The Most Important Question of Our Time?

In a previous post, “Footnote 55 and the ‘One Bomb State'”–about the way the ideology of suicidal martyrdom undermines conventional nuclear deterrence in the Middle East–I asked readers if anyone had “any ideas?”. Any ideas for deterring a regime like Iran whose leaders have expressed willingness to martyr millions of their people in a nuclear exchange–if it would result in “leaving nothing on the ground” in the state of Israel.


I found myself both impressed and depressed by the response. Impressed by the number and variety of suggestions (34 in the comments to that post as I write). Impressed by the depth of anger, despair thoughtfulness and passion that people brought to the question. By the urgency expressed about the prospect of a second Holocaust, the need to take Ahmadinejad’s genocidal threats seriously.

But also, cumulatively, inevitably it was depressing to read the proposed deterrent scenarios, from preemptive attacks using weapons of mass destruction, to multiple successive serial assassinations, to “second strike” retaliatory threats to take out not just Iran but Islamic Holy places, oil-fields, capitals, all of Islam in some scenarios.

It is the second strike question I find most troubling. I’d studied and written about the strategy and morality of “second strike” retaliation in the context of the U.S./U.S.S.R. “Mutually Assured Destruction” deterrent stand-off in the Cold War Era.

Mutually Assured Destruction you’ll recall involved the declaration by both sides that any first strike by the opposing side would be followed by an undeterrable “second strike” upon the populations centers of the first strike side, ensuring the deaths of tens even hundreds of millions, thus putting an unacceptable price on a first strike however “successful”. (A second strike attack would have to target population centers since missile silos and air-bases and other military targets would have already fired their weaponry).


The question that those on the Right and Left raised about M.A.D. “doctrine” was this: if one side initiated a first strike, deterrence by Mutually Assured Destruction had–by definition–failed. So what would be the point of carrying out the mass killing of civilians. Tens of millions of civilians might be destroyed by an all out first strike, what would be the point of destroying the rest of the world in a second strike specifically designed to mass-murder civilians? For the pure principle of punishment? Would it be justice or vengeance? Rationality or madness? Would any individual take responsibility for such a choice?

That is why Dr. Strangelove “doomsday” scenarios were contemplated: taking the choice out of the hands of any one human, making the second strike, the second half of planetary extinction something hardwired, locked in, not dependent on human-initiated order or choice. Automatic. Irrevocable. As it would have to be to insure believability, to make deterrence efficacious.

Fortunately–I think–no such system could be made fail-safe, fool proof, accident immune and none was ever employed (contra Nelson DeMille who, in his popular thriller, Wildfire, appears to believe automated “doomsday” second strike response was a component of M.A.D. It wasn’t. See my Harper’s piece “The Subterranean World of the Bomb”, which can be found in %%AMAZON=0060934468 The Secret Parts of Fortune%%).


So that will always leave retaliation, revenge, second strike deterrent target choice in human hands. Most probably, in the nuked-Israel scenario, it will likely be in the hands of the commanders of Israeli submarines equipped with nuclear armed missiles. Probably those three Dolphin Class subs the Israelis bought from the Germans (!) in the late 90s. Whose job would be to insure that no first strike on the land of Israel could deter massive retaliation from under the sea.

But what would such sub-launched nuclear missiles target? What would be purpose of their second strike capability.

One of the commenters to the “Footnote 55” post argues (with what degree of authority I know not) that “It is well known but not officially admitted that Israeli second strike tactic is to strike against anyone who could be a threat to the survivors and not only the [initial] attackers”.

This implies a degree of precision and control, intelligence and long term second strike survivability I’m not sure is attainable from the likely submarine-launched second strike missiles, or even surviving land based missiles in hardened underground silos, say. Second strike weapons are designed for indiscriminate deterrence since precision in a post nuclear environment is unrealistic.

Still one must credit the commenter who brought the subject up: protecting the survivors. Could there be anything more grim, devastating, heartbreaking to contemplate.


And yet these are matters someone must contemplate. Indeed it would not be surprising if there is an super secret subcommittee of intelligence and cabinet officials in Tel Aviv contemplating it at this very moment.

There must be a “doctrine”, as they say in nuclear war studies, that lays out the strategic, tactical and moral considerations involved in targeting options: questions of proportionality, degree of responsibility, command-and-control (who will make the second strike decisions if the Israeli cabinet is destroyed for instance).

It is likely that the “doctrine” is being re evaluated in the light of the new, Iranian, threats. Should the new doctrine on second strike options be made public?

Evidence that this re-evaluation is going on can be found in the controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s so called “slip of the tongue” about Israeli nuclear capacity and what it portended for Israel’s long held position of” nuclear ambiguity”.

I will examine the “slip of the tongue”, and the debate over “nuclear ambiguity” and the question of its continued usefulness, in a subsequent post. Meanwhile I’d still be interested in whether readers have any further ideas about second strike doctrine, what roles justice, vengeance, proportionality and morality should play. It may become, alas, the most important question of our time, not just for Israel, but for the rest of the world which could easily be drawn into a Middle East nuclear conflict.



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