Attacking the Atom: Does Bombing Nuclear Facilities Affect Proliferation?

Journal of Strategic Studies. Forthcoming.

36 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2010 Last revised: 1 Feb 2011

Date Written: August 8, 2010


What are the consequences of military strikes against nuclear facilities? In particular, do they “work” by delaying the target states ability to build the bomb? This article addresses these questions by conducting an analysis of 16 attacks against nuclear facilities from 1942 to 2007. We analyze strikes that occurred during peacetime and raids that took place in the context of an ongoing interstate war. The findings indicate that strikes are neither as uniformly fruitless as the skeptics would suggest, nor as successful as advocates have claimed. There is evidence that the peacetime attacks delayed the target’s nuclear program, although the size of this effect is rather modest. The wartime cases were less successful, as attacks often missed their targets either due to operational failure or limited intelligence on the location of critical targets. In our concluding section we show that many of the conditions that were conducive to past success are not present in the contemporary Iran case. Overall, our findings reveal an interesting paradox. The historical cases that have successfully delayed proliferation are those when the attacking state struck well before a nuclear threat was imminent. Yet, this also happens to be when strikes are the least legitimate under international law, meaning that attacking under these conditions is most likely to elicit international censure.

Keywords: Military Force, Nuclear Proliferation, Preventive Strikes, Osirak

Suggested Citation

Kreps, Sarah E. and Fuhrmann, Matthew, Attacking the Atom: Does Bombing Nuclear Facilities Affect Proliferation? (August 8, 2010). Journal of Strategic Studies. Forthcoming., Available at SSRN:

Sarah E. Kreps

Cornell University ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Matthew Fuhrmann (Contact Author)

Texas A&M University ( email )

College Station, TX 77843
United States

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