Deterrence Is Not a Chess Game

In a quiet, clandestine fashion, Israel has recently developed an anti-mortar mortar. The new weapon system's radar locates an enemy mortar while it is still in flight and launches a counter-mortar to intercept it.

In a quiet, clandestine fashion, Israel has recently developed an anti-mortar mortar. The new weapon system's radar locates an enemy mortar while it is still in flight and launches a counter-mortar to intercept it. The development of this advanced weapon has been met with a wave of scornful criticism. The critics point out that the anti-mortar mortar cannot possibly destroy all incoming mortars, that it is ineffective against rifles and machine guns, and that the enemy can outwit it by developing sophisticated counter-measures.

The best solution to prevent mortar shelling - such as the mortar attacks on the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo - is deterrence, say the critics: If the Palestinians know that a mortar attack on Gilo will inevitably lead to a raid on the adjacent Palestinian village of Beit Jala because Israel has no effective means of defense, they will be deterred from launching any such attacks. According to the critics, if Israel decides to arm itself with anti-mortar mortars, it will only encourage the Palestinians to believe that Israel is prepared to sustain mortar attacks.

This kind of argument sounds incredible and, in the light of the reality of the last few weeks, even ludicrous; however, this is essentially the same kind of argument that is used by the opponents of Israel's Arrow anti-missile missile system. The opponents religiously chant the word "deterrence" as if they had the power to control the enemy's thought processes and to dissuade the enemy from carrying out belligerent intentions.

In their opinion, Israel cannot protect all of its territory from ballistic missile attacks and any investments in an anti-missile missile system are a waste of the taxpayers' money and, in fact, defeat the system's very raison d'etre because the development of this weapon broadcasts the message that Israel is possibly waiving the option of a counter-attack (either preemptive or punitive).

Thus, the development of an anti-missile missile system, argue the opponents, simply invites the enemy to launch a missile attack against Israel. However, if Israel's enemies believed that, in Israel's eyes, the best - and only - defense is a good offense, they would understand that, by their pressing the button to launch missiles at Israel, they will in fact be inviting their own country to be bombed. That thought, claim the opponents, will deter Israel's enemies from attacking it.

In the context of the simulated wargames conducted under laboratory conditions during the 1960s, such sophisticated argumentation was very popular. With the encouragement of then U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara, laurel wreaths were placed on the heads of such civilian strategists as Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling and Henry Kissinger (who would later become secretary of state).

The politicians who worshipped this band of think-tank strategists experienced a rude awakening when all the calculations of Harvard University and one of the leading think tanks, the Rand Corporation, drowned in the flooded rice paddies of Vietnam. It then became clear that life outside the laboratory conditions of the think tank is slightly more complicated than the formulas of the wargames strategists.

As former U.S. president Lyndon Baines Johnson quipped, someone who has not even stood for the office of municipal dog-catcher cannot possibly understand the immense importance of such factors as public opinion, the media and the political system and how these factors on both the domestic front and on the enemy's turf affect the turn of events.

At the height of the Cold War, the Americans were fond of presenting their ongoing face-off with the Soviets in terms of the duel for the world championship in the field of chess between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Even then that analogy was overly simplistic because the Chinese and other players were also involved in the game. Nonetheless, one fact was irrefutable: Nobody could top America.

In the Middle East, the Israelis are not the Americans, and the game has many players, all of whom are participating at the same time. What might deter Syria could entice Hezbollah and what could dissuade Iran could be tantalizing bait for Iraq.

The lesson to be learned from this past year's events on two active Israeli fronts - its northern frontier and the territories - is that the enemy's knowledge that Israel's lack of a sufficient defensive solution to rockets with various range capacities or to mortar shells does not necessarily lead the enemy to fear an offensive response. Sometimes the enemy actually wants such a response, in the hope that it will enmesh Israel in an international spider's-web, and sometimes the enemy wants to turn the civilian population - in northern Israel and in Gilo - into a collective hostage: Israel is given the warning that an aerial response in Lebanon could endanger the residents of Nahariya and Netanya and that the killing of a senior Palestinian commander could cause the resumption of fire directed against Gilo.

Israel does maintain a limited, cumulative deterrent force, which must be renewed periodically. However, the Arrow does not diminish that deterrent force; it augments it. The Arrow's contribution to the defense of Israel's civilian population lies in the fact that this weapons system enables the survivability of Israel's strategic network. Thanks to the Arrow's deployment, even a shower of missiles from Syria, Iraq or Iran - regardless of the nature of the missile attack - can knock out no more than half of the strategic network of the Israel Air Force.

Thus, the Arrow guarantees the survival of Israel's "second-strike" capability. The guaranteeing of that capability, not a sword waved in the air without any accompanying shield, is what really constitutes a nation's deterrent force.