Israel’s nuclear weapons have been called ”the world’s worst kept secret”. Israel is generally recognized to have nuclear weapons, despite a lack of confirmation by Israeli officials who have nevertheless—intentionally or not—slipped their tongues on the matter on several occasions. According to Federation of American Scientists, FAS, Israel have has around 80 warheads in their arsenal.
In December 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke about ”nuclear weapon states such as France, the US, Russia and Israel” in a German interview. The vice director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Ariel Levite, made a similar statement at a conference in January 2007, where he grouped Israel with the other threshold states, India and Pakistan. Both Olmert and Levite later denied they had asserted that Israel was a nuclear-weapon state.
Mordechai Vanunu, known internationally as the whistle blower who exposed Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, has provided much of what the international community knows about Israel’s nuclear weapons. Vanunu was formerly employed as a nuclear technician at Israel’s nuclear research centre at Dimona, but was abducted and improsoned after he revealed the Israeli nuclear weapons programme to British news media in 1986. Vanunu subsequently spent 18 years in prison, 11 of them in isolation. Vanunu was released in 2004, but with several restrictions on his freedom of movement and speech. Since then, Vanunu has been arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions, most recently in July 2007 when he was sentenced to six months in prison for violating the terms of his release.
Less information is available about the total number of Israeli nuclear warheads than about most of the other nuclear-weapon states. In 2014, SIPRI estimated that Israel’s nuclear weapon stockpile consists of roughly 80 warheads, 50 of which are for delivery by ballistic missile and the remaining 30 believed to be gravity bombs that can be delivered by aircraft. There is significant uncertainty attached to how nuclear weapons are distributed in the Israeli Air Force, including how the weapons are stored and the extent to which aircraft are certified for a nuclear role:
- F-16: Israel currently maintains 205 F-16s, some of which might be certified for a nuclear role.
Israel is currently believed to maintain a limited range of ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads:
- Jericho-II: Believed to be Israel’s main mode of delivery by ballistic missile. The Jericho-II is a medium-range ballistic missile with an estimated 1500-1800-km range, first deployed in 1990 and test launched again in 2001.
- Jericho-III: In July 2013, Israel conducted a test launch of a ”rocket propulsion system”, believed to be a test of Israel’s new longer-range (>4000 km) Jericho-III ballistic missile. It remains unclear whether this missile has been deployed or is even intended for a nuclear delivery role.
The Israeli nuclear weapons programme began in 1956, initially with substantial assistance from France and, to a lesser extent, from other states including Norway. Israel has never conducted nuclear tests, but there has been considerable speculation over an alleged Israeli/South African joint nuclear test in the South Indian Ocean in 1979 (dubbed the ”Vela incident” after a US Vela satellite registered signals of a double flash, a characteristic of an atmospheric nuclear test). How close Israel has come to actually employing nuclear weapons remains unknown, but several sources claim that then-Prime Minister Eshkol put Israel’s nuclear forces at the highest level of alert during the Six Day’s War in 1967. Israel likely had two nuclear weapons at this time.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
Israel’s nuclear weapons doctrine is believed to be based on the principle of uncertainty regarding the country’s status as a nuclear-weapons power – whether such weapons exist, where they are deployed, how many exist, and whether Israel is willing to use them in an armed conflict. It is currently nearly impossible to estimate the exact size of the Israeli nuclear weapons stockpile, but estimates frequently build at least partially on Vanunu’s 1986 exposure, as well as estimates on the production capability of fissile materials since 1986.
Fissile material inventory
Israel maintains two advanced nuclear weapons centres with the facilities needed to produce weapons-grade plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Some sources believe that Israel also possesses highly-enriched uranium (HEU), but it remains unclear whether this is intended for weapons use. Significant uncertainties remain on how much fissile material intended for nuclear weapons Israel has produced.
How many nuclear weapons this inventory could produce depends on Israel’s level of technical knowledge and the desired warhead yields.
US intelligence reports since the later 1990s have repeatedly claimed that Israeli nuclear weapons could be delivered by land-based missiles or aircraft, and some claims have also been made that Israeli efforts to purchase German diesel-electric Dolphin-class submarines are for the purpose of deploying nuclear-tipped Israeli Popeye Turbo cruise missiles.
Last update: March 16, 2017