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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 7. 1967.

A-bomb unlikely to enter Middle East

A-bomb unlikely to enter Middle East

Curiously enough, during the Arab-Israeli war, none of the commentators raised the grisly spectre of the spread of nuclear weapons to this volatile bit of the world. The only exception to this was a BBC commentator who referred to the Bomb in passing, on the war's first day.

The rather plausible idea this man put forward was that, with the Middle East "going nuclear" at any old time now, then this was probably the very last conventional war the area would ever suffer. What he implied here was that Egypt or Israel, probably Israel, was due for the Bomb in months rather than years, and that, with this new weapon around, neither side would be so silly as to start anything which could be suicidal to itself.

Reflecting on this as the desert dust settles back, I think this particular commentator was quite wrong in his analysis. Firstly, in the settlement now being knocked out, there is at least a fighting chance of a big-power embargo on arms and related technologies, a regional arms freeze of sorts, and a recognised guarantee of the Israeli borders. But even if none of this materialises and the status ante bellum situation returns to haunt the area, things still do not inexorably point down a blind alley, to nuclear weapons in the area. Take a look at the 1956 and 1967 wars for a minute.

Both wars show that a potentially dangerous regional imbalance in the local arms race had arisen, and both these wars were, in part, preemptive or protective attacks by the side then losing out in the race. In 1955, Russia transferred to Egypt, at ominous speed, some 200 fighter-bombers, hundreds of tanks, guns, arms and support facilities. It was this situation, very tense and inflammable at the time, which exploded when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The Israelis fielded a joint team with Britain and France, and, whatever its faults, it rapidly restored the arms balance by disposing of much of the Russian equipment.

A month ago the identical situation had again appeared—this time in reverse. This time it was the Israelis who had the fighting edge, or gave the Arabs the idea they had it. The Israeli military men have considered themselves predominant in fighting-power since the early sixties. The war proves the truth of this. Offsetting the Arab superiority in arms and numbers, there was the unified and highly-trained Israeli force, high in morale, strong in communications and back-up maintenance facilities and led by that very able tactician, General Dayan. The Egyptians found their Soviet-type strategy inferior in operation and, like the North Vietnamese, have severe difficulties in maintains their Soviet-built combat aircraft. So the Arabs had reason to try to stop things getting worse.

But, even more important than this, for over a year now there has been every evidence that the Egyptians are intensely suspicious of what goes on at the closely-guarded and very secret Israeli atomic complex situated at Dimona in the Negev. Six times since February of last year, Nasser has publicly and loudly warned that if the Arabs ever did get evidence of an impending Israeli Bomb, the Arabs would launch everything they have to "wipe out the means of construction." There is no solid evidence of a Bomb as yet, but we can confidently predict that, had the war gone the other way, these deep Arab suspicions would have seen to it that Dimona was an early casualty.

Now, here, it is vital to note that it was the presence, or suspected presence, of the arms, and not their use, which sparked both the conflicts. Thus, into this situation of hostility as old as history, the weapons were progressively pumped, fracturing the regional stability and creating the nastiness which led to the spontaneous combustion. And here, a pre-emptive attack by the frightened neighbour is at least as real a danger as anything the ostensible aggressor will do. So unless a settlement of this cold-hot war is now devised, or unless Nasser leaves the scene (the agitator-in-chief, in my opinion) the war can flare up again.

Now back to nuclear weapons. If one side is to procure these dreadful things, this dangerous regional imbalance will appear, in earnest, in that delicate period when the Bomb is coming, but not actually come. The other side will do everything it can to sabotage the scheme, while it still can. And there are definite signs that the Israelis, Arabs, Americans and Russians have all been awake to this danger of proliferation for a while. So we have three very good reasons why the Bomb will not enter the area: (1) The open acquisition of these weapons will spark off a preventive war by the other side; (2) Neither Russia nor America are likely to let "their man in the Middle East" be the first to openly procure the weapons; (3) Developing the weapons in secrecy is almost impossible, for technical reasons. Lets' examine what these are.

Technical Problems: Hydrogen bombs create their destructive energy by the fission or combination of atoms of the lightest element, hydrogen. This fission can only be triggered by the heat of a baby atomic or fusion weapon, so atomic weapons always come first in development. There are two kinds of atomic weapon: Those where the fissile material is Pluto-nium-239 (Nagasaki type) and those where the fissile material is Uranium-235. Both derive in different ways from common or garden Uranium-238, the heaviest element, and are broken down in the chain reaction.

U-235 is extracted from raw U-238 by either a gas-centrifuge system (not yet perfected on a large scale), or by a gaseous-diffusion separation plant—described by Leonard Beaton as "the most difficult and industrial process there is." ("Must the Bomb Spread?" Penguin, 1966). It is incredibly expensive to develop. (pierrelatte, in France, cost an estimated £400 million). It is incredibly difficult to disguise as anything else. (Capenhurst, in England, looks like a chicken battery almost a mile long, with 11 big cooling towers, and in operation uses more electricity than the whole of New Zealand). Finally, in the odds against such a plant in the Middle East, it could take 10 years to develop with every expert locally available and could still not work.

Plutonium-239 is a much more attractive fuel. This is a by-product of the raw Uranium-238 which fires the power-generating and desalination reactors. From the used fuel-rods, the weapons-grade plu-tonium, in the jargon, is extracted by a chemical-separation process. This process is still demanding and costly (£50 million-odd) and too much Plutonium in any one place becomes unstable and can explode. Still, Israel could probably construct one such plant in a few months. From there to a bomb is but a short step. The critical amount of plutonium required to sustain a chain-reaction, Beaton says, is about seven kilos, placed In a carefully-designed cocoon of high explosive.

Getting the finished weapon over the target is simple. Ships, trucks, planes and rockets can all be employed. Israel and Egypt both have bombers and airliners which could drop the thing. Both have done some secret but apparently inconclusive development of rockets. But the real problem both face is getting the weapons—grade Plutonium.

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Israel: Since 1964 there has been the 24-megawatt natural uranium, heavy water moderated reactor built by the French, operating at Dimona. This is capable of producing enough plutonium for about two small bombs a year. In the first place, the fuel came from France and South Africa under strict control. Israel is now about self-sufficient in fuel, as Uranium-238 is being extracted as a byproduct of the Dead Sea phosphate industry. She is now believed to be stockpiling some seven kilos of plutonium each year, and also researching the theoretical basis of plutonium-extraction and bomb-building, without actually constructing facilities for doing either.

The whole project is veiled in secrecy. Almost nothing is published about it. In Israel there is a Government and a press ban on printing any discussion of nuclear spread for security reasons. Explaining this censorship, an Israeli official reported in the New York Times for March 7, 1966, said: "The Arab leaders are likely to mistake free discussion for official policy— as this is the situation in their own countries." But, equally, this moratorium on the facts works the other way: Secrecy breeds suspicion and probably the real Israeli policy is one of keeping the Arabs guessing.

This idea is born out by the Israeli policy of inviting American AEC officials to inspect Dimona once each year for signs of weapons development. This inspection is carried out very quietly, and, as the results are not broadcast to the Arabs, it is obviously done to set American, but not Arab, minds at rest. This, in fact, it fails to do. The Americans have tentatively concluded, "No development as yet," but it is difficult to establish in an annual inspection if any fuelrods have been removed from the reactor for extracting the Plutonium.

Outlook: The Americans now believe that Israel is not currently engaged in weapons development but that she maintains Dimona to keep the option open. Now this, in itself, is a bargaining-counter of some power and a deterrent in its own right to the Arabs. Also, the stockpile stands as the ominous alternative, if America and other to offer her some guarantee of security. However, if Israel ever does take up the option, it will be for military necessity, and not, as in China's and France's case, primarily for the prestige of joining a select club. So the development would be very secret. She might never test the weapon, although a small underground test is very hard to tell from an earthquake.

It is likely that Egypt will only acquire a Bomb if Israel gets one first. Then the Russians will step in (and hence the Americans). Israel has the potential to produce a Bomb in two years, if she works very secretly -but now she almost certainly does not have the urge, with her conventional weapons as good as they obviously are. So if one side gets the Bomb, the other one will too. It would be irrational to use it unless the only choice was extinction, in which case the lesser of two evils would be selected. I cannot agree with the French view that general spreading of weapons —the force de frappe, the Great Equaliser—is a "good thing as the weapon is the ultimate deterrent to its own use." This silly, dangerous over-simplification ignores several vital points. One side will always arrive first and will be inclined to exploit this advantage. A coup d'etat could bring to power people with absolutely no compunction about using the Bomb. And the effects on bargaining are dramatic: the most reckless party always wins.

There are two good reasons for optimism. The first concerns the resignation of Professor Ernst Borgmann in April, 1966, from his post as head of the Israeli atomic development and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Committee. This caused a lot of speculation. Borgmann complained of a "difference of opinion" with the Eshkoy Government over the policy for long-term planning and research. This implies that the Eshkol Government has been much less interested that Ben-Gurion's in nuclear development. It fits in With Eshkol's "appeasement" policy towards the Arabs. There is hope in people who look for political rather than military solutions to problems.

The second reason for optimism concerns the big-power attitude towards effective nuclear control America has always been dead against spreading the Bomb any further. Her plan now is to provide both Egypt and Israel with power and desalination reactors using fuel unsuited to making bombs. There are some good reasons for this not coming off. But the American attitude, and the Russian attitude, is the matter of central importance here. There is no doubt whatsoever that either could stop their respective allies "going nuclear" if they want to— and they want to. The real Middle East problem is not any relentless spread of weapons, but the volatile situation which causes this spread. This requires cooperation all round on an arms and technology embargo, a regional arms freeze and the universal guaranteeing of borders. And now might be a very good time to start trying.