Does Israel Really Have a Thermonuclear Weapon?
And did the Pentagon really just declassify a document admitting knowledge of this?
We all know Israel has the bomb, but does it have the hydrogen bomb?
The idea that Israel’s nuclear arsenal might comprise thermonuclear weapons has long been a subject of discussion. It popped back in the popular conscience a few weeks ago when Grant Smith -- who runs an organization called the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy that has some views about Israel that I find pretty awful -- released a redacted version of a 1987 report published by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Smith had sued to get the document, then posted it online claiming it was “confirmation of Israel’s advanced nuclear weapons” -- with “advanced” meaning thermonuclear weapons.
The notion that Israel is stockpiling thermonuclear weapons wasn’t quite enough for some people. Roger Mattson, a former staffer for the old U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who has long accused Israel of stealing uranium from the United States, was quoted as saying, "I am struck by the degree of cooperation on specialized war making devices between Israel and the US." Immediately, RT ran with the headline: “US helped Israel with H-bomb.” Iranian media gleefully followed.
We all know Israel has the bomb, but does it have the hydrogen bomb?
The idea that Israel’s nuclear arsenal might comprise thermonuclear weapons has long been a subject of discussion. It popped back in the popular conscience a few weeks ago when Grant Smith — who runs an organization called the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy that has some views about Israel that I find pretty awful — released a redacted version of a 1987 report published by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Smith had sued to get the document, then posted it online claiming it was “confirmation of Israel’s advanced nuclear weapons” — with “advanced” meaning thermonuclear weapons.
The notion that Israel is stockpiling thermonuclear weapons wasn’t quite enough for some people. Roger Mattson, a former staffer for the old U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who has long accused Israel of stealing uranium from the United States, was quoted as saying, “I am struck by the degree of cooperation on specialized war making devices between Israel and the US.” Immediately, RT ran with the headline: “US helped Israel with H-bomb.” Iranian media gleefully followed.
At some level, I wanted to ignore all this. I don’t feel like giving free publicity to Grant Smith’s campaign, and if you are the sort who reads RT or PressTV.ir … well, I can’t talk you out of being crazy.
But now, William Greider has written a blog post for the Nation. And while I don’t normally bother with the Nation either, Tom Gross followed with a bizarre piece in the Weekly Standard, positing a sinister hand behind “a pattern of carefully controlled leaking of information” presumably intended to destroy Israel and, verily, Western Civilization as we know it. Reporters are calling me. And my friends are sharing this stuff on Facebook.
And if there is one rule in life, it is this: Do not f*ck with Jeffrey’s Facebook news feed.
So, let me tell you what the document actually says, with context and explanations. Spoiler alert: It bears no resemblance to anything these people have described.
The document in question is called IDA Memorandum Report M-317, Critical Technology Assessment in Israel and NATO Nations. It is a 1987 report by Edwin S. Townsley of IDA and Clarence A. Robinson of a defense contractor called LTI. It’s not a top-secret Pentagon assessment, it’s a fucking trip report.
It is an interesting and valuable trip report, yes, one that does shed a tiny bit of light on the state of Israel’s nuclear weapons program in 1987. But it happens to say the exact opposite of what you might think. It casts doubt on the notion that Israel has thermonuclear weapons. But I am getting ahead of myself; first things first.
For starters, the document is not classified. I happen to have a copy — like, literally, a photocopy — of the section relating to Israel sitting on my shelf. This is the same portion that Grant Smith sued to get. Here is a picture of the front. Notice that there are no classification markings.
It does not “confirm” that Israel possesses nuclear weapons nor that the United States “knows” this to be true. (For the record, I think the United States should declassify the fact that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. I think this especially since the CIA declassified Special National Intelligence Estimate 4-1-74 in 2008, which states, “We believe that Israel already has produced and stockpiled a small number of fission weapons.” But that was the subject of a previous column.) IDA Memorandum Report M-317 merely records the informed opinion of a team that visited certain Israeli facilities. But more on that in a few hundred words.
Now, I will admit the FOIA process is screwed up. And adding lawyers to a conversation rarely helps. In this case, it seems the U.S. government’s lawyers were concerned about a provision in U.S. law that would allow the foreign countries that provided information in the report, including Israel, to review the document before its release. But looking through the court papers that Smith filed (pro se, I might add), he seems like a real piece of work. I can’t approve of IDA stonewalling the public when it comes to a document like this, but let me put it this way: I’d like to express my disapproval in person to whoever told Smith to piss off. Over a beer and I’m buying.
Look, I don’t know what the rules are for using the IDA library, but I am familiar with doing research in the national security field. A polite person with a decent reason can get a copy of this report one way or another — or could have, until the lawsuit started. The document has been cited plenty of times in the literature, starting with a story in the New York Times by Michael Gordon in 1989. The report has been circulating for years. And, like I said, a copy landed on my shelf. (For those interested, I’ve posted a brief history of press mentions of the report online at ArmsControlWonk.com.)
But I can understand why no one would share with someone who just wants to make trouble, including trouble for the nice folks at IDA who don’t need this crap over a nearly 30-year-old report that is being completely misrepresented.
There is no conspiracy at play here. Grant Smith has been suing to acquire the document because he claimed it showed “American affiliates of Israeli entities engaged in clandestine nuclear weapons research and development.” I don’t think it shows that at all. Tom Gross wonders why the sections not related to Israel are redacted. Read the court documents, genius.
Smith wanted the document as soon as possible and didn’t want to wait for the sections not relating to Israel. He’s a man on a (very weird) mission. I’ve got the full text of the summaries for the other countries. Trust me, no one is hiding anything.
Most importantly, IDA Memorandum Report M-317, Critical Technology Assessment in Israel and NATO Nations does not demonstrate, in any way, shape, or form that the United States assisted Israel in developing a thermonuclear weapon or even that Israel has such weapons. This is a completely incompetent reading of the document. It simply does not say this. Read the damn text.
The report is just a review of the technology base in Israel and NATO countries that might be relevant to what was then called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — you know, Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars or what we now call “missile defense.” It’s a trip report, with Israel as the big destination. Hey, guess why the Pentagon dropped a bunch of cash on IDA to sample the local falafel? The United States and Israel had signed a memorandum of understanding regarding Israeli participation in the SDI program on May 6, 1986. (The contents are still secret, but Uzi Eilam has a nice memoir about U.S.-Israel missile defense cooperation during that period.) The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), the forerunner to today’s Missile Defense Agency, would later develop the Arrow missile defense interceptor with Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI), followed by other nifty things like Rafael’s Iron Dome.
How did the Pentagon figure out whether IAI was the best partner for a missile defense interceptor? Well, how would you figure it out? You’d send a bunch of nerds to make some visits. That’s precisely what the Defense Department did — contracting with IDA and LTI to send a team to Israel (and Europe) to assess the state of Israeli (and European) technology in the then-cutting-edge area of strategic defense.
In the Nation article, Greider exoticizes the team’s report back to HQ, writing that “The language is densely technological and probably beyond anyone (like myself) who is not a physicist or engineer.” No, it’s just boring. Here is a page showing Hebrew University’s Wiggler Less Free Electron Laser. This has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and trust me, it’s super-duper boring.
The document is really not about nuclear weapons at all, but rather technologies related to SDI. Below is the overall chart assessing Israel’s capabilities for strategic defense, by institution. A check mark means the Israeli capability is excellent, implicitly suggesting an interesting area to propose cooperation. There is a lot of jargon, but these are all non-nuclear capabilities — with one interesting exception that is causing all the hubbub.
See anything marked “thermonuclear bombs”? No? Exactly.
Now, look at directed energy weapons, or DEW. This is where things get a little tricky. Even as late as 1987, SDIO was still looking at a nuclear-pumped X-ray laser as a possible directed energy weapon — a nuclear explosion in space that would generate a laser to zap incoming Soviet ballistic missiles. This was a really dumb idea, but Edward Teller liked it. The nuclear-pumped X-ray laser was a fancy sort of thermonuclear bomb. Teller used to call it a “third generation” nuclear weapon. (If you are interested in reading more about the X-ray laser during this period, I really recommend Bill Broad’s Star Warriors or maybe Frances FitzGerald’s Way Out There in the Blue.)
Stay with me. In order to assess whether Israel might be able to develop a nuclear-pumped X-ray laser, the team needed to make some assessment of Israel’s technical ability to manufacture thermonuclear weapons. The answer, based on Israeli computer codes, was no.
When the IDA/LTI team visited Israel’s Soreq Nuclear Research Center, this is part of what they concluded about Israel’s ability to develop the nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers:
“[The Israelis] 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 U.S. [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 a microscopic and macroscopic level.
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.”
To put it simply, the IDA/LTI team — including R. Norris Keeler, the team member who had run Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — concluded that Israel would not likely be able to develop a nuclear pumped X-ray laser given the state of their computer codes. (This is elsewhere in the report, stated explicitly, though in jargon: “Lack of radiation hydro-capability and nuclear pumping limits project.”) If anything, the report notes that Israel would not be a suitable technical partner for cooperation in this area of SDI because it couldn’t make H-bombs.
Greider says the report describes a “technological marriage,” but in fact the analogy is more like a chaperoned prom date. And, at least on directed energy weapons, there was not likely to be any heavy petting. Soreq was not identified as a “Category 1” partner for cooperation on directed energy weapons. Look at the little chart again: no check mark for Soreq and DEW. The only areas where Israel had decent directed energy capabilities involved conventional lasers that didn’t use nuclear bombs, like Hebrew University’s Wiggler Less Free Electron Laser. On the other hand, IAI and Rafael are ticked for anti-tactical ballistic missile cooperation, something that later happened. Yep, the report says precisely the opposite of what Smith, Greider, and the others say — it records Keeler’s side-eye at Soreq’s sorry computer codes.
It is too bad, really, because the document is very important — it is one of a few hard-to-find data points that we have about a really interesting question: Does Israel have thermonuclear weapons? If so, what kind? Townsley and Robinson can’t answer that question, but they got to make an assessment of the computer codes that would be necessary for such a development and write down an unclassified answer.
There are some people who believe that Israel conducted a covert nuclear test in 1979, with the assistance of South Africa. I find the technical evidence unpersuasive, but Avner Cohen makes a strong circumstantial case for a test in The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. Given the likely yield of the “flash in the South Atlantic,” the most plausible purpose of such a test would have to have been for a primary of an Israeli thermonuclear weapon.
Moreover, there is also a debate about the models of Israeli nuclear weapons that whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu released in the mid-1980s. Ted Taylor, a former U.S. nuclear weapons designer, concluded that the models showed a “layer cake” design — a primary “boosted” with layers of a thermonuclear fuel such as lithium-6 deuteride. Seymour Hersh, on the other hand, reported in his book The Samson Option that Los Alamos and Livermore concluded that the pictures showed an enhanced radiation warhead — a so-called neutron bomb that is a very fancy thermonuclear weapon with a small primary and a tricked-out secondary that throws lots and lots of neutrons.
So there are two possibilities here. One is that Israel had a simple and untested “layer cake” design that falls short of a true thermonuclear weapon; the other is that Israel developed and tested a very sophisticated thermonuclear weapon with a tailored radiation output.
So who is right? I don’t have the slightest idea! I’ve been collecting documents and images for many years, interviewing people as I can, and trying to get at this very question. The record is pretty spotty. The documents and photographs are hard to come by, less due to secrecy than because paper records get lost over the decades. I’ve only been able to find the first page of Taylor’s analysis of the Vanunu disclosures, for example, although it was summarized in Stephen Green’s Living by the Sword.
That’s what makes Townsley and Robinson’s report so interesting. It is one of these incredibly hard-to-find documents that I’ve been collecting. It is amazing, and very important in its own way. But what it tends to suggest is the opposite of what Smith, Greider, and others assert. Townsley and Robinson concluded that Israel did not, at least in 1987, have the computer codes necessary to support a successful thermonuclear weapons program. I am not sure I believe them, nor am I ready to conclude the debate is settled based on one visit to Soreq. But that’s what the document says at any rate.
Presuming, of course, that you read it.
Photoillustration by FP
Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
More from Foreign Policy
What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?
European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo.
The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now
Russia is digging in across the southeast.
Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad
Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.
Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.
Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.