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Weapons of Last Resort: Israel's Nuclear Capacity

(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled over the last ten days of the Israel/Hamas war, and Israel is primed to make some serious moves. Meanwhile, in the north, Hezbollah is making noise about an attack of their own, and, as always in that part of the world, Iran hovers over the conflict like a giant scavenging bird. Are they waiting for Israel to be weakened enough to allow their own entry into the fray?

And what will Israel do in extremis? Will they use their nuclear arsenal?

Let's all fervently hope it doesn't come to that, because it would be an act taken, almost certainly, after every other military option has failed, meaning that Israel is on the brink of defeat and chooses to go down swinging. Either that, or they are responding to a nuclear attack from another power (Iran). Either way, the employment of a nuclear weapon would be an act with global implications.

The Arms Control Association estimates that Israel has ninety nuclear warheads, ready to go. They may have enough fissile material on hand to produce as many as 200 more. The warheads are likely partially disassembled but could be readied for use within a matter of hours. But absent a delivery system, the warheads are just a big, heavy, and cumbersome object. Of course, a delivery system does not have to be sophisticated, nor does the warhead have to be weaponized; a big, crude device can be delivered by merely placing it in a big truck or an old tramp freighter, delivering it where it is intended to go, and torching off the nuke.

Israel does, however, have at least two advanced delivery systems. Those two are their submarine force and the Jericho missile.

The Israeli Navy has, at last count, six (somewhat ironically) German-built Diesel-electric submarines, five of the Dolphin and Dolphin-II class, and one new boat, a new variant of the Dolphin-II with vertical missile tubes. The older boats are reported to be outfitted to fire cruise missiles, which could carry nuclear warheads, although the government of Israel has been tight-lipped about this — understandable, considering their strategic situation.

There is consistent speculation that Israel’s submarines have been refitted to carry missiles armed with nuclear weapons for the country to maintain a survivable second-strike option. The German government has refused to comment on modifying the Dolphin-class submarines delivered to Israel to fit cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. However, German officials such as former Head of the Policy Planning Staff of the German Ministry of Defense Hans Rühle, have stated that they assumed Israel intended to equip the submarines with nuclear weapons. 

In June 2002, former U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials confirmed that the U.S. Navy observed Israeli missile tests in the Indian Ocean in 2000, and that the Dolphin-class vessels have been fitted with nuclear-capable cruise missiles of a new design. However, the Israeli Defense Forces have consistently denied any such missile tests.

Missile submarines have some serious tactical advantages, especially against a nation like Iran, which has essentially no anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capacity. While the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy have made something of an art of ASW since the Second World War, Iran has no way to detect any of Israel's Diesel-electric boats even if they are parked just offshore; this gives Israel an option to make a launch that will strike targets in Iran within minutes of launch.

But Israel doesn't have to rely solely on their submarine force. There is also the Jericho missile, which may have the capability of carrying Israel's nuclear warheads to targets as far away as Iran. At least one member of Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, has talked about the possible use of the Jericho system.

Revital "Tally" Gotliv, an Israeli lawyer and member of the Knesset for the Likud, posted multiple times on X, formerly Twitter, about entertaining nuclear warfare instead of introducing mass ground forces.

Her rigid policy position comes as Israel bombed Gaza overnight and the death toll following a surprise attack on Saturday by Hamas—a militant Palestinian group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States—has surpassed 1,200, according to Reuters, which cited statistics from the Israeli military, including an additional 2,700 wounded on both sides.

Gotliv specifically mentioned "Jericho," in reference to Israel's initial ballistic missile program developed in the 1960s and named for the Biblical city. While the program was formed with French aerospace company Dassault, France withdrew in 1969 and Israel maintained the system and had the solid-fuel Jericho-1 model ready in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War.

The newest version, the Jericho-3, has the range to reach anywhere in the Middle East:

The intermediate-range Jericho-3 system was developed decades later (after the Jericho-1 and -2 versions). According to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and its Missile Defense Project, the ballistic missile was reportedly tested in 2008 and introduced for service in 2011.

Developed and possessed by Israel, the missile's specifications further improved upon the previous two models, boasting an extra meter or so in length compared to Jericho-2 and a 1.56-meter diameter. The single warhead weighing some 750 kilograms (1,653 pounds) reportedly has a range between 4,800 and 6,500 kilometers (about 2,983 to 4,039 miles). The payload extends to about 1,300 kilograms (2,866 pounds).

To summarize, Israel has the capacity to deliver unprecedented destruction to any of their foes in the Middle East, destruction which only — maybe — Iran can answer in kind. And while Israel clearly won't let themselves go gently into that good night, the use of nukes could very well make the conflict more than a regional issue, if only because of the after-effects of such an exchange.

Again, Iran is the elephant in the room here. While Iran claims to be abiding by international agreements to use nuclear power only for peaceful purposes, they are ignoring those agreements, goaded on perhaps by the very real weakness of the current American leadership. It is unlikely in the extreme that Israel would use nuclear weapons on Hamas or Hezbollah; those areas are too small and too close to Israeli territory, and also Hamas and Hezbollah, while their attacks have the capability to be vicious, cruel, and atrocious, do not have the ability to threaten the very existence of Israel.

Iran does. And Iran is almost certainly working on a nuclear weapon of their own. Forget the need to "weaponize" their device; all Iran has to do is load one aboard an old freighter, sail it up along the Israeli coast one dark night, say into Haifa (or New York) harbor if they can make it that far, and unleash Hell.

What might happen after that is anyone's guess — except the end of Iran as a nation — or even as a habitable landmass. But as Israel has allies, so does Iran. A global conflict, initiated by the use of nuclear weapons in the hotbox of the Middle East, has the possibility of being a civilization-ending event.

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