming warhead, while Scud-type offensive missiles can be added at a fraction of this cost), and the ability of more advanced weapons to defeat the Arrow.

To supplement the Arrow terminal defense, Israeli military planners are giving greater consideration to the development of boost-phase intercept BMD systems. BPI has the advantage of being able to destroy offensive missiles in the first stages of their flight, while they are moving slowly, present large targets, and threaten to release their payloads over the countries that are attempting to launch these systems, rather than close to their targets, as is the case of the Arrow.

A number of approaches to BPI have been considered. The US is developing an Airborne Laser (ABL) system carried in a modified Boeing 747 aircraft. Israeli R&D funds have been directed towards the development of a lower cost system, based on small kinetic energy “kill vehicles” (Missile Optimized Anti-Ballistic weapons or MOAB) fired from hovering drones or UAVs. However, critics argue that the future of BPI is highly uncertain, and the support results from a combination of technological enthusiasm and an effort to provide contracts for the Israeli defense industries.

In order to be effective, the BPI carriers must be on station near the launch sites at the time of attack, and must be able to survive attacks by air defense systems. This may be achievable for relatively short periods, particularly during times of crisis, and for longer periods with respect to neighboring countries. For example, UAV-based BPI may be possible to counter the Syrian missile threat (although the farther the launch sites are from the Israeli border, the more difficult this will become), but it is far more difficult to achieve with respect to Iraq and Iran. Although the laser-based ABL has a theoretical range of 200 kilometers (or more, depending on the laser), there are many technical uncertainties, and such a large object, even if maintained far away from the launch site, would be vulnerable to preemptive attack. In addition, there are various inexpensive countermeasures, such as coating missiles with reflective paint, which could neutralize the laser.

More fundamentally, since no defensive system can provide 100 percent protection, it is not sufficient to protect a small country like Israel against a nuclear threat. BMD, whether terminal, as in the case of the Arrow, or BPI, or a combination, may be part of a new Israeli strategy, but it will not remove the need for or primary emphasis on deterrence and assured second strike capabilities.




While the strategic debate continues, the development of regional security relationships, and the growth of an extensive web of security cooperation between Israel and Turkey are also important changes in the environment. In the past five years, this relationship has encompassed use of each other’s airspace for training flights and exercises, Israeli military exports and upgrade packages, consultations and exchanges at the highest levels, and a highly publicized naval search and rescue exercise involving the United States, and with Jordanian observers.

Many members of the Israeli defense community view this strategic relationship and proto-alliance with Turkey as the means for ending decades of Israeli regional isolation. Although, officially, both Israeli and Turkish governments stress that the cooperation is not directed at any country in the region, informally, it is clear that the development of a strong alliance will provide both countries with strategic multipliers.

For Israel, the links between Ankara and Jerusalem can balance the Arab alliances and combined military forces that have been arrayed against Israel in the past. In particular, the various cooperative activities offset the Iranian-Syrian alliance which has been seen in Israel as an additional concern and source of regional instability. Turkey and Israel both have close ties to the U.S., and share concerns regarding Syrian threats, including missile and WMD.

Beyond the defense cooperation with Israel, Turkey is also developing a bilateral relationship with Jordan. Israel also has good, although generally unpublicized cooperative security links with Jordan, based on shared perceptions regarding Palestinian and Iraqi threats. These shared interests are likely to increase if a Palestinian state is created and if Saddam Hussein is able to escape the international sanctions regime and restore his military capabilities..

Thus it is possible that in the next decade, and depending on political developments in all three countries and the region, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel could form the nucleus of a defensive regional security structure. Political changes and reevaluations of Egyptian interests might possible create a situation in which Cairo would join this framework, and then other states might follow.

There are, however, also a number of uncertainties in these relationships. If the Islamic forces gain strength in Turkey, and these groups oppose security links to Israel on ideological grounds, the alliance could be frozen or rolled back. In addition, the limits of the alliance are undefined. Turkey is likely to distance itself in the event of confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel will avoid becoming involved in the conflict with the Kurds and Turkish military involvement in Cyprus.



To the extent possible, Israeli leaders should and would prefer to pursue all three options, and the third approach, involving strengthened regional alliances, can be developed along with deterrent and defensive systems. However, the high cost of the first two approaches has placed some limits on their simultaneous pursuit. The acquisition and operation of the Ofeq reconnaissance satellites, the F-15I strike aircraft, the Homa BMD system, and perhaps submarines are each extremely costly, even with substantial assistance from the U.S. (in the case of the F-15s and BMD systems).

As was demonstrated during the Cold War, the maintenance of a reliable second strike deterrent in a dynamic situation is costly, requiring constant improvements in response to external developments. Although, eventually, it is possible that the nations of the Middle East will realize their common interest in verifiable arms limitation agreements, this is still a long way off, and in the interim, the costs will remain very high.

At the same time, the Israeli defense budget has been declining steadily over the past decade, reflecting sharp reductions in government spending in order to allow for economic growth, and also a change in priorities and increased emphasis on social programs, including health, education, and welfare. Efforts by the Defense Ministers and the IDF Chief of Staff to reverse this trend have failed to date.

Furthermore, as critnote, the bulk of the available resources for weapons and technology are still allocated to the acquisition of conventional platforms (fighter aircraft, helicopters, and tanks), and in the current five-year plan, $5 billion are earmarked for these weapons. With the additional local costs of the Homa BMD and Ofeq, and for operation of other major systems, the economy cannot provide much more for R&D or the acquisition. It will prove difficult to maintain and modernize widespread missile defense systems and an advanced second strike deterrent, and consistent priorities will have to be assigned to guide decision making at all levels.

The Centrality of the U.S.


Finally, no analysis of the Israeli strategic environment is complete without reference to the central importance of the relationship with the United States. Since the mid-1960s, when the defense relationship began, the strategic ties between Washington and Jerusalem have been strengthened and extended to a wide range of issues. Israel receives most of its weapons platforms and much of its technology from the U.S., and American military assistance helps to pay for strategic systems such as the F-15 and Arrow. As result, as Israeli leaders consider the options and their implications, it will be important to maintain and intensify the strategic dialogue with the American government, and to seek coordination and agreement to the extent possible.

In addition, only the U.S. has the potential power and global sense of responsibility to attempt to slow the process of WMD and missile proliferation in the Middle East. With Russia continuing to provide technology and assistance, particularly to Iran, and leaders in Moscow, such as Yevgeny Primakov, see such assistance as a means of increasing Russian power in response to NATO expansion and other factors, American counterpressure on Russia on this issues is extremely important for Middle East stability. In this sense, the Cold War may be returning to the region.

At the same time, there is concern in Israel that the power of the U.S. is declining, as is its ability to as well as interest in playing a decisive role in the region. After the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. pressure on and containment of Iraq has seemed to decline steadily, and in 1998, support for continued UNSCOM efforts to locate and destroy Saddam Hussein’s arsenal seemed to have lapsed significantly. Similarly, the American response to Russian and Chinese transfers of missile and WMD technology to Iran is seen as weak and indecisive. As a result, the Israeli emphasis on maintaining an independent capability to respond to these threats has increased. If Israel detects a steady weakening of Washington capability to intervene in the region and in the world, or of its resolve, the alternative is greater consideration of unilateral action.