By Louis Rene Beres

15 March 2001

Chinese military thought likely originated with neolithic village conflicts almost five thousand years ago. But it was Sun-Tzu's THE ART OF WAR, written sometime between the eighth and third centuries BCE, that synthesized a coherent set of principles designed to produce military victory and minimize the chances of military defeat. The full corpus of this work should now be studied closely by the IDF General Staff and by others who would wish to strengthen Israel's military posture and associated order of battle.

Let us begin with Sun-Tzu's principles concerning diplomacy. Political initiatives and agreements may be useful, we are instructed, but military preparations should never be neglected. The primary objective of every state should be to weaken enemy states without actually engaging in armed combat. This objective links the ideal of "complete victory" to a "strategy for planning offensives." In Chapter Four, "Military Disposition," Sun-Tzu tells his readers: "One who cannot be victorious assumes a defensive posture; one who can be victorious attacks....Those who excel at defense bury themselves away below the lowest depths of Earth. Those who excel at offense move from above the greatest heights of Heaven."

Israel take note. Today's IDF strategic posture emphasizes various forms of ballistic missile defense. Although this is certainly understandable in light of the growing threat of unconventional weapons, it can never succeed. In essence, by placing great hope in BMD systems, Israel has effectively disavowed all pertinent preemption options. The result is that Israel continues to survive, increasingly, at the mere pleasure of its enemies. Sooner or later, having been permitted to develop weapons of mass destruction because Israel has been burying itself away "below the lowest depths of Earth," these enemy states will attack. Israel's nuclear deterrent posture notwithstanding, there will come a time in which it may be immobilized by enemy miscalculation, inadvertence, mechanical accident, false warnings, unauthorized firings (e.g., coup d'etat) or outright irrationality.

But let us be candid. Israel has already lost the offensive with respect to Iraqi and/or Iranian WMD (weapons of mass destruction) infrastructures. As a consequence of enemy multiplication, dispersal and hardening of these infrastructures, Israel can only wait....fearfully, until the time comes for it to retaliate. Such waiting to be attacked represents an absolute indifference to the still-valid general principles of classic Chinese military strategy.

Perhaps there is another section of the ART OF WAR that can help Israel to compensate for its misconceived reliance upon defense. I have in mind Sun-Tzu's repeated emphasis on the "unorthodox." Drawn from the conflation of thought that crystalized as Taoism, the strategist observes: " battle, one engages with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox." In a complex passge, Sun-Tzu discusses how the orthodox may be used in unorthodox ways, while an orthodox attack may be unorthodox when it is unexpected. Taken seriously by IDF planners, this passage could represent a subtle tool for tactical conceptualization, one that might purposefully exploit an enemy state's particular matrix of military expectations.

For Israel, the "unorthodox" should be fashioned not only ON the battlefield, but also BEFORE the battle; indeed, to prevent the most dangerous forms of battle, which would be expressions of all-out unconventional warfare, Israel could examine a number of promising postures. These postures would focus upon a reasoned shift from an image of "orthodox" rationality to one of somewhat "unorthodox" irrationality. I have in mind here what the American nuclear strategist Herman Kahn once called the "rationality of pretended irrationality." For now, every enemy state of Israel knows exactly - within entirely acceptable parameters of error - how Israel will initiate major military action (it won't) and how it will respond to armed attack and armed conflict initiated by others (with the least "required" measure of force). If, however, Israel did not always signal perfect rationality to its enemies - that is, that it's actions (defensive and offensive) were always completely measured and predictable - it could significantly enhance both its overall deterrence posture and its associated chances for national survival.

Everyone who studies Israeli nuclear strategy knows about the "Samson Option." This is generally thought to be a last resort strategy wherein Israel's nuclear weapons are used not for prevention of war or even for war-waging, but simply as a last spasm of vengeance against a despised enemy state that had launched massive (probably unconventional) countercity and/or counterforce attacks against Israel. Faced with the "End of the Third Temple," Israel's leaders would decide that the Jewish State could not survive, but that it would only "die" together with its pertinent enemies.

The view of the "Samson Option" from the Arab/Iranian side is clear. Israel may resort to nuclear weapons only in reprisal, and only in reprisal for overwhelmingly destructive first-strike attacks. Correspondingly, anything less than an overwhelmingly destructive first-strike will elicit a measured and proportionate Israeli military response. Moreover, by striking first, the Arab/Iranian enemy knows that it would have an advantage in "escalation dominance," allowing it/they to control the "ladder" of escalation. These calculations would follow from the informed enemy view that Israel will never embrace the "unorthodox" on the strategic level, that its actions will likely always be reactions, and that these reactions will always be limited.

What if Israel fine-tuned its "Samson Option?" What if it did this in conjunction with certain doctrinal changes in its longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity? By taking the bomb out of the "basement" and by indicating, simultaneously, that its now declared nuclear weapons were not limited to "Third Temple" scenarios, Israel might go a long way to enhancing its national security. It would do this by revealing a departure from perfect rationality; in essence, by displaying the rationality of threatened irrationality. Whether or not such a display would be an example of "pretended irrationality" or of an authentic willingness to act irrationally would be anyone's guess. It goes without saying that such an example of "unorthodox" behavior by Israel could actually incite enemy first-strikes, or at least hasten the onset of such strikes as may already be planned, but there are ways for Israel in which the "unorthodox" could be made to appear "orthodox."


Louis Rene Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His work is well-known to Israeli prime ministers, past and present, and to the IDF General Staff. Professor Beres has lectured at the IDF National Defense College near Tel-Aviv and to the Knesset leadership. His articles on Israeli military matters have appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE JERUSALEM POST, and HAARETZ. He is Strategic and Military Affairs Analyst for THE JEWISH PRESS.

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