Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 27, 2006

The Most Important Question of Our Time?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 3:32 pm

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.



  1. The second strike might not come from Israelis. I am not exactly a fan of the state of Israel, certianly not a partisan. But if the Israel was nuked first, i would expect the US to go to war against those who dropped that bomb, and about half of Europe would join, certainly Germany.

    I think the use of any nuclear weapon by any country starts a worldwide conflict. Even China may not be neutral.

    The idea that Europe and the USA would stand aside during a second holocaust is not possible. However, to tie it your earlier idea about Indictment to Incite, now is a good time to make sure that the Arab world knows we will not stand aside.

    Comment by jimmy — December 28, 2006 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

  2. May I take this opportunity to mention that there are Jews currently under almost daily attack in Sderot. Their war is not hypothetical. The terror they experience everday is real. Their city is nearly uninhabitable. And although the scale of their problem is significantly smaller compared to a nuclear Iran, there is no simple solution.

    Comment by Shmuel — December 29, 2006 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  3. Israel is so small that its all frontier and no interior.

    Comment by JIMMY — December 29, 2006 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

  4. Shmuel has it just right. The effort to commit a second holocaust is already underway. All that remains to be seen is whether the weapons employed in this task are allowed to rise above homemade rocketry.

    My own guess is: The missiles will get bigger, the warheads will get bigger, the targeting will get more accurate, the casualties will rise — and then there will be a pause (not in real time so much as in “psychological space”), where each side asks itself whether it wants to press matters further.

    The answer to that depends on what has happened between now and then (say two or three years from now) in Iran, Syria and Israel. (I suspect not much, save Olmert’s replacement.)

    I also think that jimmy is engaging in wishful thinking about second strikes coming from non-targeted countries — with the possible exception of the United States.

    As pointed out before, however, the best *political* argument for the use of overwhelming force against Israel’s attackers may well be the protection of those who have survived the initial attack. I don’t think that argument would ultimately sell in the EU, but it would find great support in the United States.

    Comment by Country Boy — December 30, 2006 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

  5. One could only hope that if the Israelis did a second strike that they would consider helping the rest of the rational world and take out as much of Islam as possible so what ever remains is unable to continue jihad and would possibly go through a Reformation and join the modern world.

    Comment by Michael — December 31, 2006 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  6. An Iranian nuke on Israel would likely be just the beginning. Subsequent attacks and invasions by neighboring players would be next, followed by extermination of all surviors.

    Failing to deter Iran then begs the question as to how to deter susequent attacks once the bomb has been dropped.

    The Iranian nuke situation must be thought of not as an inevitable single act of madness, but an opening of a larger scale war involving coordinated attacks from all sides.

    Comment by x_pogo — December 31, 2006 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

  7. I imagine emotion would trump policy were such a thing to happen. It would be the easiest thing in the world for those in charge of those subs to construct a moral argument for retaliation based not only on protecting the survivors in Israel, but also protecting the entire world, because at that point there would be nothing more dangerous in the world than a country that unleashed unprovoked nuclear annihilation. When a country becomes that dangerous, one can justify nearly anything done against it, no matter the civilian cost. Even the Europeans might get involved, as such an attack would utterly destroy what remains of the fragile code of international law they are trying to develop.

    Comment by Rob — December 31, 2006 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

  8. I continue to be surprised at the absolute destructiveness attributed to an Iranian nuke. In fact, fission nukes, especially without a lot of testing and tuning, are relatively small nuclear weapons. A single one would not destroy Israel. It would not destroy Tel Aviv. It would most likely not take out whatever nuclear command and control centers Israel possesses.

    While a successful attack with even one weapon would be horrible, it would not be the holocaust. It would not kill the majorty of Israelis – especially since they would probably have warning and be in their shelters.

    Furthermore, Iran must face the possibility, as I mentioned before, that the attacking weapon(s) would be shot down. Israel has active ABM systems for longer range (IRBM) and shorter range missiles. Some of the larger rockets fired by Hezbollah could have been intercepted, but it would not have been worth the cost. Hence any discussion of this situation needs to consider that uncertainty.

    Please… nuclear weapons are horribly destructive, but they aren’t magic and practical first generation fission weapons are relatively weak. We need to stop debating as if nukes were infinitely powerful (as an aside, a full MAD strike by both sides in the cold war would not have released enough radiatiion to cause any injury to most people on earth). See for some facts, or the links from it for vast amounts of *quantitative* information on nukes.

    The writer makes three assumptions, none of which he can be certain of.

    1)Any nuke the Iranians deploy ever will be small and primitive. There have been indications that the Iranians are seeing a thermonuclear weapon and there’s no reason they can’t purchase a large enough one of any kind to make Israel “a one bomb state”.

    2) Any nuke can be stoped by an ABM system. Impossible to be certain of because nucleaar weapon or weapons can be smuggled over the border from adjacent Lebanon or Gaza by Irnanian proxies, thus not at all subject to ABM deterrence.

    3) The denigration of the destructive power of “full MAD” attacks ignores a range of more pessmistic studies. I envy the writer’s sanguinary optimism..


    Comment by John Moore — December 31, 2006 @ 6:12 pm | Reply

  9. On to the subject…

    I am not sanguine about any means to stop Iran’s nuclear program other than military. While the majority of Iran may hate the government, counting on them to replace it, and *THEN* to do the right thing regarding nukes and Persian Gulf policy, is foolish.

    When a tyrant says he is going to do something awful, history would appear to support believing him and acting preemptively. That may be a big, big mess, but not compared to nuclear Iran.

    Comment by John Moore — December 31, 2006 @ 6:57 pm | Reply

  10. Sorry, the ‘end of the world by nuclear war’, does not sell all that well anymore. It was cute during the “day after” and the “nuclear winter” poop-culture days though.

    Nuclear threats from Iran or the ‘hermit kingdom’ are to be planned and met by effective nuclear responses. Mostly light 1 to 5 kiloton ‘special weapons’, carefully targeted/guided. Underground nuke or command and control facilities can be ‘opened’ by accurate 20 kt weapons, then ‘explored’ using 5-100 megaton warheads. No such facility would survive, nor any human within 50 kilometers.

    Really useful would be those small 1-5 kt weapons, which would avoid much ‘collateral’ (as the media likes to endlessly repeat) damage. They would ride to ground zero in cruise missiles, or drop from zero radar signiture bombers/fighters.

    High explosives in cruise missile and fighter/bomber platform delivery systems are probably best for the most part – on the small stuff.

    No matter how much you may think this exposition ‘unthinkable’, our enemies are already thinking these things – and planning.

    Rossett is probably right. The however thoughtful Rosenbaum, probably wrong.

    Comment by breezaway — December 31, 2006 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  11. To target civilians is morally impossible though collateral damage may be accepted. That said, one may look at the US campaign against the homeland of Japan as an attack on the muscle and psyche of the samurai nation to convince it that the battle was over; and thus the campaign was moral on the offense, achieving victory, where it would not have been moral in retaliation. This analysis may be applicable to Iran. The Israelis will, of course, look to support ‘honest men’ in Iran who oppose elimination of Israel.

    Comment by Michael — January 1, 2007 @ 1:08 am | Reply

  12. There are no other Shia population centers that are significant beyond Iran or greater Persia (which includes basically southern Iraq) and not all Iraqui Shiites like Iran. Iran wants to hire ONE MILLION more policemen to patrol the restive Iranian population. In the most recent election of December (I think) President A (don’t ask me to spell Farsi) lost big time in every category. Secondly you haven’t heard recently from Iman K. (ditto)because he lies terminally ill in a hospital in Iran due to cancer and at last word was also unconscious. He was becoming more and more disenchanted with President A, who candidate for his eccesiasitical post eventually was resoundly defeated. but who knows what the real truth is. Everything I have read could be spin. Thirdly, all of the middle east with the ironic exclusion of Iran, Kuwait, and to a lesser degree in Bahrain and UAE are tribal and patriarchal in behavior. I would proclaim that religion is 2nd and the state is 3rd or not a factor at all. Go back to T.H. Lawrence despairing at the peace conferences after WWI where the Arabs would not unify under one or a few banners, so they lossed everything that T.H. Lawrence fought besides them for and returned to England and shook his hands and head of the whole middle east adventure. Cheney and Rumsfeld were under the illusion that a high tech shock and awe of 100 hours would bring these patriarchs, tribes, and the principal religious ideology to its knees. These are middle easterners who have been quarreling and killing since they thought that Abraham and Sarah stole the birthright and land from them. If Abraham did steal from them, then that means that Abraham was more powerful than God himself, even greater than the prophet Mohammed himself. Until they review this very assumption and premis life in the middle east will budge very little. Now for the ultimate irony. Persia and or Iran is the most civilized and educated country in that region, thanks to the United States. Thanks To “Jimmy” he let the barbarians back through the date and for some, mostly women, back a millenium or two. So I say to the so-called open minded liberals. These people (mostly men) are not opened minded and hate you worst than George Bush because they consider you godless infidels which are worst than conservative God believing conservatives. If they went through the house of representative tomorrow they would kill Nancy Pelosi and those of her political spectrum first. They would kill George last, but probably torture him the worst and longest. Those stereo-typic movies which foreign legionaires up to their neck in the desert sand is not very far from the largely barely literate or illiterate jihadist or their supporters attitude today toward the west. That is there fondest wish for us.

    As for strategies, you want missiles coming from everywhere imaginable and in every form imaginable from land, air and sea. You would also want to take out the areas along te Pakistan/Afghanistan borders. Pakistan would be powerless somewhat to do anything with Indian next door. Also you have to promise the Rissians and Chinese a hugh part of the reconstruction. The best time to try this would be during the 2008 Olympics. What are the Chinese going to do, round up hundreds of thousands of visitors? The Russian government and the Russian Mafia are one in common pursuit and their interest is largely financial. You also have to know how much Viladimir Putin hates Moslems. His vicious spew of rhetoric aganist them is very well documented in all forms of the media.

    Comment by Don — January 1, 2007 @ 2:04 am | Reply

  13. Is this movie called On The Beach?

    Comment by Bill Bradley — January 1, 2007 @ 3:51 am | Reply

  14. The question of what to do to prevent this nuclear holocaust isn’t so much a question of “if”; it’s more a question of “when”. We are use to opposing nations that operate under some auspice of rationality. In the case of States run by radical Islamists, the premise of rational thinking goes out the window. These people have indoctrinated their children for countless generations with the idea of martyrdom. They teach the virtue of a “glorious” death in this life, fighting infidels to insure an eternity of happiness in the next life. They attend state sponsored rallies of hatred against Israel & the U.S. They watch endless cartoons glorifying suicide against American forces. Hatred for the West & Israel is even reinforced in their daily schooling. Over time, they have managed to produce ever more radical Clerics & political leaders that try to out do the fanaticism of the last generation in both words and actions. They will not stop until Israel is gone & the rest of the civilized world falls under Islamic rule. This is the non-politically correct reality of the situation.
    Now, whether they set off the 1st nuke, or we do, isn’t so important. (Western values dictate that we must stand strong, do the right thing, & take the first punch in order to be justified in our response) What is important in this case is the follow thru. If we don’t take out the entire problem, we will be sentencing ourselves to an endless repeat of the last 60 years. I say that after they strike Israel, we hit them all. Iran, Saudi, Pakistan, etc. Then drive the surviving factions of this cult of death (Islam) that reside in Europe & the U.S. into the sea. The sooner we rid the planet of these idiots, the better off we will all be.

    Comment by Jeff — January 1, 2007 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  15. Iran sits in a neighborhood where everybody has nukes. Russia. China. India. Pakistan. Much as I would love to see Iran go poof!, aren’t we dreaming to think those other countries will just sit there while we or Israel plant mushroom clouds?

    Comment by c — January 1, 2007 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  16. I believe it’s “share the pain” the Israeli’s battle plan is known as this.
    There are crewmembers aboard warships who are trained to ensure a launch during these situations,
    By any means. certainly a Crimson tide scenario could happen. The question is could it happen on all three subs at the same time.
    you can count on one subs payload getting through.

    Comment by Barry — January 1, 2007 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  17. Iran is a threat. I do not mean to deny that. However, the idea that Iran could destroy all Israelis, leaving second-strike decisions to sub commanders, for example, is far fetched. Hence…

    RR states:

    1)Any nuke the Iranians deploy ever will be small and primitive.[to be clear this first sentence contention is not my quote but the commenter’s–r.r.] There have been indications that the Iranians are seeing a thermonuclear weapon and there’s no reason they can’t purchase a large enough one of any kind to make Israel “a one bomb state”.

    My comments refer to the near future, because that is most knowable. During that time, unless Iran is able to purchase a *large* thermonuclear weapon, those are not at issue. Those weapons are much harder to build reliably than fission weapons (the intermediate boosted weapons are not, but don’t yield that much energy gain).

    However, let’s assume a very large warhead – say equivalent to the old US 9 megaton Titan warhead. This weapon could indeed destroy an Israeli city and kill most in it. It would not, however, kill all Israelis. It’s lethal radius is around 20 miles.

    There has never been a weapon fielded that would make Israel a “one bomb state” in the sense of immediate destruction or immediate elimination of C3I and land-based nuclear capabilities.

    2) Any nuke can be stoped by an ABM system. Impossible to be certain of because nucleaar weapon or weapons can be smuggled over the border from adjacent Lebanon or Gaza by Irnanian proxies, thus not at all subject to ABM deterrence.

    Obviously true, but such nukes will hence be ground bursts, with significantly reduced destructiveness (other than fallout). There are other strategic issues with terrorist delivered nukes, especially control and security. But again, these will not destroy all the Jews of Israel.

    The importance of ABM systems is not in their absolute effectiveness (even though that was the popular portrayal in the “Star Wars” debates, and as much as we might wish). It is in the strategic uncertainty it gives a first strike. Even in a country prepared for a second strike, the idea that they may be essentially destroyed for having tried *and failed* to destroy an enemy is not very attractive.

    3) The denigration of the destructive power of “full MAD” attacks ignores a range of more pessmistic studies. I envy the writer’s sanguinary optimism..

    The writer has done the physics. Unless “doomsday” (enhanced fallout) weapons were used, the numbers are simple. The radiation, if evenly distributed across the northern hemisphere, would produce a dose of about 30 REM per person. But it would of course be far from uniformly spread, hence greatly reducing doses over most of the area. The simple fact is that mankind was not in danger of destruction from radiation.

    Of more interest is the vast amount of biological material ready to be launched against western cities by the Soviets – these could have been been quite catastrophic (but again, not lethal to the race). It is important to consider that the technology for producing those weapons has been racing ahead of Moore’s law, with Cuba a major supplier of equipment, and with most details in public journals. Iran with ILK-4 enhanced Vaccinia is more scary than Iran with a bag of nukes.


    Comment by John Moore — January 1, 2007 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  18. this discussion brings us back to the first real question.

    is there really a nation ending threat to israel and others by extension, now and escalating in the future, from the avowed terror leaders of iran, syria, hamas, hezzbollah etc?

    if the answer is yes, why then are these leaders and any like minded ones that follow allowed to live– all the while planning this perceived threat? we know where they sleep and eat everyday. hell, we fete them at the UN whenever given the chance.

    i think the debate should be about what would happen if these folks/families disappeared on the same night. it certainly can’t be worst than a nuclear winter….

    Comment by patrick neid — January 2, 2007 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

  19. I find it so heart warming that we speak of the death of thousands of Jews as if it were an acceptable scenario.

    Israel should explicitly threaten any country with utter destruction if any ‘doomsday’ scenario is attempted.

    For heaven’s sake people, Jews and Israel aren’t sub-humans who can be disposed of like yesterday’s garbage, even though many here and elsewhere would love to do just that.

    Comment by Andy — January 2, 2007 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

  20. Time will come very soon when Israel’s cards need to be laid out in full view. This could start with an address to the Iranian people, acknowledging that those yearning for the Shi’ah ‘End Days’ scenario are unreachable but appealing to the masses who are not so eager to see their world laid waste. And spelling out what will be laid waste is imperitive. And behind the scenes, in no uncertain terms, the Saudis need to understand they and their Muslim ‘holy of holies’ will not emerge unscathed either.

    People like the first commentor ‘jimmy’ still have to qualify their comments how they’re no “fans if Israel” but not “partisans”. Fine way to reveal their bigotries but we are at the precipice and even the small-minded have to remember that the rising tide of Islamic fascism will spare no one and all who oppose them, whatever inclination, creed or Confession must, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, “hang together, all surely we shall hang separately”.

    As far as Putin and his obstructionism vis-a-vis Iran, he and his minions are all too eager enriching themselves and re-establishing a regional hegemony that will last as long as their population can bear it. But by the end of the 21st century, Russia’s population will have halved itself, so that isn’t too long. As soon as China see themselves capable of prying away Russia’s Eastern realms at an acceptable cost to them ( ? 10 million casualties) they will do so by hook or crook. And that should commence sometime by late next decade or early the following. Add that to similar pressures from Iran and others (? an Islamized Turkey) on the former ‘stans’ to Russia’s south and remaining (and fast-growing) Muslim population still within the Russian realm. It ain’t a pretty picture.

    Comment by ed — January 3, 2007 @ 12:49 am | Reply

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