The United States is currently wrestling with the issue of how best to curb the North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons research programs. American policy makers have not ruled out the use of force in the case of the North Korean program. Now seems an appropriate moment, then, to revisit very briefly past instances of the use of force against nuclear targets. To that end, below is an excerpt from my new book, Enforcing the Begin Doctrine: How Israel Stopped Iraq and Syria from Getting the Bomb.
Like a bolt from the blue, an Israel Air Force (IAF) F-16 Fighting Falcon suddenly swooped down out of the setting sun over suburban Baghdad during the early evening of June 7, 1981, depositing a pair of one ton general purpose (GP) bombs on Tammuz I, the crown jewel of the Iraqi nuclear weapons research program. At very short intervals, another seven F-16s dropped 14 more bombs on the target. More commonly referred to as Osirak, the reactor, its thick concrete dome pulverized by the first bombs, partially collapsed on itself, the delicate machinery shielded within—the reactor core in particular—smashed by a combination of the remaining bombs and falling debris. Once the smoke and flames died down, satellite photographs of the reactor revealed that it now resembled nothing so much as a broken eggshell.
While military professionals around the world admired the skill and precision with which the IAF had destroyed the Iraqi reactor during Operation Opera, their governments reacted with far less enthusiasm to the Israeli raid—to say the least. “Shocking” and “unjustified” constituted the most benign sentiments expressed by friendly Western governments, including those of the United States and Great Britain, to describe the Israeli attack. Naturally, the condemnations hurled at Israel by unfriendly governments—and there was no shortage of them at the time—were considerably more vehement. Employing its best Bolshevik-style hyperbole, to cite but one example, the Soviet Union called the raid an “act of gangsterism.”
Given the level of international outrage in response to the attack, one might be excused for thinking that Israel had committed some unique—perhaps even uniquely heinous—act of destruction: one which had never occurred in the past and one which would not be permitted to occur again in the future. The facts, however, tell a very different story. The historical record unambiguously demonstrates that nations in conflict have struck the nuclear installations of their opponents since the dawn of the atomic age.
Great Britain, in cooperation with members of the Norwegian resistance, and the United States unleashed the first series of attacks against an opponent’s nuclear weapons research program. During the Second World War, from 1942‒44, British special operations soldiers and Norwegian resistance fighters launched several ground raids against a Norwegian heavy water production plant in order to disrupt Nazi Germany’s embryonic nuclear weapons research program. The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombed this same installation on a significant scale on at least two occasions, dispatching B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators to accomplish the task. Collectively, these attacks badly damaged the plant, leading Germany eventually to abandon the facility, which consequently put a crimp in its nuclear weapons research program. In early 1945, USAAF heavy bombers also attacked and destroyed a Japanese nuclear weapons research installation, which brought an end to any plans Japan may have had to produce an atomic weapon.
Not only was the Israeli raid on the Osirak reactor not the first attack against a nuclear weapons research installation, but also it was not even the first strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility itself. Less than a year before the IAF raid, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) had bombed the reactor site. It remains unclear whether the IRIAF deliberately attacked Osirak in order to obstruct Iraqi nuclear ambitions or whether the Iraqi reactor represented no more than a promising target of opportunity. In either case, the two F-4 Phantoms that struck Osirak inflicted only minor, easily reparable damage on the facility, reportedly to ancillary buildings at the site. The Iraqi nuclear project did not suffer any sort of setback as a result of this raid.
The IRIAF raid on Osirak was the first raid on a nuclear installation during the 1980‒88 Iran‒Iraq War, but it certainly was not the last one. From 1984‒87, the Iraq Air Force (IrAF) bombed a partially constructed and abandoned (at that time) Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr on six or seven occasions. It remains unclear whether the IrAF, like the IRIAF, deliberately attacked this installation in an effort to disrupt an opponent’s nuclear ambitions or whether its fighter-bombers simply hit what seemed to it to be a promising target of opportunity. Whatever the case may be, the raids were carried out by small numbers of fighter-bombers. These attacks inflicted some damage on the facility, but Iran was able to reconstruct the reactor after the war. Generally speaking, both the IRIAF and IrAF attacks on nuclear installations during the Iran‒Iraq War proved to be hastily planned and indifferently executed.
The next series of attacks against a nuclear weapons research program took place during the 1991 Gulf War. Allied Coalition aircraft bombed several Iraqi nuclear installations, including the remnants of Osirak; however, because of a paucity of intelligence data about the scope of the Iraqi nuclear weapons research program, coalition air attacks did not actually inflict much damage on its assets, which would essentially be dismantled after the war through the application of an intrusive inspections regime, as well as the imposition of stringent sanctions on the import of relevant technology and materials. For its part, Iraq launched at least one ballistic missile against the Israeli Nuclear Research Center‒Negev, usually referred to simply as Dimona, but it did not come close to hitting the installation. Even had it struck Dimona, however, the damage most likely would not have been catastrophic, as Israel undoubtedly shut down operations at the facility for the duration of hostilities. What is perhaps most notable about the attacks on nuclear installations during the Gulf War is that “hot”—that is, operational—reactors were considered to be fair targets for the first time.
In 2007, the IAF again destroyed an Arab nuclear reactor intended to produce atomic weapons, this time around a Syrian installation at al-Kibar. Israel to date has not officially admitted that the IAF carried out the raid, so the details of Operation Orchard still await public confirmation. Nevertheless, the strike was carried out by F-15 Eagles armed with either American-supplied Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), which are GP bombs converted into precision-guided munitions (PGMs) by attaching global positioning system (GPS) guidance kits to them, or similar Israeli-produced munitions. Before and after American reconnaissance satellite photos of the North Korean-built nuclear reactor located in the eastern reaches of Syria show that the installation was completely flattened by the IAF fighter-bombers.
The most recent attack on a nuclear weapons research program occurred in 2009‒10. This particular attack differed fundamentally from all of its predecessors in that it was not a “kinetic” strike—no bombs were dropped on the target, no missiles were launched at it. Rather, as part of a broader ongoing campaign of sabotage against the Iranian nuclear weapons research program, the United States and Israel, working in tandem, developed a sophisticated computer virus, later dubbed “Stuxnet,” which was then introduced into the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, causing a significant percentage of its centrifuge machines to malfunction. Follow-on viruses, such as “Duqu” and “Flame,” may have inflicted further damage. Though not derailed by this extended cyber attack, the Iranian nuclear weapons research program did suffer a clear setback as a result of it.
Since the Second World War, then, the nuclear weapons research programs of at least six nations—Germany, Japan, Iraq, Israel, Syria, and Iran—have come under attack at one time or another by their opponents. If the experience of the past is any sort of guide to the future, the world may well witness further attacks on nuclear weapons research programs in the coming decades.
For those who may be interested in the full story of how Israel prevented Iraq and Syria from obtaining nuclear weapons, the book is available at Amazon.com.