Israel nu­clear arse­nal es­ti­mate was overblown

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

For­mer Sec­re­tary of State Colin Powell’s re­cently dis­closed es­ti­mate that Israel owns 200 nu­clear weapons has trig­gered new in­ter­est in the Jewish state’s ul­ti­mate war plan.

But ex­perts be­lieve Mr. Powell’s war­head count is too high. Israel’s fo­cus on us­ing such dev­as­tat­ing weapons has waned amid the new geopo­lit­i­cal map of neigh­bors Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya.

The Wash­ing­ton Times re­ported in 2004 about a se­cret De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency as­sess­ment that said Israel owned 60 to 80 nu­clear war­heads and would have about the same num­ber by 2020. The Wash­ing­ton Post re­cently said the DIA leak re­mains the only of­fi­cial U.S. gov­ern­ment count that has ever sur­faced pub­licly.

Mr. Powell pro­vided his 200 fig­ure in 2015 in a pri­vate email ex­change that was dis­closed by the hack­ing group DCleaks.com. He was dis­cussing the un­likely event that Iran would ever at­tack Israel given its nu­clear-ca­pa­ble coun­ter­at­tack.

Hans M. Kris­tensen, a nu­clear weapons ex­pert at the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Sci­en­tists, said he be­lieves the DIA num­ber has sur­vived the test of time.

“My es­ti­mate is sort of in the DIA range,” Mr. Kris­tensen said. “Less than one hun­dred.”

In 2014 Mr. Kris­tensen and a col­league wrote in the Bul­letin of the Atomic Sci­en­tists: “We con­clude that many of the pub­lic claims about the size of the Is­raeli nu­clear arse­nal are ex­ag­ger­ated. We es­ti­mate that Israel has a stock­pile of ap­prox­i­mately 80 nu­clear war­heads for delivery by two dozen mis­siles, a cou­ple of squadrons of air­craft, and per­haps a small num­ber of sea-launched cruise mis­siles.”

The 200 es­ti­mate likely comes from a decades-old as­sess­ment. Plus, he said, sev­eral books and trade press ar­ti­cles have over­es­ti­mated the num­ber of Is­raeli war­heads. One bo­gus claim, he said, is that Israel pro­duced lowyield ar­tillery shells.

Be­fore the U.S. had its Ed­ward Snow­den, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor who dis­closed reams of spy se­crets to the me­dia, Israel had Mordechai Va­nunu. A nu­clear re­search in­sider, Mr. Va­nunu went to The Sun­day Times of Lon­don in 1986 with never-be­fore-pub­lished de­tails and pho­tos on how Israel was mak­ing fis­sile ma­te­rial at its Di­mona re­ac­tor site.

Some an­a­lysts ex­trap­o­lated from his leaks — in­clud­ing the amount of plu­to­nium Israel pro­duced — that the Jewish state must have hun­dreds of war­heads.

Israel showed how se­ri­ously it keeps its nu­clear pro­gram in dark­ness. Mos­sad agents drugged and kid­napped Mr. Va­nunu in Italy; he was tried and sen­tenced to 18 years in prison in 1988. As an ex-con he has been jailed sev­eral times for vi­o­lat­ing pa­role by grant­ing in­ter­views.

Today, amid the vi­o­lent chaos of Israel’s neigh­bors, the Jewish state’s nu­clear threat from Arab en­e­mies and Iran ac­tu­ally has di­min­ished.

Be­fore the 2011 Arab Spring, Israel launched pre­ci­sion airstrikes to pre­vent Iraq and Syria from build­ing a nu­clear in­fra­struc­ture. Now both coun­tries are at war in­ter­nally, while Iran has agreed to halt atomic weapons work for 10 years.

“The thing here is if you look at their horizon, Iraq’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity has dis­ap­peared,” Mr. Kris­tensen said. “Libya has dis­ap­peared. Iran is less of an im­me­di­ate threat than it was. Syria is in dis­ar­ray, and its force has been hol­lowed out. I think, in a num­ber of ar­eas, I think the WMD threat they thought would jus­tify use of this has not dra­mat­i­cally in­creased in the re­gion.”

Israel has no trans­parency when it comes to its crown jew­els. It has never ac­knowl­edged those ar­ma­ments and does not open it­self to in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tions. It owns a nu­clear triad of air-, seaand ground-launched weapons in the form of bombs on F-15I strike fight­ers, bal­lis­tic mis­siles and sub­ma­rine cruise mis­siles.

Mr. Kris­tensen said it is ex­tremely un­likely the sub­marines de­ploy with atomic weapons. All war­heads re­main unassem­bled and would take a few days to make op­er­a­tional, he said.

Such weapons are not part of ba­sic bat­tle­field strat­egy. There is no plan akin to the U.S. Cold War-era sin­gle in­te­grated op­er­a­tional plan, which guided com­man­ders on how to sur­vive and win an ex­change of the world’s most dev­as­tat­ing ex­plo­sions with Rus­sia.

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