[The you-know-what hit the fan a while back when we published our little piece on possible thermonuclear war in the Middle East. Some folks, I expect, think that was wrong for religious reasons. The End Times are coming and we’re on the wrong side. Satan deceives the people who oppose Israel. Actually, I’m not making that up. There’s a good video, not about us but generally to that effect, at http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=israel+nukes+declassified&FORM=VIRE7#view=detail&mid=290422B97AB0C9BE0987290422B97AB0C9BE0987 And to the evangelist who made it let me say (i) we’re not minions of Satan here, or at least I don’t think we are; but (ii) if we were, we certainly would demand better pay for what we do. Actually, we don’t get anything for writing our stuff. What do you get for your sermons?

So nobody should raise questions or even talk about Israel’s nuclear capability? It’s a secret? If we do, other countries in the Middle East also might want nuclear weapons, and start an arms race? Well, I hate to break it to you, critics, but the word’s been out for decades. No doubt the major powers in this world know about Israel’s nuclear weapons, and the media do as well; but the media follow orders and don’t mention the subject. At least, I don’t hear anyone in the mainstream outlets talking about Israeli nukes when they talk and talk about the Administration’s new agreement with Iran. The Israeli media, on the other hand, have no problem blabbing about nuclear weapons in Israel[1], and there’s even a Wikipedia article on the subject.[2]

But I digress. As you know, our last blog on nuclear matters dealt with the prospects for thermonuclear war in the Middle East. Our analyst, Fred, relied heavily on the works of Herman Kahn, a prominent defense intellectual of the Cold War[3], and projected a war scenario for the year 2030. In it he assumed that, by 2030, the Israelis might have 200 thermonuclear warheads, and the Iranians 15. Needless to say, we’ve had some questions about how he arrived at those numbers. So Fred, what’s your answer?]

Well, here I am; back again. As I told you earlier, I wanted to develop a model that reflected the fact that Israel has been in the nuclear game far longer than Iran. Because of that, we can expect a wide disparity of results between the two at any given point in time, at least for the near term.

[And 2030 is “near term” for you?]

Yes. Apparently it can take a long time to gear up and produce thermonuclear warheads, and that’s what we’re talking about. But let’s start at the beginning. As you know, we were the first to use nuclear weapons in war – we dropped two “atomic bombs” on Japan at the end of World War II. Those were very weak by modern standards; they were “kiloton” rather than “megaton” weapons. [Basically, a kiloton is 1000 tons; a megaton is 1000 kilotons.] But in 1952 we, and then the U.S.S.R. moved on to the more powerful megaton weapons, i.e., to thermonuclear devices.[4] These were tested, refined and miniaturized throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

What we didn’t know, for most of the 1950’s, was that the Israelis had a similar program of their own. At this point let me say that most of my information comes from the National Security Archive, a website hosted by George Washington University.[5] The site collects U.S. documents as they are declassified, provides an interpretive gloss, and makes them available to the public. I see it as much more reliable than the average newspaper.

[Fine. What does it say about Israel’s development of the bomb?]

1957 – 1960

It says a lot, but I’m not writing a full history of Israel’s program. We can do that if you want to publish a book. Here I’m just trying to explain my estimates of how many warheads Iran and Israel might have in 2030. For that, we need a bit of historical context. It seems that the Eisenhower Administration was generally unaware of Israeli nuclear ambitions. Perhaps it was because the Israelis themselves were quite secretive about their activities. But that administration had a rude awakening in 1960 when its intelligence people determined (i) Israel had built a sizeable reactor complex in 1957-1958, and (ii) the “secrecy and deception surrounding [it suggested] that it [was] intended at least in part for the production of weapon-grade plutonium.”[6] It’s not clear to me what the U.S. did subsequently, but apparently there was no effective action.

1969 – 1974

A bit later, in 1969, people in Nixon Administration became very concerned that Israel would soon produce actual nuclear weapons. Paul Warnke, for one, an Assistant Secretary of Defense, warned that it might happen by August of that year.[7] He saw the Israeli move as destabilizing to the Middle East. The Joint Chiefs agreed that weapons production was imminent. “Uranium supplies in Israel … will support the production of fissionable material in quantities sufficient for a small number of weapons.”[8] Others in DOD argued that “the object of our efforts is to stop now the development and production of strategic missiles and nuclear weapons by Israel.”[9]

Apparently that didn’t happen. In 1974 the Intelligence Community concluded Israel had nukes. “We believe that Israel already has produced and stockpiled a small number of fission weapons.”[10] This conclusion was reinforced by the fact that Israel (i) had gone to great effort to obtain uranium concentrate, sometimes using clandestine methods, and (ii) had invested heavily in a costly missile system that was really suitable only for delivering nuclear warheads.[11]

[Hey, this kind of stuff ordinarily is classified. Most of it sounds like “Top Secret” to me. Why do we have any of it?]

Most was Top Secret when it was written, but time passes. It was declassified over time, and now even we can read the things I’ve cited. The Israelis complain a lot when such things are declassified.


Then, of course, there’s the recently declassified study done for DOD in 1987 by the Institute for Defense Analyses. [12] That study pretty much indicated that, at that time, the Israeli nuclear program had advanced, but that there were areas where the U.S. might cooperate with them.[13]

They are still hampered in being able to design and produce fusion weapons or other more complicated devices utilizing fusion and fission in the same configuration. As far as nuclear technology is concerned the Israelis are roughly where the US was in the fission weapon field in about 1955 to 1960 …

It should be noted that the Israelis are developing the kind of codes which will enable them to make hydrogen bombs. That is, codes which detail fission and fusion processes on microscopic: and macroscopic level.[14]

I’m not sure I completely understand the quote. In 1955 – 1960 the U.S. was fully capable of detonating thermonuclear devices and did so regularly in tests. But anyway, assuming that Israel lacked the “codes” required to build fusion devices, is it reasonable to suppose that they’ve developed them by now? If they’ve made it a priority, I’m sure they have. Israel’s problem with codes seems to have been one of computer capacity[15], and –as everybody knows – that has increased astronomically for everyone in the last 28 years.

The Projections

[Fine, so what does any of this mean? We got into this discussion to understand your computer projections in the last blog.]

Well, assuming Israel has the know-how to build thermonuclear weapons, the remaining question is, how much fissile material does it have to devote to that purpose?

[You mean weapons-grade uranium, etc.?]

Right. And so I checked with the Federation of American Scientists[16] to see what they thought. As of today, FAS estimates Israel has 80 warheads in inventory, and possibly enough fissile material on hand for 100 to 200 warheads.[17] Other earlier estimates range from 75 to 400 warheads.[18] So it wasn’t hard for me to conclude that, by 2030, if the Israelis wanted them they could have 200 thermonuclear warheads built and ready to go.

Before you ask, I’ll also clarify my estimate for 2030 of Iran’s capabilities. Currently Iran has no nuclear weapons, but plenty of knowledge. That puts them about where we were back before 1945. I’m assuming that, if our Congress successfully tells the rest of the signatories to bug off and kills the President’s diplomatic initiative with Iran, Iran will be free to pursue its current program subject, of course, to espionage and assassinations.

Most likely it could develop fission weapons over that period. Perhaps in one year, some people say. How about H-bombs, etc.? We built and detonated a thermonuclear device 7 years after our first atomic bomb. Perhaps Iran could do the same in 7 years. Not so likely, but there’s always the possibility of outside help. People are crazy these days, and some will sell practically anything. So I picked an arbitrary, small number, i.e. 15 thermonuclear warheads. The real number for 2030 could be zero, or it could be more than 15.


[I understand. Thanks for your hard work, Fred. You certainly justified your estimates, especially the one for Israel. Poor Iran, trying to compete with Israel’s nuclear program! Israel’s been in that business for decades! I wonder if Iranians know how hard it is to build a thermonuclear weapon. Or perhaps it isn’t that hard, these days. Perhaps there are nifty software packets for sale, on the open market, to help the uninitiated develop the proper nuclear codes and build their thermonuclear bombs. I don’t know.

But what about the Israelis? With that stockpile of theirs, and intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] they could threaten the entire world. Does Israel have an ICBM program? Wait! Don’t answer that. This blog is long enough already. The only reason I mention ICBMs is that the Israelis say Iran is building them, and will use them to attack the U.S. Or perhaps it’s the nitwits in Congress or the media who say that. Either way, nobody would say it unless ICBMs were easy to build, right?

And one final note to people who think we’re imps of Satan for discussing this kind of thing. Nay, nay, I say. We’re simply doing what Herman Kahn and his acolytes did so well: We’re thinking about the unthinkable. That was very much in style back in the long ago.]

[1] See, e.g., Israel Today, Declassified: Israel nearly used nukes in Yom Kippur War (October 3, 2013), available at http://www.israeltoday.co.il/NewsItem/tabid/178/nid/24157/Default.aspx?article=related_stories

[2] Want to find it? Just go to Wikipedia and search ‘Nuclear weapons and Israel, or just click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_and_Israel

[3] Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010). Henceforth the Kahn book, Transaction reprint, will be cited as Thermonuclear War at ___.

[4] Want to see the history of this? Go to Wikipedia and check out “Thermonuclear weapon,” or just click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_weapon

[5] See National Security Archive, Cohen, Israeli Nuclear History, at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/israel/

[6] See Post-Mortem in SNIE 100-8-60, Implications of the Acquisition by Israel of a Nuclear Weapons Capability, (Draft), available at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb510/docs/doc%2027A.pdf

[7] See Memorandum from Paul Warnke, Assistant Secretary of Defense to Melvin Laird, Secretary, Stopping the Introduction of Nuclear Weapons into the Middle East, dated February 15, 1969, and available at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb485/docs/Doc%201%202-15-69%20Warnke%20report.pdf

[8] See Memorandum from the Joint Chiefs to the Secretary of Defense, Nuclear Missile Capability in Israel, dated 26 March 1969, at par. 2(c) and available at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb485/docs/Doc%204E%20Pages%20from%20Doc%204%205-5-69%20stash%20re%20Feb%201969-4.pdf

[9] See Memorandum from Ralph Earle, Assistant Secretary of Defense to Melvin Laird, Secretary, Stopping the Introduction of Nuclear Weapons into the Middle East, dated 29 March 1969, at Conclusions, and available at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb485/docs/Doc%204F%20Pages%20from%20Doc%204%205-5-69%20stash%20re%20Feb%201969-5.pdf

[10] See Special National Intelligence Estimate, Prospects for Future Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Aug. 23, 1974) at p. 20, par. 37. The document was issued by the Director of National Intelligence, and is available at http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB240/index.htm

[11] Id. The missile was called the Jericho; it was originally designed by the French, and was turned over to the Israelis for additional development and production. See Id. at p. 22, par. 43.

[12] They’re a classy outfit. You can find them at https://www.ida.org/

[13] See Townsley & Robinson, IDA Memorandum Report No. 317, Critical Technology Assessment in Israel and NATO Nations (April, 1987), available at http://fas.org/nuke/guide/snie4-1-74.pdf

[14] Id. at p. III-4. “However, it is doubtful they have the codes to completely design such devices as they involve more exotic radiation transport and are multidimensional. The Israelis do not yet have the capability to carry out these kinds of calculations.”

[15] See note 14.

[16] It’s at http://fas.org/

[17] See FAS, Status of World Nuclear Forces, at the Table and note m, available at http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ See also, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945 -2013 (2013), available at http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/

[18] See the 2007 “Nuclear Weapons” article maintained by FAS at http://fas.org/nuke/guide/israel/nuke/ .