Warner D. Farr, LTC, U.S. Army

The Counterproliferation Papers

Future Warfare Series No. 2

USAF Counterproliferation Center

Air War College

Air University

Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama

September 1999

The Counterproliferation Papers Series was established by the USAF Counterproliferation Center to provide information and analysis to U.S. national security policy-makers and USAF officers to assist them in countering the threat posed by adversaries equipped with weapons of mass destruction.  Copies of papers in this series are available from the USAF Counterproliferation Center, 325 Chennault Circle, Maxwell AFB AL 36112-6427.  The fax number is (334) 953-7538; phone (334) 953-7538.

Counterproliferation Paper No. 2
USAF Counterproliferation Center
Air War College

Air University
Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama 36112-6427

The internet address for the USAF Counterproliferation Center is:



Disclaimer i

The Author ii

Acknowledgments iii

Abstract iv

I.  Introduction 1

II.  1948-1962:  With French Cooperation 3

III.  1963-1973:  Seeing the Project Through to Completion 9

IV.  1974-1999:  Bringing the Bomb Up the Basement Stairs 15

Appendix:  Estimates of the Israeli Nuclear Arsenal 23

Notes 25


The views expressed in this publication are those solely of the author and are not a statement of official policy or position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the USAF Counterproliferation Center.

The Author

Colonel Warner D. “Rocky” Farr, Medical Corps, Master Flight Surgeon, U.S. Army, graduated from the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama before becoming the Command Surgeon, U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  He also serves as the Surgeon for the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, and the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.  With thirty-three years of military service, he holds an Associate of Arts from the State University of New York, Bachelor of Science from Northeast Louisiana University, Doctor of Medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Masters of Public Health from the University of Texas, and has completed medical residencies in aerospace medicine, and anatomic and clinical pathology.  He is the only army officer to be board certified in these three specialties.  Solo qualified in the TH-55A Army helicopter, he received flight training in the T-37 and T-38 aircraft as part of his USAF School of Aerospace Medicine residency.

Colonel Farr was a Master Sergeant Special Forces medic prior to receiving a direct commission to second lieutenant.  He is now the senior Special Forces medical officer in the U.S. Army with prior assignments in the 5th, 7th, and 10th Special Forces Groups (Airborne), 1st Special Forces, in Vietnam, the United States, and Germany.  He has advised the 12th and 20th Special Forces Groups (Airborne) in the reserves and national guard, served as Division Surgeon, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), and as the Deputy Commander of the U.S. Army Aeromedical Center, Fort Rucker, Alabama.


I would like to acknowledge the assistance, guidance and encouragement from my Air War College (AWC) faculty research advisor, Dr. Andrew Terrill, instructor of the Air War College Arab-Israeli Wars course.  Thanks are also due to the great aid of the Air University librarians.  The author is also indebted to Captain J. R. Saunders, USN and Colonel Robert Sutton, USAF. Who also offered helpful suggestions.


This paper is a history of the Israeli nuclear weapons program drawn from a review of unclassified sources.  Israel began its search for nuclear weapons at the inception of the state in 1948.  As payment for Israeli participation in the Suez Crisis of 1956, France provided nuclear expertise and constructed a reactor complex for Israel at Dimona capable of large-scale plutonium production and reprocessing.  The United States discovered the facility by 1958 and it was a subject of continual discussions between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers.  Israel used delay and deception to at first keep the United States at bay, and later used the nuclear option as a bargaining chip for a consistent American conventional arms supply.  After French disengagement in the early 1960s, Israel progressed on its own, including through several covert operations, to project completion. Before the 1967 Six-Day War, they felt their nuclear facility threatened and reportedly assembled several nuclear devices.  By the 1973 Yom Kippur War Israel had a number of sophisticated nuclear bombs, deployed them, and considered using them.  The Arabs may have limited their war aims because of their knowledge of the Israeli nuclear weapons.  Israel has most probably conducted several nuclear bomb tests.  They have continued to modernize and vertically proliferate and are now one of the world's larger nuclear powers.  Using “bomb in the basement” nuclear opacity, Israel has been able to use its arsenal as a deterrent to the Arab world while not technically violating American nonproliferation requirements.


The Third Temple's Holy of Holies:
Israel's Nuclear Weapons


Warner D. Farr

I. Introduction

This is the end of the Third Temple.

- Attributed to Moshe Dayan

during the Yom Kippur War[1]

As Zionists in Palestine watched World War II from their distant sideshow, what lessons were learned?  The soldiers of the Empire of Japan vowed on their emperor's sacred throne to fight to the death and not face the inevitability of an American victory.  Many Jews wondered if the Arabs would try to push them into the Mediterranean Sea.  After the devastating American nuclear attack on Japan, the soldier leaders of the empire reevaluated their fight to the death position.  Did the bomb give the Japanese permission to surrender and live?  It obviously played a military role, a political role, and a peacemaking role.  How close was the mindset of the Samurai culture to the Islamic culture?  Did David Ben-Gurion take note and wonder if the same would work for Israel?[2]  Could Israel find the ultimate deterrent that would convince her opponents that they could never, ever succeed?  Was Israel's ability to cause a modern holocaust the best way to guarantee never having another one?

The use of unconventional weapons in the Middle East is not new.  The British had used chemical artillery shells against the Turks at the second battle of Gaza in 1917.  They continued chemical shelling against the Shiites in Iraq in 1920 and used aerial chemicals in the 1920s and 1930s in Iraq.[3]

Israel's involvement with nuclear technology starts at the founding of the state in 1948.  Many talented Jewish scientists immigrated to Palestine during the thirties and forties, in particular, Ernst David Bergmann.  He would become the director of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and the founder of Israel's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.  Bergmann, a close friend and advisor of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, counseled that nuclear energy could compensate for Israel's poor natural resources and small pool of military manpower.  He pointed out that there was just one nuclear energy, not two, suggesting nuclear weapons were part of the plan.[4]  As early as 1948, Israeli scientists actively explored the Negev Desert for uranium deposits on orders from the Israeli Ministry of Defense.  By 1950, they found low-grade deposits near Beersheba and Sidon and worked on a low power method of heavy water production.[5]

The newly created Weizmann Institute of Science actively supported nuclear research by 1949, with Dr. Bergmann heading the chemistry division.  Promising students went overseas to study nuclear engineering and physics at Israeli government expense.  Israel secretly founded its own Atomic Energy Commission in 1952 and placed it under the control of the Defense Ministry.[6]   The foundations of a nuclear program were beginning to develop.

II. 1948-1962: With French Cooperation

It has always been our intention to develop a nuclear potential.

- Ephraim Katzir[7]

In 1949, Francis Perrin, a member of the French Atomic Energy Commission, nuclear physicist, and friend of Dr. Bergmann visited the Weizmann Institute.  He invited Israeli scientists to the new French nuclear research facility at Saclay.  A joint research effort was subsequently set up between the two nations.  Perrin publicly stated in 1986 that French scientists working in America on the Manhattan Project and in Canada during World War II were told they could use their knowledge in France provided they kept it a secret.[8]  Perrin reportedly provided nuclear data to Israel on the same basis.[9] One Israeli scientist worked at the U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory and may have directly brought expertise home.[10]

After the Second World War, France's nuclear research capability was quite limited.  France had been a leading research center in nuclear physics before World War II, but had fallen far behind the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the United Kingdom, and even Canada.  Israel and France were at a similar level of expertise after the war, and Israeli scientists could make significant contributions to the French effort.  Progress in nuclear science and technology in France and Israel remained closely linked throughout the early fifties.  Israeli scientists probably helped construct the G-1 plutonium production reactor and UP-1 reprocessing plant at Marcoule.[11]  France profited from two Israeli patents on heavy water production and low-grade uranium enrichment.[12]  In the 1950s and into the early 1960s, France and Israel had close relations in many areas.  France was Israel's principal arms supplier, and as instability spread through French colonies in North Africa, Israel provided valuable intelligence obtained from contacts with sephardic Jews in those countries.

The two nations collaborated, with the United Kingdom, in planning and staging the Suez Canal-Sinai operation against Egypt in October 1956.  The Suez Crisis became the real genesis of Israel's nuclear weapons production program.  With the Czech-Egyptian arms agreement in 1955, Israel became worried.  When absorbed, the Soviet-bloc equipment would triple Egyptian military strength.  After Egypt's President Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran in 1953, Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion ordered the development of chemical munitions and other unconventional munitions, including nuclear.[13]  Six weeks before the Suez Canal operation, Israel felt the time was right to approach France for assistance in building a nuclear reactor.  Canada had set a precedent a year earlier when it had agreed to build a 40-megawatt CIRUS reactor in India.  Shimon Peres, the Director-General of the Defense Ministry and aide to Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) David Ben-Gurion, and Bergmann met with members of the CEA (France's Atomic Energy Commission).  During September 1956, they reached an initial understanding to provide a research reactor.  The two countries concluded final agreements at a secret meeting outside Paris where they also finalized details of the Suez Canal operation.[14]

For the United Kingdom and France, the Suez operation, launched on October 29, 1956, was a total disaster.  Israel's part was a military success, allowing it to occupy the entire Sinai Peninsula by 4 November, but the French and British canal invasion on 6 November was a political failure.  Their attempt to advance south along the Suez Canal stopped due to a cease-fire under fierce Soviet and U.S. pressure.  Both nations pulled out, leaving Israel to face the pressure from the two superpowers alone.  Soviet Premier Bulganin and President Khrushchev issued an implicit threat of nuclear attack if Israel did not withdraw from the Sinai.  

On 7 November 1956, a secret meeting was held between Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and French foreign and defense ministers Christian Pineau and Maurice Bourges-Manoury.  The French, embarrassed by their failure to support their ally in the operation, found the Israelis deeply concerned about a Soviet threat.  In this meeting, they substantially modified the initial understanding beyond a research reactor.  Peres secured an agreement from France to assist Israel in developing a nuclear deterrent.  After further months of negotiation, agreement was reached for an 18-megawatt (thermal) research reactor of the EL-3 type, along with plutonium separation technology.  France and Israel signed the agreement in October 1957.[15]  Later the reactor was officially upgraded to 24 megawatts, but the actual specifications issued to engineers provided for core cooling ducts sufficient for up to three times this power level, along with a plutonium plant of similar capacity.  Data from insider reports revealed in 1986 would estimate the power level at 125-150 megawatts.[16]  The reactor, not connected to turbines for power production, needed this increase in size only to increase its plutonium production.  How this upgrade came about remains unknown, but Bourges-Maunoury, replacing Mollet as French prime minister, may have contributed to it.[17]  Shimon Peres, the guiding hand in the Israeli nuclear program, had a close relationship with Bourges-Maunoury and probably helped him politically.[18]

Why was France so eager to help Israel?  DeMollet and then de Gaulle had a place for Israel within their strategic vision.  A nuclear Israel could be a counterforce against Egypt in France's fight in Algeria.  Egypt was openly aiding the rebel forces there.  France also wanted to obtain the bomb itself.  The United States had embargoed certain nuclear enabling computer technology from France.  Israel could get the technology from America and pass it through to France.  The U.S. furnished Israel heavy water, under the Atoms for Peace program, for the small research reactor at Soreq.  France could use this heavy water.  Since France was some years away from nuclear testing and success, Israeli science was an insurance policy in case of technical problems in France's own program.[19]  The Israeli intelligence community's knowledge of past French (especially Vichy) anti-Semitic transgressions and the continued presence of former Nazi collaborators in French intelligence provided the Israelis with some blackmail opportunities.[20]  The cooperation was so close that Israel worked with France on the preproduction design of early Mirage jet aircraft, designed to be capable of delivering nuclear bombs.[21]

French experts secretly built the Israeli reactor underground at Dimona, in the Negev desert of southern Israel near Beersheba.  Hundreds of French engineers and technicians filled Beersheba, the biggest town in the Negev.  Many of the same contractors who built Marcoule were involved.  SON (a French firm) built the plutonium separation plants in both France and Israel.  The ground was broken for the EL-102 reactor (as it was known to France) in early 1958.  

Israel used many subterfuges to conceal activity at Dimona.  It called the plant a manganese plant, and rarely, a textile plant.  The United States by the end of 1958 had taken pictures of the project from U-2 spy planes, and identified the site as a probable reactor complex.  The concentration of Frenchmen was also impossible to hide from ground observers.  In 1960, before the reactor was operating, France, now under the leadership of de Gaulle, reconsidered and decided to suspend the project.  After several months of negotiation, they reached an agreement in November that allowed the reactor to proceed if Israel promised not to make nuclear weapons and to announce the project to the world.  Work on the plutonium reprocessing plant halted.  On 2 December 1960, before Israel could make announcements, the U.S. State Department issued a statement that Israel had a secret nuclear installation.  By 16 December, this became public knowledge with its appearance in the New York Times.  On 21 December, Ben-Gurion announced that Israel was building a 24-megawatt reactor “for peaceful purposes.”[22]

Over the next year, relations between the U.S. and Israel became strained over the Dimona reactor.  The U.S. accepted Israel's assertions at face value publicly, but exerted pressure privately.  Although Israel allowed a cursory inspection by well known American physicists Eugene Wigner and I. I. Rabi, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion consistently refused to allow regular international inspections.  The final resolution between the U.S. and Israel was a commitment from Israel to use the facility for peaceful purposes, and to admit an U.S. inspection team twice a year.  These inspections began in 1962 and continued until 1969.  Inspectors saw only the above ground part of the buildings, not the many levels underground and the visit frequency was never more than once a year.  The above ground areas had simulated control rooms, and access to the underground areas was kept hidden while the inspectors were present.  Elevators leading to the secret underground plutonium reprocessing plant were actually bricked over.[23]  Much of the information on these inspections and the political maneuvering around it has just been declassified.[24]

One interpretation of Ben-Gurion's “peaceful purposes” pledge given to America is that he interpreted it to mean that nuclear weapon development was not excluded if used strictly for defensive, and not offensive purposes.  Israel's security position in the late fifties and early sixties was far more precarious than now.  After three wars, with a robust domestic arms industry and a reliable defense supply line from the U.S., Israel felt much more secure.  During the fifties and early sixties a number of attempts by Israel to obtain security guarantees from the U.S. to place Israel under the U.S. nuclear umbrella like NATO or Japan, were unsuccessful.  If the U.S. had conducted a forward-looking policy to restrain Israel's proliferation, along with a sure defense agreement, we could have prevented the development of Israel's nuclear arsenal.

One common discussion in the literature concerns testing of Israeli nuclear devices.  In the early phases, the amount of collaboration between the French and Israeli nuclear weapons design programs made testing unnecessary.  In addition, although their main efforts were with plutonium, the Israelis may have amassed enough uranium for gun-assembled type bombs which, like the Hiroshima bomb, require no testing.  One expert postulated, based on unnamed sources, that the French nuclear test in 1960 made two nuclear powers not one—such was the depth of collaboration.]25]   There were several Israeli observers at the French nuclear tests and the Israelis had “unrestricted access to French nuclear test explosion data.”[26]    Israel also supplied essential technology and hardware.[27]  The French reportedly shipped reprocessed plutonium back to Israel as part of their repayment for Israeli scientific help.

However, this constant, decade long, French cooperation and support was soon to end and Israel would have to go it alone.

III. 1963-1973: Seeing the Project to Completion

To act in such a way that the Jews who died in the gas chambers would be the last Jews to die without defending themselves.

- Golda Meir[28 ]

Israel would soon need its own, independent, capabilities to complete its nuclear program.  Only five countries had facilities for uranium enrichment: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China.  The Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation, or NUMEC, in Apollo, Pennsylvania was a small fuel rod fabrication plant.  In 1965, the U.S. government accused Dr. Zalman Shapiro, the corporation president, of “losing” 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium.  Although investigated by the Atomic Energy Commission, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other government agencies and inquiring reporters, no answers were available in what was termed the Apollo Affair.[29]   Many remain convinced that the Israelis received 200 pounds of enriched uranium sometime before 1965.[30]  One source links Rafi Eitan, an Israeli Mossad agent and later the handler of spy Jonathan Pollard, with NUMEC.[31]   In the 1990s when the NUMEC plant was disassembled, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found over 100 kilograms of plutonium in the structural components of the contaminated plant, casting doubt on 200 pounds going to Israel.[32]

The joint venture with France gave Israel several ingredients for nuclear weapons construction: a production reactor, a factory to extract plutonium from the spent fuel, and the design.  In 1962, the Dimona reactor went critical; the French resumed work on the underground plutonium reprocessing plant, and completed it in 1964 or 1965.  The acquisition of this reactor and related technologies was clearly intended for military purposes from the outset (not “dual-use”), as the reactor has no other function.  The security at Dimona (officially the Negev Nuclear Research Center) was particularly stringent.  For straying into Dimona's airspace, the Israelis shot down one of their own Mirage fighters during the Six-Day War.  The Israelis also shot down a Libyan airliner with 104 passengers, in 1973, which had strayed over the Sinai.[33]  There is little doubt that some time in the late sixties Israel became the sixth nation to manufacture nuclear weapons.  Other things they needed were extra uranium and extra heavy water to run the reactor at a higher rate.  Norway, France, and the United States provided the heavy water and “Operation Plumbat” provided the uranium.

After the 1967 war, France stopped supplies of uranium to Israel.  These supplies were from former French colonies of Gabon, Niger, and the Central Africa Republic.[34]  Israel had small amounts of uranium from Negev phosphate mines and had bought some from Argentina and South Africa, but not in the large quantities supplied by the French.  Through a complicated undercover operation, the Israelis obtained uranium oxide, known as yellow cake, held in a stockpile in Antwerp.  Using a West German front company and a high seas transfer from one ship to another in the Mediterranean, they obtained 200 tons of yellow cake.  The smugglers labeled the 560 sealed oil drums “Plumbat,” which means lead, hence “Operation Plumbat.”[35]  The West German government may have been involved directly but remained undercover to avoid antagonizing the Soviets or Arabs.[36]  Israeli intelligence information on the Nazi past of some West German officials may have provided the motivation.[37]

Norway sold 20 tons of heavy water to Israel in 1959 for use in an experimental power reactor.  Norway insisted on the right to inspect the heavy water for 32 years, but did so only once, in April 1961, while it was still in storage barrels at Dimona.  Israel simply promised that the heavy water was for peaceful purposes.  In addition, quantities much more than what would be required for the peaceful purpose reactors were imported.  Norway either colluded or at the least was very slow to ask to inspect as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rules required.[38]  Norway and Israel concluded an agreement in 1990 for Israel to sell back 10.5 tons of the heavy water to Norway.  Recent calculations reveal that Israel has used two tons and will retain eight tons more.[39]

Author Seymour Hersh, writing in the Samson Option says Prime Minister Levi Eshkol delayed starting weapons production even after Dimona was finished.[40]  The reactor operated and the plutonium collected, but remained unseparated.  The first extraction of plutonium probably occurred in late 1965.  By 1966, enough plutonium was on hand to develop a weapon in time for the Six-Day War in 1967.  Some type of non-nuclear test, perhaps a zero yield or implosion test, occurred on November 2, 1966.  After this time, considerable collaboration between Israel and South Africa developed and continued through the 1970s and 1980s.  South Africa became Israel's primary supplier of uranium for Dimona. A Center for Nonproliferation Studies report lists four separate Israel-South Africa “clandestine nuclear deals.”  Three concerned yellowcake and one was tritium.[41]  Other sources of yellowcake may have included Portugal.[42]

Egypt attempted unsuccessfully to obtain nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union both before and after the Six-Day War.  President Nasser received from the Soviet Union a questionable nuclear guarantee instead and declared that Egypt would develop its own nuclear program.[43 ] His rhetoric of 1965 and 1966 about preventive war and Israeli nuclear weapons coupled with overflights of the Dimona rector contributed to the tensions that led to war.  The Egyptian Air Force claims to have first overflown Dimona and recognized the existence of a nuclear reactor in 1965.[44 ] Of the 50 American HAWK antiaircraft missiles in Israeli hands, half ringed Dimona by 1965.[45]   Israel considered the Egyptian overflights of May 16, 1967 as possible pre-strike reconnaissance.  One source lists such Egyptian overflights, along with United Nations peacekeeper withdrawal and Egyptian troop movements into the Sinai, as one of the three “tripwires” which would drive Israel to war.[46]  There was an Egyptian military plan to attack Dimona at the start of any war but Nasser vetoed it.[47]  He believed Israel would have the bomb in 1968.[48]  Israel assembled two nuclear bombs and ten days later went to war.[49]  Nasser's plan, if he had one, may have been to gain and consolidate territorial gains before Israel had a nuclear option.[50]  He was two weeks too late.

The Israelis aggressively pursued an aircraft delivery system from the United States.  President Johnson was less emphatic about nonproliferation than President Kennedy-or perhaps had more pressing concerns, such as Vietnam.  He had a long history of both Jewish friends and pressing political contributors coupled with some first hand experience of the Holocaust, having toured concentration camps at the end of World War II.[51]  Israel pressed him hard for aircraft (A-4E Skyhawks initially and F-4E Phantoms later) and obtained agreement in 1966 under the condition that the aircraft would not be used to deliver nuclear weapons.  The State Department attempted to link the aircraft purchases to continued inspection visits.  President Johnson overruled the State Department concerning Dimona inspections.[52]  Although denied at the time, America delivered the F-4Es, on September 5, 1969, with nuclear capable hardware intact.[53]

The Samson Option states that Moshe Dayan gave the go-ahead for starting weapon production in early 1968, putting the plutonium separation plant into full operation.  Israel began producing three to five bombs a year.  The book Critical Mass asserts that Israel had two bombs in 1967, and that Prime Minister Eshkol ordered them armed in Israel's first nuclear alert during the Six-Day War.[54]  Avner Cohen in his recent book, Israel and the Bomb, agrees that Israel had a deliverable nuclear capability in the 1967 war.  He quotes Munya Mardor, leader of Rafael, the Armament Development Authority, and other unnamed sources, that Israel “cobbled together” two deliverable devices.[55]

Having the bomb meant articulating, even if secretly, a use doctrine.  In addition to the “Samson Option” of last resort, other triggers for nuclear use may have included successful Arab penetration of populated areas, destruction of the Israeli Air Force, massive air strikes or chemical/biological strikes on Israeli cities, and Arab use of nuclear weapons.[56]

In 1971, Israel began purchasing krytrons, ultra high-speed electronic switching tubes that are “dual-use," having both industrial and nuclear weapons applications as detonators.  In the 1980s, the United States charged an American, Richard Smith (or Smyth), with smuggling 810 krytrons to Israel.[57]  He vanished before trial and reportedly lives outside Tel Aviv.  The Israelis apologized for the action saying that the krytrons were for medical research.[58]  Israel returned 469 of the krytrons but the rest, they declared, had been destroyed in testing conventional weapons.  Some believe they went to South Africa.[59]  Smyth has also been reported to have been involved in a 1972 smuggling operation to obtain solid rocket fuel binder compounds for the Jericho II missile and guidance component hardware.[60]  Observers point to the Jericho missile itself as proof of a nuclear capability as it is not suited to the delivery of conventional munitions.[61]

On the afternoon of 6 October 1973, Egy