The policy of a nation, Napoleon once quipped, can be read in its geography. For much of human history, the verity of such an assertion would have appeared self-evident. After all, what is geostrategy if not a state’s chosen response to a preexisting spatial reality? For many thinkers of the early modern era, a country’s geographical position shaped its strategic behavior, whether in times of peace or war. Maritime powers, some have noted, appear both more democratic and inclined to pursue alliances than their territorially obsessed continental counterparts. Amidst the swirling tides of global geopolitics, geography formed a key fundamental — an enduring physical truth — providing a degree of structure and continuity to otherwise arcane national strategies.
The dawn of the nuclear age, however, greatly eroded the importance attached to the study of maps. Nuclear weapons, with their terrifying and seemingly indiscriminate power for destruction, seemed to render cartographic musings somewhat irrelevant. In an era where the devastating effects of a single bomb could extend over land and sea, casting their radioactive shadow over bustling cities and sleepy hamlets alike; what did it matter whether a nation was urban or rural, maritime or continental?
The assumption that geographical factors play only a minor role in the formulation of nuclear strategy is, however, deeply flawed. Territorial insecurity and the attendant quest for strategic depth are profoundly embedded within the nuclear strategies of small to medium-sized powers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the evolving naval nuclear postures of two nations, which would seem, at first glance, to have little in common: Pakistan and Israel. Indeed, irrespective of numerous sizable differences — both in terms of institutional history and strategic culture — the nuclear force structures adopted by both countries’ small navies are disturbingly similar. In both cases, the perceived pressures of geography have played an enormous role in the conceptualization of naval nuclear deterrence.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Continental Suffocation, Maritime Oxygenation
Both Israel and Pakistan have decided to field tactical nuclear weapons aboard their small flotillas of diesel-electric submarines. While Pakistan is a declared nuclear power and Israel has opted to pursue a policy of nuclear ambiguity for the past four decades, both nations’ military thinkers echo each other in their frequent referrals to the sea as a source of strategic depth. This shared emphasis stems, in large part, from their growing sense of continental claustrophia. Both countries are territorially shallow, and resulting sentiments of vulnerability have helped shape and sustain already potent senses of embattlement.
Israel’s Naval Nuclear Option
For strategists in Jerusalem, apprehensions over the widening demographic divide between Israel and its more populous Arab neighbors has been compounded by the severe political turmoil and uncertainty in the wider Middle East. In particular, there is growing concern that further waves of upheaval in the Arab world could produce a regional climate more staunchly hostile to Israeli interests. In addition to the potential existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, Israeli planners must also confront a rapidly changing conventional military environment – one in which the shallowness of Israeli territory increasingly acts as a major liability. Whereas in earlier years Israel’s very compactness generated certain operational benefits — by enabling its armed forces to maneuver with fluidity within interior lines – the diffusion of precision guided munitions (PGMs) and precision strike systems amongst Israel’s prospective antagonists has largely negated any such advantage. Hybrid and non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah increasingly have the aptitude to “see deep and shoot deep,” while Iran continues to acquire a bristling array of ballistic missiles aimed at Israel. The Israeli Defense Force’s stationary bases and airfields are thus increasingly exposed to missile attacks. Hezbollah, for instance, is estimated to be sitting on a steadily growing stockpile of more than 40,000 rockets and missiles. In previous conflicts, Israel could rely on its command of the skies as a means of offsetting its numerically superior foes. In the long run though, the difficulties inherent in prosecuting hybrid actors concealed within crowded urban environments, along with the densification of cheaper and more capable anti-aircraft systems, are liable to impede the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of action. In sum, Israel’s continental exiguity acts as a growing constraint on its ability to guarantee the safety of its citizens from both conventional and nuclear attack.