Deterrence in the age of the deal

Chaos Manor View, Saturday, September 05, 2015


We had a mile walk this morning. Pleasant, and we saw many neighbors. Our new water heater works fine.  It should last as long as we do. Trying to get back to work now that things have settled a bit.

I have been musing on Israeli options now that President Obama’s deal has become assured and the Congress can do nothing about it.


The “deal” (I used to teach Constitutional Law and I knew that treaties ratified by 2/3 vote of the Senate were the supreme law of the land, but I never heard of a deal not rejected by 60% of the Senate was) assures us that Iran will have at least a small force of nuclear weapons whenever whoever is the current Supreme Leader decides to make the effort.  We will not have evidence that will convince those enamored of the deal for quite a bit after the fact, although intelligence operatives will know earlier.  No one can predict who will be the Ayatollah selected to be the Supreme Leader to follow this one, but he – it will be a he – will be an Ayatollah and Koran scholar.  Perhaps he will find an interpretation of the Koran that allows an Israel not subjected to dhimmitude to exist as a truce for his lifetime; that decision will be easier for him if Israel has a very survivable second strike force, 500 psi silos far enough apart that it takes at least one warhead (delivered by missile or by ox cart) to be sure of taking out the silo.  Elementary security can assure that it will be difficult to erect a gas bag fuel air explosion over any silo and even more so to get several at once; that it will take a nuclear strike on each missile.  This is what the US had in the Cold War.  We don’t really have that now; just what the probability of alert readiness of our deterrent is is not known, but it is unlikely to be so high as it was in 1989. It needs to be perceived as very high since deterrence is an event that takes place in the mind of the enemy commander (just as surprise is an event that takes place in the mind of your commander).

Israel could place the deterrent silos on the border of Judea and Samaria and Gaza, making it certain that striking the silo with a nuke would cause enormous casualties in the occupied territories. This would be a further deterrent.

The command and control system would have to be complex because the temptation to a missile officer to stop wasting his life sitting in a hole in the ground by wiping out all those sons of bitches would be high.  We used to have experts in that sort of design; I was one of them, as was Possony (more senior than me, of course) and Kane (Director of Plans for General Schriever and with Possony and me and one of the authors of The Strategy of Technology).  But most of us who really studied that kind of technology are gone, or rather old; I doubt Israel has any.  Design of a second strike deterrent and making sure it is not a first strike force without authorization of the civilian leadership is more complex than most suppose.

I do not think Netanyahu thirsts for the blood of Iranian civilians, so it is likely he is contemplating the enormous effort of building a second strike deterrent force; the window for a non-nuclear strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities is rapidly closing, more rapidly with the deployment of the new Russian SAM system they have just bought. I doubt it could be done now without the cooperation of the USAF air supremacy forces; since that will not happen, the deal’s obligation to have USAF defend Iran against an Israeli air strike is not meaningful, thus saving our pilots from the dilemma that would come up if they were ordered to fire on IDF aircraft.

I think of no other strategy for Israel.  It will be expensive – it sure was for us, and will be again when Iran has the bomb – but it is time for both of us to start.  It means acquiring a group of young men and women, competent enough to fight a nuclear war if deterrence fails, willing to spend a significant part of their lives doing nothing but waiting to hear a klaxon they hope never to hear.

We did it once.  Perhaps we can do it again.


I was asked specific questions in another conference; The answers supplement what I said above.

1. What are the chances Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear sites to prevent them from producing an atomic weapon?

Low and decreasing. The probability of a successful long term delay in Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons without a major strategic nuclear strike against Iran is low and falling; once the new SAMs are employed and operational, that probability approaches zero without USAF – or Saudi-Jordanian – cooperation, and will be low even with that.  A nuclear first strike would take a lot of political maneuvering and be a difficult intention to conceal; as well as being morally reprehensible to most Israelis.  Israel is after all a democracy in the modern sense of the word; there is political responsibility.

2.  If the attack occurs, will Israel use nukes as a first strike to ensure the deep underground facilities are destroyed?   Or as a later strike, perhaps?

See above.  Zero probability without political preparation, which would not be concealable..

3. If Israel does attack Iran, will Israel survive the Iranian retaliation as a nation, if Iranian missiles, Hamas, and Hezbollah go all-out?   Will the Iron Dome protect them?

Possibly, but it is not sufficient to protect Israel from nuclear attack without warning (ox cart delivery of attacks on Iron Dome and IDF air assets, as a possibility).  Israel needs a survivable retaliatory deterrent force.  She does not have one now.

4. If the attack occurs, when do you think it will happen – before or after next year’s Election Day?

After, and by then it will be too late to be non-nuclear, and will require USAF air superiority force assistance ; so likely zero probability.

5. What do you see as the fallout – radioactive and/or geopolitical – from such an attack?

Horrible, but improbable.

6. Will the USA militarily intervene to protect Iran from Israel, i.e., shoot down Israeli planes or missiles?

It won’t happen, but giving such orders would damn near destroy the Air Force and Navy. A lot of senior officers would resign.


As I have said, given the plain language of the Koran that there can be only truce, not peace outside the house of Islam, Israel needs a secure deterrent, and has only a brief time to get to building it.  Design is not easy, and it will be expensive. I do not know of any deterrent experts in the Israeli general staff, but I have few contacts there. Thinking about the unthinkable has fallen out of favor since the end of the Cold War, and we have few people who have continued to study the technology of deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and Mutual Assured Survival, which I find preferable although much more difficult and costly. One principle: it is better to intercept enemy weapons than to avenge them. Another: you will not intercept them all in a mass attack, but you may get all those under the control of someone mad enough to launch them.

Deterrence takes place in the mind of the enemy commander; you can strongly influence it. But it is not your decision.

As far as I can determine, the President has decided that we have no choice. He will therefore try to persuade Iran to make truce with the Great Satan and Israel, in the hopes that something will change for the better. This is reliance on deterrence; but I see few signs that we are doing the work necessary to build a deterrent, nor do I see Israel beginning on that. I presume that he is relying on time and our cultural weapons of mass destruction – iPads and blue jeans and rock music – to accomplish the destruction of the Iranian regime. We can pray he is right; containment worked with the Soviet Union. But deterrence was necessary in the Cold War, and is needed now; and we don’t have it.



I invite you to consider this, even though I have quoted it many times. It applies to war as well as economics.

“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

“This is known as ‘bad luck’.”

– Robert A. Heinlein


…but war is just a hobby

Dr. Pournelle,
Lamenting SAC reminds me of the nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
all the king’s horses
and all the king’s men
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

From which I learned about thermodynamics, entropy, and the complexity of systems. Once disassembled, SAC can’t be re-created. USSTRATCOM will have to be modified to support a new strategy. So far, thanks to Sec State, we have only the beginnings of restarting MADD. Iran will have nukes (I remember a particular North Dakotan reentry system shroud that required removal of “Hey Iran” graffitti), and Putin is threatening to use his stockpile tactically to solidify his reclamation of half of Ukraine.
We’ve unilaterally reduced our strike capability by at least half of what it was at the end of the Reagan administration. Today I see no Truman, no Ike, no Rickover, no LeMay, and no national will to jump start this effort, nor any real inklings of a strategy. On balance, this may be a good thing — I’d not trust any of the current crop of wannabee presidential nominees with the responsibility of being a Cold War CINC.
As stated in an earlier e-mail, “There will be War” is as pertinent today as it was in 1983.





If you have not seen my squib on NASA, Shuttle, and the bureaucracy of the space program (2007) it is here: and I probably won’t think about the subject again for a long while.







Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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