Israeli, Syrian Nuclear, Other Efforts Probed

al-Watan al-'Arabi 21 Nov 97 pp 35-37

For months now, political and military pundits have been sounding a note of warning that thanks to Binyamin Netanyahu's policies and America's bias toward Israel, the region was headed for a military explosion. These apprehensions have become even more credible as the past few weeks saw attempts to revive the peace process hit a brick wall. With signs of increased tension and reports of military preparations for a new type of war, experts have been speculating about the scenarios of such hostilities.

One such report, coinciding with the drums of a possible war between Iraq and the United States, suggests that the region is in for a missile, rather than conventional war, which will see a recourse to biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear weapons of mass destruction. That is the picture that emerges based on spy satellite pictures and intelligence about contacts between the Israelis and Americans.

Perhaps the most alarming of these reports is one that says American military experts are at the advanced stage of construction of an underground nuclear weapons warehouse close to the West Bank village of Kfar Zakariya as an alternative site for tunnels that the Israelis dug in the mountainside of that sandy area, which, since the early 70s, has been their main center for experiments on long- range missiles fitted with nuclear heads.

In the Swiss city of Geneva, European intelligence sources disclosed at the beginning of the month that American experts who had been in the Hebrew state in early February 1996, held secret meetings over four days with their Israeli counterparts this January in Washington. The Americans brought with them to Tel Aviv the designs of underground rocket shelters situated on the eastern coast of the United States and the "Los Alamos" region in New Mexico, the biggest sites for nuclear and rocket experiments, so the Israelis could model their warehouse on the American facilities, after it became clear that the existing Israeli tunnels would not be able to survive a rocket attack.

The sources cited numerous reports, which they had seen over the past six months, that another group of US experts were working with the Israelis to make improvements to the sites where Israeli nuclear weapons were assembled in the central Galilee and the storage sites in the northeastern mountains close to the Syrian border. The move was made after experts from the two countries realized that the fortifications as they stood had no sufficient safeguards against a potential nuclear fallout.

The report said the nuclear reactor in Dimona in the Negev -- Israel's main facility for the production of nuclear, chemical, and germ weapons -- was now a beehive of activity in what seems to be further fortification and addition or replacement of equipment. Reports have circulated since the early 90s of accidents, including blasts and radioactive fallout in that old reactor, resulting in many deaths among the facility's staff and the evacuation of populated areas around it.

The report describes the existing rocket tunnels in the West Bank hills as being "primitive" so that, in a war situation, the Israelis would have to roll out the rockets one at a time and then ready them for launching from exposed pads, in which case a missile or two coming, say, from Syria, Iraq, or Iran could bury all of them in the debris of collapsed rocks and thus knock out Israel's nuclear arsenal. In contrast, the American designs call for digging underground warehouses, which in some places run 100 meters deep, each housing one long-range rocket and are sealed with impenetrable metal and concrete insulators.

The European intelligence report discloses that the joint American-Israeli operation calls for constructing 50 underground Jericho-1 and Jericho-2 rocket launching sites. These missiles will be fitted with nuclear war heads and the centers will also include facilities for the stockpiling and production of unconventional arms.

This US restoration effort, projected to the last two years, comes in the wake of spy satellite images revealed by the Ministries of Defense in Paris and Moscow in November of the past year showing upward of 200 Israeli nuclear weapons deployed in eight sites and fitted on medium- and long-range rockets and in aircraft ready for takeoff at short notice. Among them are sites close to Israel's borders with Syria and Lebanon. British analysts in the defense industry media report that this unprecedented Russian-French revelation confirms beyond all doubt how far along Israel's nuclear program is. Officially, however, Israel continues to deny that it has a nuclear program.

American military expert Harold Hogg, writing in the reputable British Defense publication Janes, reports that the satellite pictures allowed a penetration of Israel's fortified sites and a tracking of its nuclear arsenal as far as the upper Galilee overlooking Lebanese territory. The reactor, which produces plutonium for atomic weapons, adds Hogg, is situated south in Dimona in the Negev Desert. The design and experiment center, according to the American expert, lies in the coastal region of Soreq , which is rated as the most important US nuclear experiment center in Los Alamos. Israel assembles its nuclear arms in Yodefat in the Galilee and, adds Hogg, the long-range missiles, including the more advanced Jericho-2 variety, are built in the Bir Yaqov region in the central part of the country. The nuclear weapons are housed in the Eilabun region close to the border with Syria and to the assembly center. The rocket-launching center and the main base, where weapons of mass destruction are deployed, are near the West Bank heights of Kfar Zakariya -- a place suited to warehouses, including underground ones in view of the sandy and rocky formation of the area and the abundance of caves there. Hogg cites intelligence reports as saying that the building of warehouses in the area began in 1979 and were ready for use in the seventies. Based on satellite photos, they are still the most active of Israel's nuclear sites. The old part includes four conspicuous buildings with access to underground fortifications that have been home to the mobile Jericho-1 for the past 10 years. Lately, these shelters have housed special nuclear bombs to be transported by American F-4-S and F-16-S aircraft based several kilometers to the north. To the south of these buildings, numerous roads have been built, all leading to underground fortifications comparable to the Iraqi military shelters whose sites in and around al-Basrah and Baghdad, as well as in other locales, were uncovered by the second Gulf war. The Israeli facilities are surrounded by five surface-to-surface missile launching centers.

The official Russian and French photos show that the most recent of the Israeli missile bases was built in the southeast of the country in the late eighties and early nineties. They house the long-range Jericho-2 missile, whose program is co-funded by the United States. Since 1989, other spy satellite images unveiled the building of shelters in that region, but these had no walls or fortifications. Beginning in 1991, however, the pictures began to show walls surrounding that missile center, and work on them was completed a year later.

The spy satellite pictures, which seem to have been taken at the end of last year, show there are major roads and other smaller ones leading off them, all ending in nuclear shelters housing 50 missiles of the Jericho-2 type fitted with nuclear warheads ready for launching. According to European intelligence services, Jericho-2 had its first successful test on 14 September 1989, travelling 800 miles before falling in the sea to the west of the Greek island of Crete.

The spy satellite pictures shed light on Israel's nuclear weapons strategy. Israel's atomic weapons are sited on West Bank heights in the heart of Israel, thus rendering it a defensible area and the last part of the country that could fall in enemy hands in a major war situation. Hogg commented on that detail by saying that on the strength of evidence gathered by world powers, it seems that Israel does not regard its nuclear arms as the first choice option in any war with the Arabs or other nations. Rather, the nuclear option would be Israel's last resort and only if its very existence was at stake.

Hogg, in effect, refutes news reports circulating in the Western press over the past year that the United States barred Israel from directing a nuclear strike at Baghdad lest the Iraqis retaliate with missiles fitted with chemical or biological warheads of the binary chemical type vaunted by Saddam Husayn before the occupation of Kuwait. The last resort option does not correspond with a report leaked last month to Western capitals that in March of this year, Binyamin Netanyahu issued his second warning to Syria that Israel would respond with nuclear weapons to any surprise Syrian attack on Israeli cities with missiles fitted with chemical warheads.

In response to the Israeli warning, communicated by the United States, Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Talas declared that "Israel's nuclear threats do not frighten us and we will respond to any Israeli aggression in the manner appropriate to us."

The leaks suggest that Israel's first warning that it could unleash nuclear weapons at Syria came in a lecture delivered by Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhaq Rabin shortly after the end of the second Gulf war. At that time, Rabin said that as "defense minister, I believe it is my duty to make it clear that any attack by Syrians directed at Tel Aviv using long-range missiles will elicit a 100-fold Israeli response directed at Damascus and other Syrian cities. The only deterrence to the use of such missiles is for Damascus to learn that it will suffer over three times Tel Aviv's level of devastation; this is not the right moment for me to divulge the kind of deterrence that Israel has against that eventuality." Rabin must have been thinking of the nuclear option.

In April, the Yafo Strategic Research Institute warned in a study commissioned by Israel's Ministry of Defense, and shared with the Pentagon in Washington within the framework of a data exchange program provided for in a bilateral defense pact, that Syria was going all out in its preparations for a possible confrontation in the near future with Israel, based on a reckoning by the country's top military officers that Israel has no military response to an intense Syrian rocket offensive. That explains why, for over the past two years, the Syrians have been making sharp cuts in the allocations budgeted for their land and air forces and diverting the funds for the development of long-range missiles.

The study finds that Syria's increased attention to the so-called "strategic rockets arm" was based on lessons learned from the war experiences of other countries in the region and a realization of its air force's relative weakness. The study adds, however: "Syria has yet to appreciate the scale of an Israeli response to any rockets it may send in Israel's direction."

David Every, the Israeli minister of defense's assistant for strategy, is quoted in the study as stating that "as a result of Israel's lack of deterrent power against Syria's surface-to-surface missiles, there now represents a major strategic threat to Israel, which applies equally to such countries as Iran, Egypt, and Iraq, which are also active in the development of such types of weapons."

Damascus, according to intelligence sources, is now convinced that the opportunity is there for it to pose a missile threat to Israel with the latter's missile capability and other methods of deterrence not yet operational. "In other words, the mere threat of a rocket attack should provide Syria with an umbrella for the foreseeable future under which it can take limited military action against Israel with the object of breaking the logjam in the Middle East peace process without the fear of illiciting a powerful military response from the Israeli Army," add the sources. "The conventional wisdom among the Syrians," these sources add, "is that, for now, there is no response in Israel's arsenal to these Syrian rockets, and so, in the event of a Syrian offensive in the Golan Heights using conventional weapons, the Netanyahu government would hold back from a strong military response in order to avert a Syrian missile strike." Thus haunted by the fear that Syria might resort to using rockets to tie Israel's hands in any probable military skirmishes, Israel recently diverted a good deal of money and effort toward the development of weapons to counter the Syrian threat.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a resurgence of talk in Israel about the threat that advanced missiles in neighboring states, not the least Syria, posed to the country. Certain Israeli circles have made the claim that spy satellites have taken pictures of construction work on a large scale on a missile network in northern Syria featuring B and C Scud missile bases that were immune to any attacks from the air, comparable to those that Saddam Husayn had built in Iraq.

The Israelis shared with the Americans intelligence reports purporting that the Syrian military now possessed numerous types of sophisticated missiles including 18 Scud B launching pads of the 300-mile range that could carry 1000-kg warheads and eight Scud C launching pads of 600-km range and capable of carrying 750-kg warheads. The Syrians are said to be in possession of 250 missiles of these two types. The Syrian missile arsenal also boasts 18 rocket launching pads for the old Frog type missile, which was used in the 1973 October war and that has 70-km range and 18 rocket launching pads for the S.S. 21 Scarabs, which have a range of 120 kilometers.

Based on that "missile threat," Israel approached the Pentagon about the new nuclear depth bomb designed to penetrate underground fortifications to counter any Syrian attack using missiles with chemical warheads. Circles close to the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv have disclosed that, while in the US on 10 November, the country's Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak asked for that new nuclear depth bomb.

The circles did not indicate whether Shahak secured the Americans' approval or not, although from a logical point of view, there was no reason why the United States should not oblige and arm an ally like Israel with that type of weapon for defensive, rather than offensive purposes. Tel Aviv is in possession of a variety of the depth bomb, which it deployed in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in 1981. The Israeli version of this type of bomb is not adequate any more, however. The London newspaper The Independent, meanwhile, has disclosed that Shahak did not go home empty-handed. He secured Washington's consent to the immediate sale to Israel of 98,000 155-millimeter long-range artillery bombs worth $30 million to be deducted from the annual US military aid appropriations to the Hebrew State.

The paper said, not without a vein of irony, that the Israelis "did not explain why they needed a huge quantity of ammunition six years after the United States initiated the Middle East peace process in Madrid." In the course of the past week, Russian intelligence sources said that the United States supplied six of its B-52 bombers with the first new nuclear depth bombs. American scientists, said the Russians, have put the finishing touches on that bomb at the start of the second Gulf war. Members of the Western alliance ranged against Iraq were surprised to discover that, helped by Japan and Germany, Iraq had built underground shelters of such depths that no weapon in the West's arsenal could reach them.

The first hint of the nuclear depth bomb was made in early 1996 when former US Secretary of Defense William Perry threatened that the United States would hit the new chemical plant that the Americans claimed the Libyans were on the verge of completing in the Tarhunah region of the Libyan desert if work at the facility was not brought to a halt. The American magazine Time reported at the time that the defense secretary must have made the threat with the new nuclear depth bomb in the back of his mind.

Sources at the US Defense Department report that these new bombs are able to penetrate all sorts of rocky terrain and thick layers of iron sheets or concrete. They can penetrate as deep as 100 feet, or 33 meters. The sources add that they were used twice against underground Iraqi shelters but did not carry nuclear warheads; the improved version was introduced after the second Gulf war. It is possible that it was one of those bombs that destroyed the huge chemicals warehouse near al-Basrah, gases from which were blown over to Kuwaiti and Saudi territory and affected over 100,000 American and British servicemen with what has come to be known as the "Gulf war syndrome" and whose existence has been admitted both by Washington and London under sustained pressure from those who have shown signs of the condition.

Paul Robinson, head of the American Sandia National Laboratories said in May 1997 that the new nuclear depth bomb had become operational, describing it as a "auto-directed nuclear bomb the effectiveness of which is only matched by the known nuclear bomb."

The bomb was designed "so as to get underground the biggest possible amount of the energy produced by a nuclear explosion."

William Bidon, an expert on the US nuclear scene, says the message that the United States wants to send by building the new weapon is that the conventional nuclear bomb might have outgrown its usefulness since it is not possible to use it in a future war like the last one that was fought in the Gulf. In order to make use of the usual nuclear weapon acceptable in an unconventional war, therefore, we began to develop the new nuclear depth bomb.