Israeli and Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction
June 3, 2008
Both Israel and Syria have long been involved in creating weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. The attached two reports look beyond the narrow issue of nuclear weapons, and summarize developments in each country’s full range of weapons of mass destruction -- including chemical and biological weapons -- and delivery systems. Both reports are deliberately conservative, avoiding scare or worst case sources and estimates. These reports can also be download from the CSIS web site:
- The Israeli report is https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/080603_israel_syria_wmd.pdf
- The Syrian report is https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/syriawmd.pdf
Israeli and Syrian nuclear capabilities, and efforts to develop other weapons of mass destruction, are some of their most secret and most controversial force developments. Although there have been many unclassified reports on such developments, only a few have been credible. Accordingly, both reports draw on U.S. government and IAEA reporting, and additional sources like the Nuclear Threat Institute, Global Security, Jane's, the Federation of American Scientists, Institute for Science and International Security, and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies
It should be stressed such reports are still highly uncertain and heavily dependent upon unclassified sources. For example, many of the estimates of Israel's nuclear weapons trace back to rough estimates made a decade ago. No official Israeli data or credible outside reports data have emerged on the details of Israel's strategic doctrine, targeting plans, or systems for planning and executing nuclear strikes, or how these have changed in recent years. However, a great deal of speculation has emerged over how Israel might act in a war or crisis.
Probable Israeli Capabilities
Israel's biological weapons programs seem to be largely defensive, but advanced defensive programs provide the technology base for weapons production and Israel has advanced civil biotechnology and pharmaceutical programs with extensive dual capability to produce such weapons. There is no public evidence that the IDF has organized and trained for more than defensive chemical warfare. However, Israel has been detected importing significant amounts of precursors for chemical weapons.
It does seem highly likely that Israel can target virtually any Arab state and Iran with long-range missiles and deliver nuclear strikes using such missiles as well as by air using air-to-surface missiles. Israel almost certainly has "boosted" nuclear weapons with yields of 100 kilotons or more and may have thermonuclear weapons.
Israel probably has enough nuclear weapons, and a stock of weapons with low enough yields, so that it can use its nuclear strike capabilities against both cities and populations and military area targets and critical civilian facilities. There is no way to determine Israeli plans and targeting, but the fact that Israel's population is so small and concentrated may well mean that any retaliatory attack in response to the use of highly lethal weapons of mass destruction against Israel's population would take the form of massive retaliation against the enemy's continuity of government, economy recovery capability, and population.
It seems highly likely that Israel has long had tactical nuclear weapons. Israel is well aware of U.S., NATO, French, and former Soviet Union (FSU) doctrine and planning for the use and employment of such weapons, and probably has low yield weapons it can use in close proximity to its own territory and forces. In any case, airbursts of high-yield nuclear weapons largely eliminate fallout and allow the use of nuclear weapons under the same conditions.
Israeli Delivery Systems
Israel has acquired and developed intelligence satellites that could provide highly advanced targeting data for missile and air strikes, with some near-real time capability. It has also acquired ballistic missile defense capabilities, although the real-world operational capability of such defenses is uncertain. Israel's testing programs have been minimal, and it has had to place an extraordinary reliance on engineering forecasts of effectiveness in moving to production and deployment.
The current missile and air forces Israel would probably use to deliver nuclear strikes are somewhat vulnerable to air and missile attack. The survivability and effectiveness of such strikes is uncertain, and such threats would currently come from Iran or Arab states, which can use only chemical or conventional bombs and warheads. There are also indications that Israel relies on dispersal in a major crisis, and it certainly has capable enough sensors and battle management systems to maintain launch on warning and/or launch under attack capabilities. There are unconfirmed reports that Israel plans to sea base some of its nuclear weapons on ballistic or cruise missiles deployed on its Dolphin-class submarines as part of a possible second strike capability.
Shifts in Israeli Missile Defenses
As for missile defenses, Israel did declare that the improved Block 3 version of its Arrow ballistic missile defense system became active in April 2006, and further improvements in software are expected. It has improved its Green Pine and other radar warning and sensor systems and created a new battle management system, nicknamed the "Cube." It is working on Block 4 versions of both the Arrow and Green Pine to be deployed by 2009 capable of handling significantly greater numbers of missile tracks at the same time and intercepting incoming missiles with a higher closing velocity and at ranges of more than 700 kilometers. It is believed to be developing more advanced counter-countermeasures and the ability to detect decoy warheads.
Syrian Weapons of Mass Destruction
Syria has long sought missiles and weapons of mass destruction to match Israel's capabilities. In practice, however, it has never had the resources or technology base to compete with Israel.
Syria has chemical weapons, and most experts believe it has mustard agents and at least ordinary nerve gas. It may have persistent nerve gas as well. It is believed to have cluster warheads for delivering chemical weapons, and it probably has chemical bombs and rocket warheads as well. It may have chemical artillery shells.
There are other reports that Syria has benefited from sales and technology transfers from Iran. Some reports indicate that Syria is undertaking "an innovative chemical warfare (CW) program in cooperation with Iran." Syria's CW program began in the mid-1970s, and its facilities are known to have successfully produced VX and sarin nerve agents as well as mustard blister agents, but not independently. The Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) runs the facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Furklus. There are reports that Syria imported hundreds of tons of hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (MEG) from Iran. These chemical agents are precursors for the production of mustard blister agents and sarin nerve gas. The precursors would be used and mounted on Scud-B/C warheads and/or on aerial bombs. Construction of the chemical facilities was said to be due to start in late 2005, with what was then estimated as one-year to completion of construction. These reports have not been confirmed, but Syria has long sought to end its dependence on other countries for the precursors and other components of chemical agents.
The same reports did not indicate that a contract had been signed, but that the draft agreements would lead Iranian scientists from the Iranian Defense Industries Organization to assist Syria in establishing the infrastructure and location of the new chemical facilities. It will also supply Syria with reactors, pipes, condensers, heat exchangers, and storage and feed tanks as well as chemical detection equipment for airborne agents. Then Iran will assist in producing and piloting the first four or five CW facilities throughout Syria, producing precursors for VX and sarin nerve agents and mustard blister agents.
Syrian Biological Weapons
Syria may be working on biological weapons. The nature of its progress, if any, is unclear. Syria does, however, have the technology base to develop such weapons. Its Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) may work on biological and nuclear, as well as chemical weapons. Its experience with UAVs and drones could be used to develop line-source delivery methods for disseminating biological agents, and its experience with cluster munitions and chemical warheads could be adapted to deliver biological weapons.
Syrian Nuclear Weapons
Syria has long had an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. Its primary partner seems to have been North Korea, although it may have acquired some of the technology and weapons designs sold by the A.Q. Khan network, possibly though Iran, and may have acquired technology and design data from other sources.
However, new evidence surfaced in 2007 that Syria had a far more active nuclear weapons effort than had previously been reported. On September 8, 2007, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported Israeli air strikes and dropped "munitions" in Syria without any reports of damage or casualties. Unclassified satellite photographs later made it clear that an Israeli air raid had struck deep into northeast Syria on September 6, 2007, at a target that the imagery strongly indicated might have been a covert Syrian effort to build a nuclear reactor. The images were similar to those of facilities that could contain North Korean designs and that could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
On April 24, 2008, the White House released photographic images to support the position that the target of the Israeli air raid was a nuclear reactor constructed with the assistance of North Korea. The photographs were taken inside the reactor prior to the September 6, 2007 attack, and showed details like heat control rods. Some of the photographs may have gone as far back as 2002, suggesting a possible multi-year North Koran commitment.
A number of questions still remained about the nature of project and Syria's nuclear weapons efforts. There were no indications that Syria had the ability to provide fuel for the reactor, and no reports it had begun construction of a facility to use the irradiated rods from the reactors to separate out weapons grade Plutonium. This was a critical issue because later reports indicated that the reactor at the Al Kibar facility was nearly complete when it was attacked, and had far more infrastructure support than was initially made public. Syria was able to draw upon an extensive North Korean covert purchasing network run by Ho Jin Yin, and which used a commercial cover and office in Beijing – the Namchongan Trading Co. or NCG – to buy precisely machined equipment like specialized steel pipes, aluminum tubes, transformers, and vacuum pumps for what were claimed to be commercial purposes. This North Korean effort had attracted the attention of Western intelligence agencies no later than 2003, and had previously led to concerns that its imports were designed to help North Korean build a facility to develop fissile Uranium.
Work by the Institute for Science and International Security also indicated that the building had a false roof and wall to partly conceal its shape, and that the relatively low profile of the building concealed the fact that it had extensive underground facilities that could conceal a reserve water tank and space for spent fuel rods. It also had hidden power lines; hidden underground water cooling systems that discharged into the Euphrates river, rather than the normal cooling towers; and ventilation systems built into the walls rather than the usual smokestack-like vents.
Neither the US nor Israel provided further background on how Syria might have planned to build, deploy, or use nuclear weapons. Major questions remain unanswered about the level of North Korean support Syria did or did not receive, how much technical data and nuclear weapons design information Syria had gotten from such sources as the A.Q. Khan network, and about the level of Syrian-Iranian cooperation, if any.
Syrian Delivery Systems
Syria had some 18 to 20 SS-21 launchers at the end of 2007, plus 18 Scud Bs and 30 North Korean-made "Scud C" launchers. Syria's four SS-C-1B Sepal and six SS-C-3 Styx cruise missile fire units might also be adapted to fire missiles for use against area targets. Syria could use virtually any of its combat aircraft for one-way missions or adapt them to remote single sortie use. There are unconfirmed reports that other countries in the region, including Iraq, examined the use of remotely piloted fighters for the line source delivery of chemical weapons.
Syria is reported to have fired three Scud missiles in 2005. All seem to have been tested in an "airburst" mode where the warheads might be using cluster munitions that could carry chemical or biological weapons. One was an older Scud B, with a range of about 300 kilometers, but two were the improved No Dong missiles sometimes called the Scud D, with a range of up to 700 kilometers. There are some analysts who still feel Syria might have acquired Iraq's weapons of mass destruction when Saddam Hussein had them smuggled out of Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion. Such reporting is anecdotal and so far has not produced any evidence to give it credibility.
Some sources have reported that Syria has tried to upgrade its missile forces by buying the Russian SS-X-26 or Iskander E missile from Russia. The missile has a maximum range of 280-300 kilometers and could hit such Israeli cites as Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. Unlike Syria's present missiles, the SS-X-26 is solid fueled and could improve Syria's ability to rapidly disperse its missiles and fire without delays for fueling or preparation. So far, however, Russia seems to have rejected such sales, as well as the sale of new surface-to-air missiles that might be converted for such use.
The SS-X-26 is believed to be a replacement for both the Scud and the SS-23, which had to be abandoned as a result of the intermediate-range ballistic missile treaty. It is a mobile system mounted on a tracked TEL that can carry two missiles. Work by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) indicates that it is a high-technology system that could be armed with a cluster munition warhead, a fuel-air explosive enhanced-blast warhead, a tactical earth penetrator for bunker busting, and an electromagnetic pulse device for antiradar missions. The FAS indicates that its small (480-kilogram) conventional warhead would need advanced terminal precision guidance to ensure its efficacy. It speculates that this could be provided by using "active terminal sensors such as a millimeter wave radar, satellite terminal guidance using GLOSNASS, an improved inertial platform, or some combination of these approaches."
Possible Syrian Strategy, Tactics, and Employment
Various experts have postulated that Syria could use its chemical and possibly biological weapons against Israel or any other neighbor in range as terror weapons and see them as at least a partial deterrent to Israeli strikes with weapons of mass destruction in anything other than an existential conflict.
Other experts have suggested that Syria might use chemical weapons against Israeli army forces as they mobilized, to support a surprise attack on the Golan Heights, on Israel's weapons of mass destruction, or in attacks on some other critical Israeli target or facility. There have also been suggestions that Syria might attempt covert attacks or use a terrorist or other proxy.
It is impossible to dismiss such possibilities, and there are no reliable unclassified sources on Syrian doctrine, plans, or intentions for using weapons of mass destruction. Syria does, however, face the fact that any such attack might be seen as the prelude to a Syrian attack on Israeli population centers and that a mass attack producing high lethality against Israel's mobilization centers would probably be viewed as unacceptable for Israel to ignore.
Israeli plans and doctrine are as obscure as their Syrian equivalents. However, given Israel's past actions, the response might well be Israeli massive retaliation with a mix of air and missile strikes designed to destroy much of Syria's continuity of government, military facilities and capabilities, and economy and infrastructure. A major Syrian attack on Israeli civilian targets might well lead to Israeli retaliation against Syrian cities with nuclear weapons. If Israel sought to send a decisive signal to Syria as to the cost of strikes on Israel, it might come in the form of nuclear ground bursts designed to both cripple Syria and prevent its recovery.
It also seems likely that if Israel ever came to believe Syria was acquiring highly lethal biological weapons, or nuclear weapons, it would massively preempt, possibly without warning.