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'Obliterate?' Israel can defend itself

From NBC's Robert Windrem
Hillary Clinton has pledged to "obliterate" Iran if it strikes Israel with nuclear weapons (it doesn't yet have). Iran has protested the Democratic presidential candidate's fiery rhetoric as a violation of the UN Charter and asked for Security Council action. Sen. Barack Obama has condemned Senator Clinton's statement.

All the sturm and drang misses one critical point.

Israel does not need the US to counter attack. Israel has the world's sixth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, behind only the US, Russia, China, the UK and (maybe) France. It can handle ANY Iranian threat on its own, thank you very much.

The U.S. estimates Israel has about 200 nuclear weapons made up of five different classes of weapons. Israel assembled its first two bombs on the night of Nov. 2, 1966. In the Six-Day War, it had two weapons on alert; by the Yom Kippur War in 1973, 20 were on alert; by the Gulf War, the number had reached more than 200.

There are thermonuclear missile warheads on missiles with intercontinental (Jericho II) and intermediate (Jericho I) range, nuclear landmines, artillery shells and neutron bombs to stop assaults across their vulnerable borders, aerial bombs attached to American-made F-15's dispersed and on alert. It has a nuclear target base of nearly 100 targets, which, like the US base, is continually updated and which, like the US, can be updated in near real time. And it has an entire wing of its Air Force, the secret 2nd Wing, to manage it all.

More importantly, Israel has a second strike capability, that is, a capability of striking any enemy even if that enemy has already destroyed Tel Aviv. A single nuclear weapon might able to take out most of the Israeli population, which lives around Tel Aviv, but Israel has enough capability to deliver a society-smashing blow on Iran within hours. Iran would be triumphant, and then incapable of functioning as a society, in very short order.

And there isn't a strategic thinker in the Middle East who doesn't know that, as should Senator Clinton.

The Israelis use a "triad" much like the US, with bombers, land-based and submarine-based missiles, all controlled through a multi-node command and control system. NO enemy can be sure that it can take out Israel's nuclear capability even with the most devastating attack.

Key to that strategy is its nuclear-armed submarines. Israelis bought two Dolphin submarines from Germany in the 1990s (half paid for with U.S. funds) and modified them to carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles with ranges capable of striking any nation that could do it harm. The cruise missiles fit neatly into the subs' torpedo tubes. They guarantee Israel a second strike capability in the unlikely event that its planes and missiles were knocked out in a first strike.

This is a sophisticated command and control system. Blue-green, sea-piercing lasers, developed, in part, at a U.S. weapons lab, can be used to communicate with the subs in so-called "bell ringer" operations. In situations in which war was imminent or had actually started, deployable rockets carrying the lasers would be fired to send the submarines a signal to come to periscope depth for further orders. Blue-green lasers, of the type Israel was known to be developing in the 1980s, can penetrate to 3,000 feet over a range of 6,200-square miles.

Israel and Iran have been involved in a war of words for years (after secretly sharing U.S. technology during the Shah's days). Is there really a need for a presidential candidate to join in?

Robert Windrem, NBC News Investigative Producer, Special Projects, is co-author of "Critical Mass: the Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World," Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994, which featured discussions of Israel's nuclear capability.