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Attacking the Atom: Does Bombing Nuclear Facilities Affect Proliferation?

Author: Matthew Fuhrmann, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, 2010-2011
Volume 34, Issue 2, 2011
Journal of Strategic Studies

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Abstract

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 productive 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.

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