EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Precision-guided medium-range missiles, a relatively
new technology, are beginning to proliferate in the Middle East. When they work
as designed, they can deliver half a ton of high explosive to within meters of their
targets. This means that for many targets, they are almost as effective as nuclear
weapons. With their capacity to destroy capital facilities like power plants, the
loss of only a few of which would severely harm Israel’s economy, they introduce
a new way for Israel to decisively lose a war. Israel will have to get the difficult
balance between offense and defense right before the next war or it may not have
a second chance.
Throughout history, until 1945, a country was basically safe as long as no enemy
army could invade and defeat its army. This basic strategic fact became obsolete
with the invention of nuclear weapons, which could be thrown or delivered by plane
over a defender’s undefeated army and kill hundreds of thousands of a defender’s
population with a single warhead.
The first generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was not accurate
enough to present much of a threat to military or strategic targets. They could not
reliably hit close enough to destroy an airfield. But large nuclear weapons, each with
destructive effects measured in miles, combined with ICBMs whose accuracy was
similarly measured, turned the focus of war thinking toward attacks on cities. This
represented a new kind of war.
A special kind of “deterrence” thus became the central topic of strategic thinking:
deterrence based on the threat of a retaliatory attack that hurts the country to be
deterred, but doesn’t necessarily turn the balance of forces in the deterrer’s favor.
This new style of deterrence says, “If you hit me, I will hit you back even if I have to
do so in a way that does me no good. I will commit myself to hitting you, regardless
of its effect on my situation, to stop you from hitting me first.”
This paper is a narrow analysis of strategic concepts in a historical context, omitting
diplomatic and arms control considerations as well as several technical issues.
Throughout history, countries have faced dangers other than those posed by military
attack. And in a nuclear world, there are ways of protecting yourself other than
through your own nuclear deterrence.
ICBMs eventually became accurate enough that smaller nuclear weapons could be
used, but not so accurate that ballistic missiles without nuclear weapons could be a
More recently, however, technology driven by the computer revolution began to
create a new strategic situation for the great powers. This technology controlled a
warhead’s accuracy not by improving the precision of the missile’s launch, but by
guiding the missile’s warhead as it approached its target.
“Terminal guidance,” as this technology is known, can enable warheads to be
delivered over very long distances and to hit within meters of their aim-points. The
launch does not have to be perfectly accurate if the final trajectory of the warhead is
controlled by guidance that depends not on the initial trajectory of the missile but on
equipment on the warhead.
To survive, a country has to make sure that it is not attacked by weapons that kill a
large number of its citizens or that destroy so many critical pieces of infrastructure,
like power plants, that its economy will be ruined. Precision-guided missiles make it
possible to threaten decisive damage with a small number of non-nuclear weapons.
They can have a strategic effect, in other words, that is comparable in important
ways to that of nuclear weapons.
Terminal guidance technology (much of which is based on civilian technology) is
now beginning to spread among smaller powers, including some that have not
acquired nuclear weapons. Before now, few countries without nuclear weapons
bought or built medium-range missiles, because the warheads those missiles could
deliver were not destructive enough to justify the missiles’ cost. But even half a ton
of high explosive, if delivered accurately, can kill a lot of people or destroy a
That is, a precision-guided missile armed with a non-nuclear warhead can produce
enough damage to justify its cost. It is reasonable to expect, therefore, that over the
next twenty years or so, some smaller countries that do not possess medium-range
missiles might acquire such missiles with terminal guidance. The future might reveal
a world in which a number of countries – especially in the Middle East – are armed
with precision-guided missiles.
Now, many countries participate in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR),
which stipulates that they neither produce nor help others produce any missile that
can deliver a half-ton payload over a distance beyond 300 km. Most countries seem
to be observing this limitation. But until recently, the ineffectiveness of non-nuclear
missiles meant that countries were not giving up anything useful by refraining from
building them. As precision guidance technology spreads, it is unclear whether as
many countries will continue to refrain from buying or building such weapons.
Up to now, the fundamental strategic situation was different for the great powers
versus the less advanced countries. The less advanced countries lived in the
traditional world in which they could only be militarily defeated by an enemy army
invading their territory and defeating their army. The countries threatened by
superpowers could have decisive damage inflicted on them by distant enemies
leaping over their armies.
But if terminal guidance technology spreads to more countries (and possibly to
terrorist groups), we will be living in a new world. Many governments will have to
recognize that countries all over their region, or even those more distant, will have
the ability to inflict decisive damage on them. On the other hand, at a reasonable
cost, they themselves will be able to acquire the ability to inflict significant damage
on distant enemies, either to deter attacks or for political benefit.
This prospect of a world containing many missile-armed countries, and perhaps
missile-armed terror organizations, is distinctly unattractive. This is not only because
of the bad effect such a scenario would have on political relationships and the
prospects for peace. Limited missile forces, like those many small powers would be
likely to possess, may not be effective unless they are fired first. There could be some
trigger-happy regions in such a world.
Much attention has been given to the need to avoid becoming a world containing
many small nuclear powers. But there is another possibility: that the world will
contain many countries in possession of precision-guided missiles. These missiles
can’t kill as many people as nuclear weapons can, but they can still produce many
casualties and cause significant strategic damage.
The effects of precision-guided missiles are similar enough to those of nuclear
weapons that if they became commonplace, the world’s strategic situation would
change significantly from what it has been historically. A world of widespread
precision-guided missiles is not as dangerous as a world containing many nuclear
powers, but it would still be much more dangerous than the current world or the
worlds of the past.
Israel has, unfortunately, been the first to enter this new world of precision-guided
missiles. It faces at least two enemies that already have this capability, or are likely to
have it within the next few years (Iran and Hezbollah). Someday, Hamas might also
acquire such weapons.
For many years, long-range missiles were not a serious danger to Israel because they
were not accurate. Without nuclear warheads attached, they could produce only
limited damage. During the second Lebanon war, Israel was hit with some 4,000
missiles (mostly short-range rockets and mortars) but suffered only some 53
fatalities, including 44 civilians, and limited (but substantial) property damage.
Iran recently acquired the technologies that make very accurate medium-range
missiles possible, and other regional powers may have done so as well. Iran is
thought to have delivered missiles to Hezbollah that are designed to reach deep into
Israel and deliver 500 kg of high explosive to within meters of their targets. We don’t
know how well or how reliably these missiles work.
Accurate missiles make another kind of war possible because they create a new way
that Israel can be defeated even if it wins the old forms of war. Consider the
hypothetical possibility of a war with Hezbollah that results in Hezbollah ground
forces being defeated so badly that other Lebanese are able to regain control of their
country, and a large part of Lebanon’s infrastructure is destroyed. But at the same
time, Israel could suffer thousands of civilian deaths, as well as the destruction of its
main electric power plants, water desalination capabilities, international airport, and
other critical infrastructure.
Two-thirds of Israel’s electricity is produced by only six power plants. The harm
caused by the destruction of those six plants would be immense, although the degree
of harm would depend on how fast they could be rebuilt and on how efficiently the
electricity from smaller plants could be used. Similarly, the impact on Israel of the
destruction of the country’s water desalination plants would depend on how
efficiently other sources of water could be used. People would have enough water to
drink as soon as the distribution system was working, but most irrigation might
need to be stopped.
Nobody knows how badly life in Israel would be hurt by a small number of missiles
destroying important structures. But the loss of electricity alone would be
immensely damaging to Israel’s standard of living and its ability to maintain its
economy. And Israel, unlike most countries, could expect little if any help from its
The IDF’s effectiveness could also be sharply reduced by the destruction of key
facilities. The military damage might be so great that Israel would be less able to
defend its borders. Or the economic damage from a small number of missiles hitting
cleverly chosen targets might be great enough to cause a significant fraction of
Israelis and foreign investors to leave the country.
In other words, in this new kind of war, Israel can be fatally damaged even if it wins
according to the tests and goals of the kinds of war with which the IDF has
The IDF has much experience dealing with enemy missiles, but they were inaccurate.
The experience therefore taught the wrong lessons for the new kind of war. The
missiles of the past, and indeed most of the missiles currently facing Israel, were not
accurate enough to do decisive damage.
Now that precision guidance technology has come to the region, the IDF, in addition
to all its “normal” responsibilities, must make sure that no enemy can inflict a fatal
blow against Israel with accurate short- or medium-range missiles carrying high
explosives. Fewer than 20 or 30 missiles that succeed in exploding on target could be
enough to produce a fatal blow in this new kind of war.
The IDF might therefore have to plan and organize very differently than it has in the
past. This will be no small challenge, as it is very difficult for any big organization to
change its conceptions to face a threat it has never seen in action.
If Hezbollah, or Hezbollah plus Hamas, is thought to have more precision-guided
missiles than the IDF is confident that it can protect against, strong deterrence will
limit Israel’s freedom of action. It could prevent Israel from making an attack, for
example, on Iran’s nuclear forces.
While the IDF may recognize the new threat presented by accurate missiles, an
adequate response to this threat could require a great deal of money. It is not clear
that the Ministry of Defense is capable of moving large amounts of the budget from
existing organizations to meet new threats, and the ministry has a long history of
being extremely reluctant to use its money for defense.
Missile defense systems like Iron Dome and David’s Sling are recognized as potent
ways of protecting the country from the threat of accurate missiles aimed at essential
Israeli infrastructure. However, some will argue that increased missile defense
would provide less protection against precision-guided missiles than offensive
improvements that might increase deterrence and enhance Israel’s ability, in the air
and on the ground, to prevent missiles from being launched.
The challenge to Israeli leadership will be to find the best balance between defense
and offense and to overcome internal IDF resistance to moving budgets to
implement that balance. There is good reason to fear that the IDF will not buy as
much missile defense as will be needed to prevent the new kind of defeat.
Israel is not helpless before this new threat. Enemy missiles can be deterred, or
destroyed on the ground, or stopped by missile defenses. And the amount of
damage, particularly in terms of human casualties, caused by these missiles can be
drastically reduced by civil defense.
But the battle between accurate missiles and the measures taken to protect against
them is an almost wholly new part of the IDF’s task. It would be easy to fail to give it
the attention it needs, and to fail to divert to it the resources it requires. But we
cannot afford to use a first experience of the new kind of war to learn how to win the
next time. We have to get it right the first time.
In the next war, the threat to the Israeli economy, and the number of Israelis who
might be killed, by accurate Hezbollah missiles may require Israel to be able to end
the war successfully in a very few days. Even six days might be too long. To do this,
Israel might have to threaten to use, or to actually use, some precision-guided
missiles of its own to compel Iran to stop Hezbollah from further attacks.
The revolution produced by the spreading technology of precision-guidance may
well not be a revolution in Israel’s favor, even if it gives Israel some valuable
Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies,
is co-founder of the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family