Israeli Nuclear Forces

Columnist Col (Retd) EAS BOKHARI analyses the depth of Israel’s nuclear capability.

Balfour Declaration was perhaps one of the most improbable and worrisome political declaration, and the creation of the state of Israel has created a host of other problems which have completely destroyed peace in the Middle East. In fact the creation of the state of Israel out of the Arab lands and then its sustenance mainly through US support makes peace in the Middle East an impossibility. This can be judged from the present US predicament in Middle East and the massacre of Muslims in the Occupied territory by the Israelis. There is hardly any let up in this gargantuan human carnage. This is analogous to situation in Kashmir, yet another British legacy.

Over a period of time Israel has become a major military power both conventionally as well as it is the only nuclear power in Middle East. Israel has a burgeoning defence industry and very active nexus with India besides a potent nuclear capability. Israel is pioneer in the production of RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles) and the largest manufacturer of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). These vehicles or rather aircraft are used for real time reconnaissance of the forward areas especially those which are beyond the line of sight and are therefore the bread and butter of a field commander for acquisition of battlefield intelligence. Israel has already supplied some of these vehicles to India along with the technology of licence production of these.

There is no doubt that such vehicles are great ‘force multipliers’ and Israel is the premier manufacturers of these. In the Gulf War, 1991 nearly all such vehicles used by the Allies, and these were used most profitably, were of Israeli origin.

The evolution of the Israeli defence and nuclear production technology can be well gauged from the fact that ‘Arrow’, the only anti-missile and with a proven efficacy is built by Israeli Air Force, of course with US finances and as a spin off of the famous SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative) programme which had to be shelved by the US as it was cost prohibitive and with the end of the cold war it had also become somewhat infructuous. (It is reappearing again in a somewhat down sized form as TMD i.e. Theatre Missile Defence) but it is not as ambitious as the fabulous SDI of President Reagan. TMD is much more sensible and is also workable although President Clinton has not sanctioned further trials. ‘Arrow’ I am told has been successfully flight tested and it is functional. Although basically it is designed to make a quick work of a fast high flying aircraft, it has worked equally satisfactorily against Cruise Missiles (CM) and may well be more effective than the much publicised Ratheon’s ‘Patriot.’

Israel has a host of defence production companies some of the important ones being:

  • SIBAT — Is the government support for Israeli Defence Industry. It is the Export Arm of the Israeli Defence Ministry. (They have an office in New Delhi.)

  • Achidatex. Specialise in a variety of military textile products.

  • Bet Shemesh Engines Ltd. It is owned by Ormat Turbines and the famous US Pratt & Whitney, and manufactures gas turbine engines.

  • Magnus Engineering & Maintenance Ltd. This outfit also specialises in gas turbine engines and components.

  • Plassen Sasa. This outfit specialises in the manufacture of special light weight composite armour.

  • Rami Ceramics. Specialises in ceramic products for the defence forces.

  • Meprolight. Are the only veteran suppliers of tritium night sights to major weapon manufacturers world wide.

  • TAT Aero Equipment. Designs and develops technological aircraft equipment.

  • Elbit. It is a publicly owned company and provides defence electronic equipments to all defence forces. Elbit is a major supplier to the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces). It is both an avionics supplier, and system integrator.

  • Elisra. It deals with all forms of EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment like the ELINT etc and Electric Jammers et al.

  • El-Op. Deals with electro-optical technologies in their complete range.

  • Israel Aircraft Industries. Self-explanatory — ‘Arrow’ is one (‘A’) of its prestigious projects. It produces satellites like the AMOS Communication satellite et al.

  • ACE. Autonomous Combat Evaluation System.

  • RAFAEL — the Armament Development Authority of Israel. This is the largest R&D organisation in the country. Nuclear work is in its domain.

  • TAAS. Specialises in innovative and high performance engineering of defence and aircraft systems.

  • Tadiran. Specialises in all forms of military communications providing full range of HF and VHF radios.

With the above infrastructure available, and the Jewish scientific genius ready at hand, Israel could go in for any manufactural venture including the nuclear one. The idea to list some of the outfits is to indicate the versatility which the Israelis have developed ‘ab initio’ and its sophistication. The most amazing thing is that some of the most advanced defence producers go in for Israeli products preferring these to those which are produced in their own countries. It simply shows the quality of Israeli defence production and engineering skills. All this comes handy in the fabrication of nuclear and other devices too.

As a tiny country which could be easily pushed into the Mediterranean by the Arabs if they could act united, and which they never managed to do during the Arab-Israeli wars, the Israelis rely on innovation, stealth and novelty in tactics. Even in conventional fighting they prefer surprise night actions as learned from Gen Orde Wingate (a gunner officer of great repute) who had trained the earlier Jewish settlers and Hagana. It fact the Israelis were never sure but on count they always believed that man for man and weapon for weapon they could not match the Arabs, at least initially.

And soon enough the Yom Kippur October 1973 War proved for a change that Joint Egyptian/Syrian action almost rattled Golda Meir. It was on 8 October 1973, when the one eyed Jewish legend Gen Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Defence Minister offered to resign due to Israeli failure across the Bar-Lev line, and on the Syrian front. He warned Mrs Meir “We are going to lose the Third Temple.”

It is interesting to study some of the Jewish reports of this period. Here is an interesting account which indicates that the Israelis had nuclear devices at that time. “.... Against this apocalyptic background, it seems that a decision to consider the use of a nuclear threat was made by Israel’s top establishment officials... There are indications that Dayan gave an order secretly to put in combat readiness, for the first time, Israeli made Jericho SS missiles carrying nuclear war heads as well as Kfir and Phantom Bombers equipped with nuclear devices. Altogether 13 Israeli, made nuclear weapons were put on the alert. If this was so, it was the first time Israel had fulfilled her nuclear option.”

Knowing that such an activity will not go unnoticed by USA and USSR, Dayan hoped for an expeditious help from USA to change the battle situation in the favour of Israel. And of sure the Israeli signal worked and this ‘bomb in the basement’ policy worked in their favour as the final result of the October War 1973 indicates. Surely the ‘Yom Kippur’ created a crisis in Israel, and Golda Meir and Dayan had to leave the cabinet, and were replaced by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres respectively.

The burning topic for these two leaders i.e. the new leadership resolved to the following:

  • “How far should Israel continue in developing its nuclear potential in relation to conventional one?”

  • “Should Israel declare its nuclear doctrine openly, mainly as a measure to deter Arab aggressiveness?”

Peres the hawk was very emphatic and is quoted as have said “... Peace will not come by itself ... It will not be brought by outside foreign nations ... It will not grow on the present political background of the Middle East, but Israel can bring it closer if she convinces the Arabs that by using science they will have no chance to hit us, not only in the present but also in future....”

There is no doubt that the Israelis had a nuclear capability at the time of October War and they used it to their best advantage by just indicating the intention to use it.

In the intervening period the Israelis were bent upon making sure that they maintain the nuclear hegemony in Middle East. Surely such articles in the world press like “A nuclear Arab bomb: A ‘casus belli’ for Israel”, were a terribly new phenomenon in Israel. And then suddenly in July 1980 the entire Israeli Press and television started discussing the Iraqi nuclear project and the cooperation between Iraq, France and Italy.

The Israeli chief of staff Rafael Eitan generally known as reticent and unassuming person gave a somewhat longish answer and said “... If the Iraqis get the bomb, it will be as though all the countries in this region are hanging from a light sewing thread, high above. Any attempt to use the nuclear bomb will lead immediately to the tearing of that thread and the crashing of the states.”

Other officials were even more explicit and less reticent. Here is a sampling of what a top aide to Prime Minister Mattitiahau Shmulevitch said “... Israel cannot allow itself to sit and wait until an Iraqi atomic bomb falls on our heads....”

The Israeli operation ‘Babylon’, a two minute Entebbe-style raid on the Iraqi nuclear assets at Tammuz (Osirak) was a meticulously planned operation in which US supplied F-16s and F15’s were used and the Iraqis nuclear assets destroyed once for all. This was in keeping with the Israeli policy of maintenance of a hegemony in nuclear capability in the region. A detailed account of this very daring intrusion can be found in the paper back ‘Two Minutes Over Baghdad’ — by Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel and Uri Bar-Joseph.

The Israeli appreciation was that once the Iraqi threat has been eliminated the region will be free from any nuclear competition in the region. They did have certain reservations and these have been expressed well in the book mentioned above in its concluding para. “... The most likely Third World state to acquire an independent nuclear option in the near future — and the state which is most in sympathy with Arab-Islamic aims — is one which unlike Iraq is practically invulnerable to an Israeli pre-emptive strike ... Neither short-term strategic necessity, nor the brilliance of the Israeli Air Force, nor the holocaust fears of Prime Minister Begin would surely dare tempt Israel to launch a future raid against  Pakistan, the state which, with the aid of France and Libya, is now concentrating much of its resources on the development of what may well, in the light of Indian-Pakistani hostilities, be the most dangerous to the world nuclear balance in the 1980s. Project 706 — The Muslim Bomb.”

And there is no doubt that Kahuta was almost ready with fissile material in 1981, though a go ahead with the fabrication of device was given much later.

This brings us to the topic of nuclearisation of the sub-continent and which the Indians had started as early as 1974. So the three latest entrants in this dubious and harrowing field are Israel, India and Pakistan. Unfortunately like the developed countries who have somehow started hating the ‘nuclear’ bombs and have unilaterally cut the size of their nuclear arsenals, India, Pakistan and notably Israel have kept an aura of opacity around their growing nuclear arsenals, and it is really difficult to get authentic information of their programmes. My presentation is, therefore, based on the published material and, whatever, is available in the open press.

It was very interesting, and scintillating to read Humayun Akhter in the ‘Nation’ of 04 and 05 September 2000 on the Israeli bomb, and its opacity as against our hilarious press projection of the same capability (whatever it is) in our press. It is in any case established that the Israeli capability emanates from initial French helping hand at Dimona, and later US assistance. Yet it still remains undeclared officially.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East with nuclear capability, but perhaps the more worrisome for us is the present Indo-Israeli military nexus.

Yes, many countries in Middle East have tried to be nuclear, and the foremost amongst these was Iraq, whose nuclear capabilities were mercilessly obliterated by a daring air attack of the Israelis F-15 and F-16s in 1981. Iran had tried perhaps with the help of USSR to be nuclear, but the programme never flourished. The Libyan effort was equally abortive. I would recommend to the readers “Two Minutes Over Baghdad” to indicate how ruthless and meticulous the Israelis can be in planning operations of national importance. Another example is their air raid on Entebbe, equally daring.

Yet in another field, it has been established that Israel is perhaps the only country in the world with an ‘anti-missile missile’ capability in the form of ‘Arrow’, which is essentially an anti-aircraft (against very fast aircraft) missile, yet accidentally like the much trumpeted ‘Patriot’, it works satisfactorily against older type of missiles, and the slow moving ‘cruise missiles’.

There have been number of trials of ‘Arrow’, and very satisfactory results have been achieved. Be it known that the ‘Arrow’ programme is an offshoot, or rather a spin off of the much publicised, but technically improbable SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative) which was a wild and incoherent dream of President Reagan. The obsession of SDI remained with the US Government for quite sometime in the peak period of the cold war, and it died its natural death with the end of the cold war and demise of Soviet Union.

Surprisingly it is re-emerging now in the form of Theatre Missile Defence (TMD), and then again luckily President Clinton has stopped this venture for the time being and left it to his successors to continue with a more sensible defence initiative. President Clinton apparently was forced to take this decision due to continuous failure of the anti-missile missile trials, and its collision with well meaning ABM Treaty 1972.

It is surprising, but true that some of the best physicists (and Physics is the queen of sciences) in the recent past have been Jews — just to name a few — Einstein gave the epoch-making equation E-Mc2 and the work of Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe cannot be ignored. There are of course a host of other Jewish scientists of note. Hans Bethe even rebutted the hastily formulated anti-missile missile architectures in the grand SDI infrastructure as scientifically impossible. He argued that it is not possible even with the massive US wealth and technology to create a large space platform, with enormous electrical energy for a laser attack on the hostile missiles with the object of incinerating their electrical systems, and thus make them inoperable. It’s just not on.

Then of course there was a band of dedicated and shrewd scientists in the ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) who openly ridiculed the SDI and the work of SDI-0 — an organisation which had been set up under the watchful eyes of Gen Abrahamson the creator of the F-16 aircraft (which is still operational with many countries.)

President Reagan had thought that SDI could provide some ‘spin offs’ in the private sector in case of its failure. I am not sure if it has done that because generally it is the civilian technologies which are inducted by the military and not the vice versa. So SDI could be compared to the ‘God That Failed’, of Arthur Koestler who is another Jew of note, but no scientist.

And now coming down to earth, and to more mundane military matters, the worrisome issue is the Indo-Israeli nexus in militarisation.

It is known for certain that some of the important Israeli defence production companies have visited India, and offered assistance in many fields. In some fields the Israeli equipment is already in India along with its licence production. The case in point is the RPV/UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) which are used for gathering intelligence which is not readily available to field commanders especially beyond the FEBA (Forward Edge of the Battle Area.) Such information is the bread and butter of field commander and paid hands down in the 1991 Gulf War where these Israeli artifacts were used most extensively, and of course Israel is the pioneer and world leader in the fabrication of these vehicles.

The Israelis I am told have offered assistance in the upgradation of Indian fighter aircrafts and MBTs (Main Battle Tanks).

Yet it is worrisome to imagine that Israel could possibly transfer ‘Arrow’, and its connected technology to India, and if that happens most of our missiles would become partially ineffective.

It is time that our leadership takes an account of the Israeli factor in our defence preparedness, and make necessary arrangements to meet the added threat that exists now with the Israeli factor and Indian collusion.

The three entrants in the prestigious ‘Nuclear Club’ have an aura of opacity around their programmes but the most secretive programme is the Israeli programme. For that matter there being no official pronouncements, and press conjectures being what these are, the best published material is the Sipri Year Book-2000, and I have gleaned the Israeli programme from Sipri, and is presented in the paragraphs that follow. A word of caution that it is extremely difficult to authenticate this.

Israeli Nuclear Forces - January 2000


Year First Deployed Range Notes


F-16A/B/C/D/I Fighting Falcon

1980 1600 260 purchased/received, 50 more in the pipeline.

F-151 ‘Thunder’

1998 3500 25 delivered - Jan 98 to May 99.


Land Based Missiles

Jericho I

1972 1200 Possibly 50 at Zekharyeh.

Jericho II

1984-85 1800 Possibly 50 at Zekharyeh, on TELs in caves.




2000   Possibly future SLCM platforms.



Artillery and Landmines.


As stated above estimating the size and composition of the Israeli nuclear stockpile is extremely difficult. It is estimated that Israel may have as many as 200 warheads consisting of aircraft bombs missile warheads, and non-strategic/battlefield types. Israel has been a nuclear weapon power since late 1966, when its first bombs were manufactured. Although small in size and propulsion, Israel has created an extensive and modern nuclear infrastructure.

The weapons are assembled at the design lab at Rafael, outside Haifa, known as Division 20. Dimona in the Negev desert is the location of a plutonium-tritium production reactor and underground chemical separation and nuclear component fabrication facilities. A facility in the town of Yavne, south of Tel-Aviv near the coast controls and monitors missile test flights launched into the Mediterranean Sea. There are probably nuclear weapon bunkers for aircraft and missiles at Tel Nof AB, in the Negev desert. A storage site (bunkers) is believed to be in the village of Tirosh.

Israel has a variety of aircraft with nuclear capabilities such as F-4 Phantom and A-4 Sky-Hawk besides F-16 and F-15 E. “In 1999 the Israeli Government announced that it would purchase 50 F161s worth $ 2.5 billion. The aircraft will start pouring in the beginning of 2003.” Israel selected Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle for long range strike and air superiority roles. It is called F-151 Ra’am (Thunder) in Israel. This was done in January 1994.

A second, but less likely air base where nuclear bombs may be stored is Ramat David in the Northern Israel. Here squadrons No 109, 110 and 117 are located. It is to be noted that the aircrafts F-16C/D flown by Squadron 110 and 117 attacked and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facility (reactor) Osirak outside Baghdad on 07 June 1981.

Israeli missile capability is as old as the quest for nuclear weapons. Several months before the operation of Dimona reactor (April 1963) Israel signed an agreement with French company Dassault for the production of a surface to surface ballistic missile. Its specifications were:

  • Stages     -   two

  • Warhead      750 Kg

  • Range          235-500 Km.

  • CEP            Less than 1 Km.

The missile system known as Jericho (MD-620) takes two hours to prepare and can be launched from fixed for mobile launchers. Its rate of fire is 4-8 per hour. A conventional Jericho makes little sense and is, therefore, nuclear capable.

Jericho II is more like the US Pershing II. Its initial range of 1300 Km has been increased to the listed range of 1800 Km. The missiles are apparently stored in caves and both the types are kept quite near each other.

The Israelis contacted the German firm-HDW (Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft) in Kiel to build three Dolphin class diesel-powered submarines for the Israeli Navy. The first of these arrived in Haifa on 27 July 1999. “It is possible that the IDF/N may plan to equip the Dolphin submarines with a nuclear attack capability by modifying US-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles (130 Km range) with an indigenously developed nuclear artillery shells/Atomic Demolition Mine (ADM).

As far as testing is concerned an explosion high in the atmosphere off the coast of South Africa in the South Indian Sea on 22 September 1979 is believed by some to have been a clandestine Israeli test possibly of a neutron weapon. There are also reports that Israel has developed nuclear artillery shells and ADMs.