Israel's covert nuclear program


Contributing Foreign Editor

LONDON -- In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's Dimona reactor centre, revealed to the Times of London that Israel had secretly developed 100 -200 nuclear warheads, using French and American-supplied technology.

Vanunu was lured to Rome in a classic "honey trap" and kidnapped by Israeli agents. He was convicted of treason and has been held in solitary confinement for the past 14 years.

Earlier this month, the Sunday Times broke a second major story about Israel's covert nuclear program. According to the Times, Israel used a newly acquired Dolphin-class submarine to test a hitherto secret cruise missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

The cruise missile is said to have hit a target 900 miles from its launch point off the coast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, and may have a maximum range of 1,200 miles. Israel has become increasingly involved in Sri Lanka's civil war, supplying the embattled Colombo government with weapons, munitions and military advisers to combat Tamil Tigers rebels.

The state-of-the-art, 1,750-ton Dolphin diesel subs were supplied to Israel by Germany, apparently as near-freebie "guilt payments" because Iraq used some German-made components in its military programs during the Gulf War. Revelations that Israel is using the $440-million (each) subs as nuclear launch platforms has deeply embarrassed Germany's ardently anti-nuclear socialist government.

This also raises the fascinating question of how and where the Dolphins were modified to accept missiles. The cruise missile used by the Israelis is believed to be too large to be fired from the Dolphin's 21-inch torpedo tubes. The original 1990 design called for lengthening the hull to accommodate a "wet and dry" compartment for frogmen - unusual in an attack sub - and for "extra torpedo storage." This was clearly the cover for what became a missile compartment of four vertical launch tubes. If true, this suggests full German collaboration in Israel's covert nuclear program - in spite of Berlin's anguished denials. The United States was originally to have supplied the subs to Israel, but claimed to lack the capability to build modern, conventional powered boats.

A cynic might suspect the U.S. pressured Germany into supplying Israel's latest nuclear weapons platforms to escape an inevitable firestorm of protest by its Arab oil clients.

Israel now has a complete nuclear triad: air-delivered bombs; intermediate-range Jericho missiles; and now the sea-launched cruise missile. This important development means Israel has a counter-force nuclear capability that can ride out any enemy nuclear attack and riposte with a devastating strike from the sea.

The Dolphin "roving launch platforms" also give Israel the ability to strike almost anywhere on the globe, and particularly against Iran and Pakistan, which Israel singles out as "long-range" enemies. Israel's Mossad long claimed Iran would deploy nuclear weapons by 2000. Mossad now claims the date is 2002. U.S. intelligence estimates Tehran will not even have a prototype weapon before 2010, and no deliverable warhead until 2012-13 - if ever.

Iran denies developing nuclear weapons.

Revelations of Israel's new cruise missile have provoked a storm of outrage in the rest of the Mideast at a delicate time when regional peace negotiations hang in the balance.

Some defence analysts maintain Israel's sea-launched missiles are actually a stabilizing factor that eliminated the threat of a decapitating nuclear attack. Israel's Jericho missile base at Kfar Zachariah near Tel Aviv lacks hardened silos and is thus vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack. The same applies to airbases where nuclear bombs are stored for Israel's U.S.-supplied F-15E's. Inadequately protected nuclear forces lead to a "use or lose" mentality in time of crisis.

But the latest revelations about Israel's nuclear arsenal - now the world's fourth or fifth most powerful - will likely spur the Arab states and Iran to intensify efforts to acquire a nuclear counter-force, and to develop "poor man's" weapons of mass destruction to match Israel's extensive arsenal.

This bombshell also comes as Israel faces growing pressure in the UN over its nuclear weapons. Israel is the only Mideast nation that refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Egypt insists Israel must sign the NPT as part of a comprehensive Mideast peace. Cairo is pressing for a Mideast nuclear-free zone and demands Israel allow inspection of its nuclear complex at Dimona. Egypt claims Israel's 40-year-old, French-supplied reactor there is unsafe and a hazard.

The United States, in an unusual volte-face, is quietly backing Egypt's position. Washington is doubtlessly expressing its growing displeasure with Israel over recent sales of high-tech Israeli arms and technology to China, much of them of American origin, and over Israeli espionage against the United States.

The first battery of Israel's "Arrow" anti-missile system just became operational; THEL, a new laser anti-tactical missile system, follows soon. Now, sea-launched cruise missiles. What next? An Israeli landing on Mars?