The international community generally considers Israel to be a nuclear state, but the country’s military and political leadership maintains its long-standing policy of ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying that Israel possesses nuclear weapons.1 Information about Israel’s nuclear arsenal and plans for its potential use remain closed and isolated from other developments in the country.

This article presents an open-source assessment of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, nuclear arsenal, and nuclear strategy.

Nuclear Capabilities

Israel launched its nuclear program in 1952 with the creation of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, headed by Ernst David Bergmann: an organic chemist who is considered the father of the Israeli nuclear program. Scientific and technological cooperation with allies, above all France and the United States, played a major role in the formation and development of the Israeli program.2

France and Israel began joint nuclear research back in 1949. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli experts participated in the development of the French nuclear bomb. The French later shared data obtained in the course of their nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert from 1960 to 1964.3 In addition, France helped Israel create an industrial base for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Under a secret French-Israeli agreement signed in 1956, the French company Saint-Gobain Nucleaire (SGN) built the Israeli Research Reactor-2 (IRR-2) natural uranium-fueled heavy-water reactor at Dimona (located 120 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv in the Negev desert), which had an initial power level of 26 megawatts.4 This reactor was brought online in 1963 and modernized in the 1970s: according to estimates, its power level was increased to 75150 megawatts. As a result, production of weapons-grade plutonium may have increased from 7–8 kilograms to 20–40 kilograms per year.5

After launching the IRR-2 reactor, Israel took an important step toward fielding its own nuclear program—and not just a military nuclear program. The Negev Nuclear Research Center (NNRC) was formed around the reactor. It became Israel’s main nuclear facility, where the main thrust of work on producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons is carried out. In addition to the IRR-2, the center houses an industrial radiochemical plant for the extraction of plutonium from spent reactor fuel;6 a uranium ore processing plant;7 an experimental set of gas centrifuges for separating uranium isotopes; production lines for metallic uranium and plutonium, as well as fuel for nuclear reactors; a complex for the production of heavy water (tritium), lithium-6, and deuterium;8 and a number of research laboratories, including those devoted to the laser and magnetic separation of uranium isotopes.

The second most important Israeli nuclear facility is the Soreq Research Center, located 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. The center formed around the pool-type, light-water IRR-1 reactor, which has a power level of 5 megawatts.9 It was brought online in June 1960.10 A complex of buildings constructed later houses a number of laboratories that conduct nuclear science and technology research, including research with military applications. In particular, this facility is believed to handle the research and design of nuclear weapons.11 A factory for the assembly of nuclear weapons is located elsewhere—in Yodefat (130 kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv).12

Israel has cooperated on the military use of nuclear energy with other nations in addition to France and the United States, including South Africa in the 1970s. In 1977, a Newsweek editorial asserted, citing experts from the U.S. intelligence community, that a South African nuclear bomb was an Israeli device.13 On September 22, 1979, at precisely 01:00 GMT, sensors aboard the American VELA 6911 surveillance satellite recorded two flashes in the Indian Ocean in the vicinity of South Africa’s Prince Edward Islands, representing credible evidence that nuclear tests had been conducted. The “list of suspects” was quickly narrowed down to South Africa and Israel.14

The Israeli leadership made a political decision to create nuclear weapons in 1955, and the resulting program developed rapidly following the Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956.15 It is believed that Tel Aviv was pushed in this direction by the threat of nuclear weapons being used against Israel, a threat made in a speech at the height of the crisis by Nikolai Bulganin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union.16 According to estimates by Rosatom’s Institute of Strategic Stability (ISS), the first Israeli nuclear weapons may have been made in 1967–1968,17 while the American think tank Global Security asserts that Israel already had two nuclear bombs by the time the Six Day War broke out in 1967.18 Since then, production of nuclear weapons in Israel has steadily increased and their range has expanded: in addition to nuclear bombs with a power of 20 kilotons, Israel’s stockpile now includes nuclear warheads for various types of missiles.19

Assessments of Israel’s nuclear arsenal vary widely. For example, experts such as Shannon Kile and Hans M. Kristensen of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimate that Israel has about 80 nuclear weapons: 50 missile warheads and 30 gravity bombs that can be delivered by fighter jets.20 Rosatom’s ISS suggests that Israel’s total arsenal may range from 130 to 200 weapons.21 Former U.S. secretary of state (2001–2005) Colin Powell assessed the Israeli arsenal at 200 nuclear weapons.22 There are also experts who believe that Israel already had about 400 weapons by the late 1990s.23

Given the uncertainty surrounding Israel’s current nuclear arsenal, the most substantiated approach to assessing it is that based on the country’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. The most convincing estimates are those of SIPRI, which suggests that as of 2017, Israel may have had 770–1,030 kilograms of separated weapons-grade plutonium.24 Furthermore, SIPRI experts believe that production of weapons-grade plutonium in Israel continues, which serves as indirect evidence that Tel Aviv intends to keep building up its nuclear capabilities. 

It is generally accepted that 5 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium is enough to produce one nuclear weapon.25 Based on this assumption, Israel could have produced 154 to 206 nuclear weapons using its entire existing stock of weapons-grade plutonium as of 2017. However, Israeli nuclear experts would not have been likely to use up the whole stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium to produce nuclear weapons. It can be assumed that, in keeping with the practice of other de jure unrecognized nuclear states, Israel saved up to a quarter of its weapons-grade plutonium reserves for unforeseen needs. Thus, by the beginning of 2018, Israel may have had between 115 and 155 weapons in its nuclear arsenal.26 It is entirely rational that the number of the weapons (with estimated yield of 20 to 40 kilotons) corresponds to the number of Israel’s launchers (which will be discussed below).

The information presented above indicates that Israel has built a full-fledged research and production base for its nuclear industry, which enables it to not only support its current nuclear capabilities, but also expand them if necessary. Tel Aviv’s interest in developing thermonuclear weapons cannot be excluded, but that would require nuclear tests. Israel signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in September 1996, although it has not yet ratified the treaty. There is little reason to believe that Tel Aviv would decide to conduct full-scale nuclear tests without extreme need, considering how much its image in the eyes of the international community would suffer following such a move.

Nuclear Forces

Expert analysis indicates that the Israeli armed forces (Israel Defense Forces) currently possess a nuclear triad that relies on dual-use delivery systems: tactical aircraft, mobile missile systems, and diesel-electric submarines.27

The only aircraft in the Israeli Air Force fleet that can be used as carriers of nuclear bombs are the American-made F-15 and F-16 tactical fighters.28 There is an estimated total of 40–50 such aircraft, each able to carry one atomic bomb.29

The F-15 Eagle (Israeli modification F-15I) has a combat range of 1,650 kilometers without mid-air refueling, and a maximum flight speed of 2,650 kilometers per hour at an altitude of 11,000 meters (its operational ceiling is 18,000 meters).

The F-16 Falcon (Israeli modification F-16I) has a combat range of 1,500–1,600 kilometers without mid-air refueling, and a maximum flight speed of 2,100 kilometers per hour at an altitude of 11,000 meters (its operational ceiling is 18,000 meters).

In early 2012, reports surfaced that Israeli F-15Is and F-16Is were now capable of being armed with Popeye air-to-surface nuclear cruise missiles.30 If this information is correct, the combat capabilities of the Israeli nuclear triad’s aerial component have increased significantly, considering that the Popeye’s range exceeds 1,000 kilometers.

In addition to aircraft, the Israeli Air Force is armed with Jericho II and Jericho III ballistic missiles on mobile launchers, which can be equipped with either conventional or nuclear warheads.31

The solid-fuel, medium-range, two-stage Jericho II entered service in 2002. It has a launch mass of around 14 tons and a range of 1,500–1,800 kilometers with a warhead mass of 750–1,000 kilograms.32 The missile’s circular error probable is around 800 meters.

The solid-fuel, medium-range, three-stage Jericho III entered service in 2011. It has a launch mass of 29–30 tons and a range of over 4,000 kilometers with a warhead mass of 1,000–1,300 kilograms.33

Between 2013 and 2018, Israel test-launched an upgraded version of the Jericho III ballistic missile (with a new, more powerful engine). The missile was equipped with a warhead containing two or three independently targeted reentry vehicles. The missile has a maximum range of about 6,500 kilometers.34 According to unverified information, this ballistic missile, classified as intercontinental, may have entered service in 2019. Israel is not expected to have this type of ballistic missile in its possession for military purposes in the foreseeable future, since all of its potential antagonists—first and foremost Iran—are located within the range of Israel’s operationally available Jericho III intermediate-range ballistic missiles. For this reason, it is expected that the deployment of this missile will be a very measured process.  

As of January 2018, the Israeli Air Force was estimated to have up to 80 mobile launchers for Jericho II and Jericho III ballistic missiles and about 50 nuclear warheads for these missiles.35 Squadrons with mobile launchers are stationed at the Kfar Zekharya missile base 38 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. During peacetime, the launchers are not deployed, but are located in specially equipped, highly protected underground facilities.

As for the potential development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, Israel is carrying out experimental design work on creating an intercontinental three-stage, solid-fuel missile known as the Jericho IV. Its first test flights are expected to be conducted in 2022–2023. Tel Aviv apparently believes that the introduction of nuclear intercontinental missiles with a range of 10,000–12,000 kilometers will enable it to create the potential—however minimal—for a nuclear deterrence in regard to any nuclear power capable of posing a threat to Israel. This will allow it to avoid situations like that seen in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, when Israel was forced to yield to the nuclear superiority of the Soviet Union. Israel not only ceased its military action against Egypt, whose armed forces had essentially been decimated; it also had to completely withdraw its troops from territory it had captured from Egypt.

Testing and combat training launches of ballistic missiles and low-orbit space boosters using the Shavit space launch vehicle are conducted at the Palmachim test site 22 kilometers southwest of Tel Aviv. In addition to this test site, a towable marine platform located in the basin of the Mediterranean Sea is also used for the testing and combat training launches of ballistic missiles.

The naval component of Israel’s nuclear triad consists of German-made Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines armed with cruise missiles capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads.

The Israeli navy has six of these submarines (the first three were acquired from Germany in 1999–2000, the next three in 2013–2019).36 After being delivered from Germany, the submarines were further equipped by Israeli specialists; each submarine was outfitted with ten launch tubes for firing cruise missiles from below the surface.37 

There are no reliable data on the type of cruise missiles deployed on these submarines. According to some sources, they are an Israeli modification of the American Sub-Harpoon cruise missile with a range of up to 600 kilometers.38 Other sources suggest that the submarines are armed with Israel’s own Popeye Turbo, developed from the Popeye air-to-surface cruise missile. The range of the Popeye Turbo is up to 1,500 kilometers.39

An estimated 30–40 nuclear weapons have been allocated for the cruise missiles deployed on the Dolphin-class submarines.

In January 2019, the German government agreed to deliver another batch of three more Dolphin-class submarines to Israel.40 These are expected to replace the first three of the class (acquired in 1999–2000), allowing Israel to maintain a fleet of six submarines. The delivery of the latest batch of submarines is expected to begin in 2025–2026, and they may go into service starting in 2027.41

Thus, Israel now has a fairly wide range of means of delivering nuclear weapons, and an impressive nuclear arsenal by regional standards. In order to ensure the survivability of its nuclear capabilities, Israel has focused on developing its naval component. This is logical and rational, as Israel is quite vulnerable to attack by weapons of mass destruction due to its small territorial size.

Unspoken Nuclear Strategy

The existence of an Israeli nuclear force implies the existence of a nuclear strategy, though one has never been declared. Analysis of statements made by Israeli officials, however, suggests a strategy based on the following key principles:42

  • Israel’s nuclear arsenal is intended primarily to deter potential adversaries. It is obvious that the huge geopolitical and demographic (as well as potential military) advantages of the Arab and Muslim countries such as Iran surrounding Israel are generally regarded by the Jewish nation-state as an imperative to rely on nuclear weapons, which act as an incontestable guarantor of security.
  • Nuclear weapons are considered a last resort by Israel. They could be used first in the event of a conventional attack on Israel if that attack threatened the very existence of the state.
  • In the event of a nuclear strike against Israel (or an attack using other weapons of mass destruction), the surviving nuclear forces would be used in retaliation against the aggressor.
  • Unless there is a fundamental change in the regional security situation, Israel will continue its policy of official silence regarding its nuclear arsenal. This policy has proved to be something of a military and political resource that Tel Aviv will not squander.43 Public acknowledgment of the existence of such weapons, without consenting to their restriction or elimination, would give surrounding Muslim countries justification to pursue their own nuclear weapons, or at least to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • Israel pursues every means of preventing the possible development of nuclear weapons by its potential opponents.44 Accordingly, it was largely at the instigation of Israel that in 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regulating Iran’s nuclear program that had been approved by the UN Security Council in 2015, and introduced harsh sanctions against Iran aimed at forcing it to abandon its nuclear program entirely. In addition to political and diplomatic measures, Israel does not exclude the use of force—even in violation of international law—to achieve this goal of containing its enemies’ nuclear potential.45

On the whole, there is no incentive now or in the foreseeable future for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, seeing as it finds itself in a more threatening and hostile environment than any other nation in the world. A regional peace treaty with Israel has been signed by only two Middle Eastern states: Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. In 2020, Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. The remaining countries in this region have yet to recognize Israel’s sovereignty, while Iran has until recently openly and officially denied that Israel has any right to exist.

Israel’s “anonymous” nuclear arsenal will remain the most important component of the military balance in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, and a significant driver of discord between Tel Aviv and other states in the region, complicating prospects for strengthening the non-proliferation regime in the Middle East.

In this context, it is not surprising that Israel, with U.S. support, resisted the convening of a UN conference in New York in November 2019 on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles in the Middle East.46 Accordingly, Israel and the United States did not take part in the conference.

Following the five-day conference, the participating states adopted a political declaration, expressing a commitment to pursue in an open and inclusive manner the elaboration of a treaty on establishing a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region.47

All states of the Middle East and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were invited by the General Secretary of the UN to support the declaration and participate in future sessions of the conference. At the same time, since disagreements between key groups of players in the Middle East (Iran and the League of Arab States on the one hand, and Israel and the United States on the other) remain unresolved, there is no hope that the current position of Israel and the United States will change and that they will join the dialogue on the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East in the foreseeable future. 

In view of the above, it is likely that Israel will remain a nuclear state for years to come. Even if the process of global nuclear disarmament, much hoped for by the international community, ever begins, Israel will be among the last remaining nuclear states.

This text is an updated version of a chapter of the Russian-language book “A Polycentric Nuclear World.”

Notes


1 This clever policy, along with the fact that Israel has never signed the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, allows the country to avoid international political and economic sanctions, such as those enacted against North Korea.

2 See also: Viktor Esin, “Israel’s Nuclear Policy,” in Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the Middle East Context, ed. Alexei Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, and Sergey Oznobishchev (Moscow: IMEMO RAN, 2013), 9–26, http://www.imemo.ru/files/File/en/publ/2013/13017_en.pdf; Grigory Shekhtman, “The phenomenon of a nuclear Israel” [in Russian], Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie 47 (2018), http://www.nvo.ng.ru/nvo/2018-12-06/1-_1025_phenomenon.html

3 Vitaly Naumkin, Gennady Evstafiev, and Vladimir Novikov, “The Middle East,” in Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War, ed. Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2006), 447.

4 Ibid., 447.

5 “A New Challenge After the Cold War: The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” [in Russian], Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia, July 11, 2012, http://www.svr.gov.ru/material/2-13-6.htm.

6 This industrial radiochemical facility, also known as Machon-2, was built with the help of SGN. Its annual capacity is estimated at 15–40 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium (see: “A New Challenge After the Cold War”).

7 Uranium ore was initially mined in the Negev desert near the Efe and Zefa valleys. Later on, after 1972, the Israeli phosphate fertilizer industry was manufacturing 40–50 tons of uranium oxide per year, and by the early 1980s, annual production of uranium oxide reached 90 tons, which more than covers Israel’s demand for natural uranium (see: Naumkin et al, “The Middle East,” 449).     

8 With these materials at their disposal, Israeli experts are quite capable of developing nuclear weapons with a core in which a nuclear fusion reaction is used to increase the effectiveness of the explosion. In this way, it is possible to minimize the mass of the warhead while maintaining its previous yield. This is especially valuable when developing nuclear warheads for missiles (their range can be increased by reducing the mass of the warhead).

9 Unlike the IRR-2, the IRR-1 cannot be used for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, Israeli experts have used the reactor to gain experience working with highly enriched uranium (see: Naumkin et al, “The Middle East,” 446, 447).

10 Between 1960 and 1966, the United States delivered 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to Israel to be used as fuel for the IRR-1 (see: Naumkin et al, “The Middle East,” 446, 447).

11 Anton Khlopkov, ed., Nuclear Non-Proliferation: A Brief Encyclopedia [in Russian] (Moscow: ROSSPEN; PIR-Center, 2009), 45.

12 Ibid., 45.

13 Bernard Magubane, “Israel and South Africa: The Nature of the Unholy Alliance,” United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine, July 14–18, 1980, https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/4305EF25EF 45128485256DC20068F875.

14 Alexander Shulman, “Does Israel Have Nuclear Weapons?” [in Russian], Jewniverse - Yiddish Shteylt, October 30, 2007, http://www.jewniverse.ru/biher/AShulman/37.htm.

15 Khlopkov, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, 44.

16 Leonid Mlechin, MID: Ministers of Foreign Affairs: Romantics and Cynics [in Russian] (Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2001), 342.

17] V. N. Mikhailov, ed., Nuclear Weapons and National Security (Saransk: Red October, 2008), 111.

18 “Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” Global Security, September 4, 2004, www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/israel/nuke-stockpile.htm.

19 Since Israel has not established industrial production of highly enriched uranium, all nuclear weapons, including nuclear warheads, use plutonium.

20 Shannon Kile and Hans M. Kristensen, “Israeli Nuclear Forces,” in SIPRI Yearbook 2015: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security, ed. Ian Davis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 507.

21 Mikhailov, Nuclear Weapons and National Security, 111.

22 “Former U.S. secretary of state assessed the nuclear arsenal of Israel” [in Russian], Zarubezhnoe Voennoe Obozrenie 12 (2016), 78.

23 Shulman, “Does Israel Have Nuclear Weapons?”

24 Moritz Kütt, Zia Mian, and Pavel Podvig, “Global stocks and production of fissile materials, 2017,” SIPRI Yearbook 2018, 328.

25 Vladimir Orlov, ed., Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Case Studies for Students of Higher Educational Institutions [in Russian] (Moscow: PIR-Center, 2002), 45.

26 This expert assessment does not purport to be an absolute truth. It is an estimate, but it is a substantiated estimate, unlike assessments put forward by other experts.

27 Mikhailov, Nuclear Weapons and National Security, 111.

28 Kile and Kristensen, “Israeli Nuclear Forces,” 313.

29 Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Israeli Nuclear Weapons, 2014,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70, no. 6 (2014), 106.

30 Alexander Mozgovoi, “Gulf War III” [in Russian], National Defense 2, no. 71 (February 2012), 18, http://oborona.ru/files/2012-02.pdf.

31 Kile and Kristensen, “Israeli Nuclear Forces,” 312, 313.

32 V. Polyaev, “Ballistic missiles of Israel” [in Russian], Zarubezhnoe Voennoe Obozrenie 2 (2017), 62; Kile and Kristensen, “Israeli Nuclear Forces,” 313.

35 Kile and Kristensen, “Israeli Nuclear Forces,” 314.

37 The Dolphin-class submarines were built at the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG shipyard near Kiel and delivered from Germany without missiles (see: Mikhailov, Nuclear Weapons and National Security, 112).

38 Alexei Arbatov, “The Modern Arsenals of Nuclear States,” Nuclear Reset: Arms Reduction and Nonproliferation, ed. Alexei Arbatov, Vladimir Dvorkin, and Natalia Bubnova (Moscow: Carnegie Moscow Center, 2012), 63.

39 Mozgovoi, “Gulf War III,” 18.

40 Navy Recognition estimates that this shipment of submarines will cost Israel 2 billion euros (https://www.flotprom.ru/2019/ТорговляОружием 15/).

41 Kile and Kristensen, “Israeli Nuclear Forces,” 314.

42 Naumkin et al, “The Middle East,” 453–456; Mikhailov, Nuclear Weapons and National Security, 184; Alexey V. Fenenko, Contemporary International Security: Nuclear Factor, ed. V. A. Veselov [in Russian] (Moscow: Aspekt Press, 2013) 445–446.

43 Here it is worth noting that Israel’s strategy of “nuclear opacity” was the result of an agreement reached in 1969 between then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and U.S. president Richard Nixon (Naumkin et al, “The Middle East,” 456).

44 These efforts are guided by the 1981 Begin Doctrine, named after Menachem Begin, then prime minister of Israel. It states that Israel will do everything to counteract the conduct of research by Arab countries aimed at creating nuclear weapons (Orlov, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, 176).

45 In June 1981, Israeli F-16s destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction in Osirak, near Baghdad. In September 2007, they hit a nuclear facility in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria (Shulman, “Does Israel Have Nuclear Weapons?”).

46 Tariq Rauf, “Achieving the Possible: ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East,’” Inter Press Service, http://www.ipsnews.net/2019/11/achieving-possible-weapons-mass-destruction-free-zone-middle-east/.

47] Political Declaration of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, https://www.un.org/disarmament/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/PDFINAL-22-Nov-CLEAN-ADOPTED.pdf.

By:
  • Viktor Esin