Israeli Nuclear Forces


In spite of official opacity, Israel is a potent nuclear state with a fully developed triad of nuclear forces. Details of the forces are indicated in the inset.

In spite of its declaratory posture which states “Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East,” Israel is a full fledged member of the World Nuclear Club. And somewhat, surprisingly a January, 2001 Pentagon report, “Proliferation: Threat and Responses” omits Israel from its review of the Middle East although a 1991 US Strategic Air Command Study lists Israel, India and Pakistan as “defacto” nuclear weapon states. An estimate of Israeli nuclear assets can range from 75-200 weapons consisting of bombs, missile warheads and possibly non-strategic (tactical) weapons.

Israel got on to a determined effort to develop nuclear weapons in mid-1950s after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the strait of Tiran in 1953. Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurian began the development and his protege Shimon Peres played a central role in securing an agreement with France in 1956 for a nuclear research reactor. Physicist Ernst David Bergmann, Director of Israeli Energy Commission provided earlier scientific directions. It is known that on the eve of Six Days War in 1967, Israeli “improvised” two deliverable nuclear explosive devices (See Anver Cohen in his book ‘Israel and the Bomb’.

Israel built the Dimona nuclear facility in the Nagev desert with the help of French assistance. This site has a plutonium/tritium production reactor, an underground chemical separation plant and nuclear component fabrication facilities. It is believed that besides using the French testing data, Israelis might have conducted high in the atmosphere tests on 22 September 1979 off the Eastern Coast of South Africa in a clandestine fashion.

The inventory of the aircraft has been indicated in the inset which has been built up by Israel during the last 30 years or so. Initially their assets were F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks. Of course, F-16 has been the backbone of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and is the most likely candidate for air delivery of nuclear weapons. Currently probably only a small fraction of the F-16s are nuclear certified with specially trained crew, unique procedures and modifications that enable them to carry nuclear weapons. Likely F-16 squadrons are the 111th, 115th, 116th, 140th and 253rd. And possibly 109th, 110th, 117th, 101st, 105th and 144th too may be included.

But perhaps the centrepiece of the air arm is the Boeing F-15 E strike ‘Eagle’ for its long range strike and air-superiority role. The Israelis call this aircraft F-151 Ra’am (Thunder). The potentials of this versatile aircraft are:

l Take Off Weight. 36,750 Kg
l Range. 4,450 Km
l Maximum Speed at High Altitude. Mach 2.5

This plane has been modified to use special radar with terrain mapping capability and other navigation and guidance systems. This aircraft can carry 4.5 tonnes of fuel in its internal, conformal and detachable tanks besides 11 tonnes of ammunition.

The F-151 aircraft are assigned to Squadron 69 (Hammers Squadron) at Hatzerim. The US counterpart of these i.e. F-15 E aircraft do have a nuclear role but the real role of the Israeli planes is not known. Possibly yes as these are high-performance machines.

Now a few words about the Israeli missiles. Israeli quest for land-based missiles had begun as early as their quest for nuclear weapons. Way back in 1963 before the Dimon reactor began operating, Israel signed an agreement with the French firm Dassault to produce a surface-to-surface missile for Israel with the following specifications:

Weight of Warhead. 750 Kg

Range. 235-500 Km

CEP (Circular Error

Probable Less than 1 Km

Stages. Two

This missile system was known as Jericho (or MD-620) and it would take less than two hours to prepare it for launching. It was launchable from fixed or mobile bases. It could fire from four to eight missiles per hour. In early 1966, the ‘New York Times’ reported that Israel had bought a first instalment of 30 missiles.

With the French embargo on these missiles after the 1967 War, Israel started their own fabrication of these missiles, I suppose indigenously. Jericho was clearly a nuclear capable nuke. It was in 1974 that CIA cited Jericho as making little sense as a conventional missile, and was “designed to accommodate nuclear warheads.”

A subsequent addition to the missile arsenal was the Jericho II which has some similarities to the US Pershing II. In May, 1987 a Jericho II was test fired and flew some 800 Km. And as a result of two later tests in September 1988, the missile achieved a range of 1300 Km. The US Arms Control Agency gave the range of this improved missile as 1450 Km which could reach out to Southern borders of Soviet Union (then). Israelis are vigorously pursuing missile technologies in USA and elsewhere to further improve the range of Jericho II, which might be increased to 1,800 Km.

According to 1977 ‘Janes’ articles, there are about 50 Jericho II at the Zekharyeh missile base, some 45 miles, South East of Tel-Aviv in the Judean Hills. The missiles seem to have been stored in caves. On warning the missiles can be dispersed on their TELs (Transporters Erector Launchers.) The short range Jerichos are deployed nearby in equal numbers.

It is particularly important to study the Israeli nuclear posture as of today the Indians are showing a renewed frenzy in missile testing. The Indians have blatantly tested a shorter version of ‘mobile’, ‘Agni’, ‘Akash’ and a ‘Prithvi’ which somehow misfired as the TEL from which it was to be fired caught fire. I suppose they have rescheduled its launch and soon we should hear about it.

The Indians have developed a massive nexus with Israel with increased defence hardware interaction. Currently neither Pakistan nor India possesses any of the anti-missile missiles, and mainly depend upon passive defensive measures for the defence against missiles. With the perfection and honing of the ‘Arrow’ anti-missile missile perhaps the only such weapon which has been successfully tested in Israel, of course with the active assistance of USA, the transfer of such weapons to India cannot be ruled out. Yet, there is another weapon i.e. the ‘Patriot’ which can also be transferred to India via Israel if not directly by the US firm Ratheon.

Fresh research on the Gulf War 1991 however, has shown that ‘Patriot’ was never that much effective against the Iraqi Scuds as has been indicated at the time of the Gulf War. Its bloated kill efficiency was in fact a sale promotion ploy and the Muslim Middle Eastern countries fell an easy prey to this promotional gimmick. Of course, over a period of time, there must have been improvements in the performance of ‘Patriot’, in fact the Ratheon engineers were there in Israel and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the thick of battle in 1991 to see the working of their brain child. And some modifications were carried out ‘in situ’. Patriot’s kill proficiency against modern missiles remains dubious.

So the Indo-Israeli nexus cannot be overlooked by any analyst while studying the nuclear potential of Israel.

There is no doubt that Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East and whatever little capability Iraq had developed was destroyed by Israel by demolishing Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor outside Baghdad on 7 June 1981 in what they called ‘Operation Opera’. It was a daring operation in which conventional weapons were used and eight aircraft from the Israeli 110th and 117th squadrons were used (escorted by six F-15s.)
To continue with the ground triad, the Israelis began launching of several ‘Ofek’ satellites atop ‘Shavit’ (Comet) three stage rockets, which had been derived from the Jericho II missiles.

The first such satellite weighed about 180 Kg, and the most recent one weighs about 300 Kg, and is known as ‘Ofek-5’. These satellites monitor hostile states and provide intelligence. And more importantly, the ‘Shavit’ could be converted (and that’s true of the Indian satellites too) into long range ballistic missile with a range of up to 7000 km, depending on the weight of the warhead.

Israeli missiles are test launched from Palmikhim Airbase which is located North of Tel Aviv. Interestingly in April 2000, Israel test launched a Jericho missile into the Mediterranean Sea, without informing the US authorities in advance. The missile impacted near a US warship which reportedly thought that she was under attack.

Finally, a few words about the sea-based missiles and submarines of Israel and the naval nuclear triad. Israel has a population of almost 6 million and in size it is smaller than the US state of New Jersey. It has a coast line of 170 miles on the Mediterranean Sea.

Israel is rightly worried about the missile assets of Iraq and Iran and other hostile neighbours. It is only logical that she goes in for a nuclear naval triad to supplement its land and air-based components. For Israel, perhaps the most invulnerable types of nuclear armed sea-based systems traditionally have been submarines.

In June 2002, former Pentagon and State Department officials told the ‘Washington Post’ that Israel was arming three diesel-powered submarines with cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Israel had contracted German companies Thyssen Nordseewerke in Emden and HDW (Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft) in Keil to build the submarines for the Israeli Defence Forces/Navy (IDF/N). Designated as the Dolphin, Class their credentials are:

Length. 57.3 metres

Displacements 1900 tonnes

Speed (Max) 20 Knots

Crew. 35 each.

The first submarine, the ‘Dolphin’ arrived in Haifa on 17 July 1999. And the second one the ‘Leviathan’ joined the fleet before the end of 1999. The third boat ‘Tekumah’ was delivered in July 2000. The cost of each submarine is estimated at $300 million. Each boat has 10 (ten) 21 inch tubes capable of launching torpedoes, mines or cruise missiles.

A senior Israeli official has confirmed that ‘Dolphin’-Class submarines carry modified US ‘Harpoon’ anti-ship missiles, thus making them nuclear capable with a possible Israeli developed nuclear warhead and guidance kit-cum-device for land attack targets. It is not quite clear whether the boats do have missiles with the modification at present.

In March 2000, the United States had turned down Israel’s request for 12 long range ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missiles (BGM-109.)

The ‘Tomahawk’ sea-launched cruise missiles exist in a nuclear tipped version for delivery by US-attack submarines. Those with conventional warhead have been used both in the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently against Taliban hideouts in Afghanistan. These missiles have a guidance which is independent of terrain cum topography, and allows for the variation of topography and contour variations.

A word or two about non-strategic weapons. Some press reports indicate that Israel has developed nuclear artillery shells i.e. projectiles and possibly nuclear mines which may be stored at Eilabun facility west of the Sea of Galilee.

A March 2000 report stated that Israel had planned to lay nuclear landmines to deter Syrian attack after withdrawing from the Golan Heights. Interestingly, and in response to this ridiculous assertion, then Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh is credited of saying, “This report is truly stupid. The person that wrote it not only doesn’t know, but also doesn’t understand anything.”