Israel’s Nuclear Program

Israel’s involvement with nuclear technology dates back to the founding of the country in 1948.

In 1949 French atomic energy commissioner visited Israel and a joint research program was set up between the two countries.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, France was Israel’s principal arms supplier, and helped Israel built a nuclear reactor and plutonium production facility. In return Israel spied for France on its Arab neighbours as the independence movement spread in France’s colonies in North Africa.

In 1958, American U-2 spy planes confirmed the existence of Israel’s Dimona nuclear complex, located in the Negev desert.

On 2 December 1960, the US State Department issued a determination that Israel had a secret nuclear installation. By 16 December this revelation became public knowledge with its appearance in the New York Times.

The nuclear reactor dome at Dimona in the Negev desert of southern Israel near Beersheba.

In 1967, nuclear collaboration between Israel and South Africa established, and the joint program continued through the 70s and 80s.

In 1969, Israel acquired the F-4 Phantom II to carrier the nuclear weapons, which was later upgraded to the F-16 that has an unrefueled radius of action of 1250 km.

On 22 September 1979, South Africa and Israel jointly tested nuclear explosion in the south Indian Ocean.

In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician worked at Dimona, exposed the details of Israel’s nuclear program to the British press. For his actions, he was kidnapped by Israeli intelligence agents and sentenced for treason by Israeli authority to eighteen years with eleven of them in solitary confinement.

In 1973, Israel developed medium-range ballistic missiles (the Jericho-1) with a 500 kg payload, and a range of 480-650 km.

In 1990, Israel developed Jericho 2 with a 1000 kg payload and a range of over 1500 km.

An image of the Dimona facility taken by a US Corona spy satellite in 1971 (Mission 1115-2, 29 September 1971, Frame: 52, 53). In the 1960s an Israeli Air Force Mirage was shot down when it accidentally ventured too close to Dimona.

A close up of the same Corona frames.

Side-by-side comparison of a Corona image and the much lower resolution SPOT commercial imaging satellite. The SPOT image labels the Dimona nuclear reactor dome and Machon 2 which houses the plutonium separation plant.

The estimate by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) puts Israel’s arsenal at around 200 nuclear warheads. These warheads can reach Iran and Russia, and be launched by air (F-16s and F-15Es), by ground (intermediate-range ballistic missiles like the Jericho II), or by sea (U.S.-made Harpoon missiles based on diesel-powered submarines or ships). Israel can undoubtedly deploy nuclear weapons using its capable air force. The aircraft and crews dedicated to nuclear weapons delivery are located at the Tel Nof airbase.

About 50 Jericho-1s and 50 Jericho-2s are believed to have been deployed. Israel also has 100 or more US-supplied Lance tactical missiles, with a range of 115 km (72 miles). Although these were supplied with conventional warheads, they could have been outfitted with nuclear or chemical ones. It is also believed Israel possesses at least 100 bunker-busting bombs (mini-nukes), which are laser-guided and capable of penetrating underground targets.

Ironically, the world’s fifth or sixth-largest nuclear power has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result, Israel is not subject to inspections and the threat of sanctions by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, while other Arab states in the region, though having signed and being repeatedly inspected, are sanctioned without hard evidence to prove they have ever failed to comply with the obligations.

More at the following websites:

Satellite images credit to John Pike at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Dimona Reactor Dome credit to Israel nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu.

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