Israel nuclear arsenal estimate was overblown
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.