Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 February 2005
Issue No. 729
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mounzer Sleiman

Instruments of doom

Mounzer Sleiman* examines Israel's nuclear history and capabilities and the indispensable US role in developing and sustaining the Israeli nuclear arsenal

No other development has done so much to make the Middle East unstable than Israel's decision to become a major nuclear power, with a wide arsenal of advanced nuclear weapons. Unlike other nations that have considered nuclear weapons for deterrence purpose only and were satisfied with the production of a limited number of atomic weapons, Israel has continued to produce a suite of weapons that can be used to do everything from blunt an armoured attack to annihilate a national capital city.

Israel's pursuit of nuclear capability hasn't been a solo effort. Other countries like France were very involved in making Israel the nuclear power it is today. But, while these countries have provided official, if covert, assistance, Israel has also been involved in the aggressive acquisition of nuclear secrets through espionage, even from its largest sponsor, the United States. There, the large community of Jewish nuclear scientists and the lax security has allowed Israel to pursue a nuclear weapons programme without even paying the economic costs usually associated with such endeavour.

The fact that many of America's nuclear weapons scientists were Jewish and pro-Israel is no secret. The father of the neutron bomb, Sam Cohen, himself a pro-Israel nuclear scientist noted of the scientists at Los Alamos during WW II, "many of them were refugees from Hitler, whose friends and relatives had suffered hideously at his hands and who harboured little affection for the Nazis." On the evening after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Oppenheimer told the assembled nuclear scientists that his biggest regret was that they hadn't completed the bomb in time to use against the Germans. "that brought the house down".

Not only were many of these scientists refugees from Nazi Germany, they were determined that an attack on the Jewish people like that caused by Hitler would never happen again. When Israel became a state a few years later, these scientists saw Israel as that guarantee against another holocaust. And the final guarantee would be a nuclear guarantee. "They were heart and soul with Israel," said Cohen, who worked at Los Alamos during WW II. Nor is there any doubt that Jewish scientists provided Israel with "under the counter" assistance. Later, one scientist from Los Alamos was to go to Israel.

The end of the war had changed the attitude towards secrecy. Cohen, who said that on a scale of one to 10, would charitably grade US nuclear secrecy at five, tells that at the end of the war, many scientists felt that keeping much of the information on the atomic bomb and the science of nuclear fission secret was unethical. Consequently, many papers were published and many documents were passed on to friendly governments, including LA-1, the Los Alamos Primer, which was produced by Serber and gave a general overview of the science and engineering necessary to produce the atomic bomb. Much of the information in this report was declassified in the following years (although LA-1 wasn't declassified until the 1960s). However, it gave Israeli scientists an idea of the challenges to building a nuclear weapon and where they had to focus their efforts.

There were two major engineering problems to producing a nuclear weapon that Israel had to solve; producing the fissile material and creating the explosive lenses necessary to achieve the super critical mass. Both of these secrets were carefully controlled by the US.

Producing the nuclear material was made easier by the post- war alliance between France and Israel. France had been generally excluded from nuclear research and the French government was anxious to gain the same nuclear edge that the Americans, British, and Russians had. Although the French were behind in many areas, the famed Curie laboratory in France had been a pioneer in the separation of radioactive isotopes. In fact, the only substantial French contribution to the Manhattan Project was on plutonium separation. This work by the French Goldschmitt was to become the standard plutonium separation method after the war. This gave them a natural advantage in separating plutonium from spent uranium reactor rods, which became the route towards nuclear weapons for both the French and the Israelis who collaborated with them.

However, composing and shaping the high explosive lenses to make for a super critical mass proved to be a major problem for Israel. In fact, developing the explosive lenses caused many problems for the Manhattan project, and it wasn't until spring 1945 that this problem was solved. It was John Von Neumann, a brilliant Jewish Hungarian mathematician, who solved the problem and showed how to produce a symmetrical shock wave that could compress a mass of fissile material. Without this work, plutonium couldn't be used in a nuclear weapon, nor could scientists accurately predict the reliability of a nuclear device.

This is where the pro-Israel attitudes of the American nuclear weapons team were to help immeasurably. Stories of close friendships between American Jewish nuclear scientists and Israeli counterparts are numerous. Israeli nuclear scientists would visit them at their laboratories and encourage them to visit Israel. Then, in 1957, the Jewish nuclear physicist Raymond Fox left the nuclear weapons design facility at Lawrence Livermore and immigrated to Israel. This nuclear facility specialised in using early computers to model the three dimensional shock waves for explosive lenses. As a result, it became a centre for the development of miniaturised nuclear devices that could be placed in missiles.

That American nuclear scientists were actually guilty of giving the critical secrets of high explosive lenses to Israel is probably only known to Israeli intelligence. But, no one, not even pro-Israeli scientists, dispute the fact that friendly American scientists were critical to giving the Israelis the data and computer codes necessary for modelling and producing explosive lenses. America had been unable to solve this problem without a brilliant mathematician like Von Neumann and Israel didn't have such a person inside their nuclear programme. Yet, the first nuclear weapons developed by the French-Israeli team showed that the American explosive lens data had been used.

The proof that the French-Israeli design came from American data was found in the residue of the nuclear test. What few people outside the field of nuclear physics know is that the fission products found in fallout give a very precise indication of the nuclear device that was detonated.

When the French tested their first nuclear weapon, the US was shocked by the air samples of fallout that their aircraft collected. The samples from the Sahara Desert test indicated a very high yield plutonium device. Not only that, the ratio of radionuclides showed that the blast was much more efficient than experts had expected, which proved that the French (and Israelis) had solved the problem of developing complex explosive lenses. In fact, the fallout so closely resembled American fallout samples that American intelligence experts were sure that the French bomb was based on an American design which the Israelis stole.

Given the number of nuclear weapons designs possible, it was nearly impossible that pure chance would have led the French to produce the exact same design. Nor would they have gone with the smaller, more advanced high yield device unless they had some solid data that such a device was guaranteed to work. That data came from their Israeli partners.

Although much of the data surrounding Israel's first nuclear espionage against the US may never come to light, the trail of evidence is clear. The critical problem with developing plutonium nuclear weapons was developing an explosive lens that could compress the fissile material. Although crude devices could be produced with little experimentation, the development of higher yield, modern nuclear weapons (such as France tested the first time out) needed a body of data on the propagation of a shockwave through various explosive lenses that could only be obtained through extensive testing of nuclear weapons.

Only Israel had the ability to penetrate the US nuclear laboratories to the degree necessary to get that data. The scientists of the Manhattan project were predominantly Jewish and pro-Israel. They made no secret of their friendships with Israeli nuclear scientists.

Through its penetration of the American nuclear community, Israel has done more than build a nuclear device for so-called defensive purposes. It has turned the cradle of civilisation into a nuclear and environmental disaster time bomb.

According to US intelligence sources, Israel has deployed five different nuclear weapons designs. The following series of weapon profiles was constructed from public sources and input from Frank Barnaby, who helped design British nuclear weapons and who interviewed the recently released Israeli nuclear technician, Mordecai Vanunu, and reviewed his pictures of Israeli nuclear weapons before he was kidnapped by Israeli agents.

The gun assembly artillery shell nuclear device was developed in the late 1960s, but wasn't deployed until the 1970s because of a shortage of highly enriched uranium. It is designed for the 175mm howitzer and has an estimated yield of one kiloton.

The enhanced radiation artillery shell is the most sophisticated nuclear weapon known to be in the Israeli arsenal. It was deployed in the 1980s and is used in conjunction with the 203mm howitzer. The yield of three kilotons is based on US intelligence sources and the characteristics of the nuclear flash detected by US satellites in 1979.

This weapon is designed to break up massive armoured assaults or attack bunkers and other emplacements. Unlike other nuclear weapons, the preponderance of damage is caused by a pulse of high energy neutrons, which kill people, but leave structures undamaged. This makes this an ideal weapon to use in any attack because Israeli soldiers can immediately occupy the area after the blast.

Variants of this warhead have also been developed for the Arrow anti-missile system. The flux of high energy neutrons from the exploding warhead are strong enough to severely damage electronic circuitry in missiles and cause a nuclear warhead to malfunction.

This weapon would have been impossible without the nuclear codes provided by American-Jewish scientists. As weapons become more sophisticated and smaller, there is a greater need for sophisticated computer testing to verify design. Given the inability to verify the weapon without a series of tests, Israel couldn't have had the confidence to produce this weapon design without the nuclear data provided by friendly American scientists.

There is little information surrounding the variable yield nuclear gravity bomb design although there are reports about it. According to Barnaby, the yield is probably adjusted by varying the amount of tritium and deuterium injected into the core before the core is imploded.

This weapon design gives the Israeli military the option of using the weapon in both tactical and strategic scenarios. The lower yields could be used against military formations, while the larger yields could be used against Arab cities.

The strategic gravity bomb is one Israeli design that is best understood thanks to the information provided by Vanunu. It is the oldest design currently in the Israeli arsenal and represents the foundation of its nuclear weapons arsenal. It was originally designed as a strategic weapon to attack Arab capitals and military installations, and was designed to be able to cause as much destruction as possible. It was also designed to be a credible deterrent against Soviet intervention.

Based on information brought out of Israel by Vanunu and calculations by Barnaby, the bomb has a probable yield of 200kt. It is designed to be delivered by either the F-4 or F-16 fighters.

A nuclear missile warhead requires a special design. It must be strategic in nature, withstand the strains of flight, fit into a small payload, and be light in weight. According to Barnaby, the missile warhead yield is probably 100kt, weighs about 400lbs. and has a diametre of 20 inches. Although originally designed for the Jericho missile, its dimensions allow it to be fitted into a cruise missile like the American harpoon missile with minor modifications.

According to Cohen, Israel has taken a lead in the development of fourth generation nuclear weapons. He has speculated that they have developed nuclear isomers that have energy contents great enough to produce pure fusion nuclear weapons. Although there isn't any definite evidence of their existence, Cohen speculates that Israel may have developed a new type of nuclear weapon that would be no larger than a soccer ball and have a yield of a few hundred kilogrammes of TNT.

* The writer is a Washington-based senior political-military analyst with expertise in US national security affairs.

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