The Vela Incident

On September 22, 1979, a massive explosion was detected in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Antarctica.  No clear explanation was ever provided, but American intelligence would later issue a statement claiming that the explosion was most likely a low-yield nuclear detonation.  This incident would later be referred to as the Vela Incident, named after the type of American satellites used to detect nuclear explosions on Earth and in space.  However, in the years since, blame has been placed on a combination of South African and Israeli governments for the test of a nuclear weapon.

Israel has plenty of motivation for the development of nuclear weapons.  The horrific events of the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of approximately six million Jews.  In the decades prior to the Holocaust, pogroms in Europe and Russia led to riots, internal displacement, and the murder of Jews by antisemitic mobs encouraged by government propaganda.  After the establishment of Israel in 1948, an ensuring war of independence saw Israel emerge victorious against a coalition of Arab nations.  Another war was fought in 1967 against the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, in which Israel also defeated its adversaries.  The decades of suffering at the hands of governments and the inability of the international community to prevent regional wars led Israel to develop nuclear weapons by the late 1960s.  This allowed Israel to take its survival into its own hands, as nuclear weapons are a powerful deterrent to warfare.

Yes, Israel Has Nukes

Currently, Israel is thought to have upwards of 200 thermonuclear weapons.  These weapons can be hundreds of times as powerful as the ones America used in 1945 to end World War II.  Israel most likely has the means to deliver these warheads from submarines, aircraft, and intermediate-range missiles.  All this is speculation as Israel has a policy of neither confirming nor denying its nuclear arsenal, leaving the world guessing as to its capabilities and policies while providing Israel with the ability to deny that it is the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons into the volatile Middle East.

While no clear policy has ever been issued by Israel, vague threats and comments from top Israeli officials in the government and military have made it clear that Israel has the means and will to deliver powerful military strikes to any adversary in the region.  This lack of formal declaration of nuclear weapons is referred to as nuclear ambiguity, as the extent of Israel’s nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and policy is purposefully left unclear to create uncertainty in the eyes of potential adversaries.  Israel has repeatedly claimed that it will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.  This is not untrue, as the public has never been officially informed of nuclear additions to Israel’s arsenal.

Nuclear Deterrence

Any use of modern nuclear weapons would be catastrophic.  The number of dead and wounded would likely reach the millions.  Knowing this has kept Israel’s enemies away.  However, this has not deterred all aspects of warfare.  Hamas and Hezbollah are too close to Israel’s borders to be struck with nuclear weapons without endangering the lives of Israeli citizens.  It is no wonder that these groups, dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State, have been at the forefront of recent conflicts with their Jewish neighbors.  This shortcoming of nuclear policy has been addressed by the conventional Israeli military sporadically over the past. It is why Israel invests so heavily in all aspects of its military posture.  Nuclear weapons likely play a large part in the deterrence of warfare between Iran and Israel despite frequent upticks in violence and rhetoric.  Therefore, it is likely that Israel will continue its policy of nuclear ambiguity in the future, as the survival of the Jewish state remains entrusted to the small but extremely powerful possessors of undeclared nuclear weapons.

About the Author

Headshot Christopher Gettel

Christopher Gettel is an 8-year US Army veteran who served with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne Division. He has been deployed to Iraq twice, including participation in the liberation of Mosul.