Joshua PollackNuclear Warfare

By no means do I wish to pick on Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who was only repeating a common misconception in an NPR segment this evening when she said:

On June 7, 1981, Israel launched the first confirmed military strike ever against a nuclear site.

Actually, it wasn’t even the first military strike against that particular facility.

As best as I can tell, attacks on nuclear facilities have come in four or five waves.

The first wave, in the 1940s, consisted of a series of British and Norwegian commando and air raids against the world’s first commercial-scale heavy-water plant, in German-occupied Norway. Wikipedia has a rundown. The subject came up again just this past June (see: Operation Gunnerside, 29 June 2009).

The second wave, in the 1980s, consisted of at least eight air raids against partially complete reactors, involving three countries in the Middle East. Israel’s strike on the Tammuz 1 / Osirak reactor was the second event in this wave.

From Leonard Spector’s Going Nuclear (1987), p. 129:

At least five such attacks are known to have taken place: an unsuccessful bombing raid by Iranian aircraft against Iraq’s large Osiraq research reactor outside Baghdad on September 30, 1980; Israel’s June 7, 1981, air strike against Osiraq, which destroyed the unit; and three Iraqi attacks against the two partially complete Iranian nuclear power plants at Bushehr, on March 24, 1984, and February 12 and March 4, 1985.

But wait, there’s more. According to NTI’s chronology, Iraq bombed Bushehr again on July 12, 1986, and twice again on November 17 and 19, 1987. Nothing if not persistent.

The third wave consisted of Coalition air strikes in January and February 1991 against Iraq’s nuclear facilities at al-Sharqat, al-Tarmiya, and al-Tuwaitha (where Tammuz 1 had stood). A building at al-Atheer also caught a bomb.

By some accounts, there was another strike in the third wave, an as many as five attempted ballistic missile attack[s] by Iraq against Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona in February 1991. But I’ve seen nothing to support the idea that Iraq’s missiles were accurate enough to make a meaningful try. Unlike the other missiles launched by Iraq during the same conflict, this missile or missiles did not even have an explosive warhead[s], and appears to have been no more than a symbolic “stone” or “stones” thrown at Israel. But it is also possible that Saddam Hussein did not know about the inaccuracy problems, and did order a Dimona strike.

The fourth wave consists, so far, of Israel’s September 6, 2007 air raid against the so-called al-Kibar facility in Syria, to all appearances a complete gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor that had yet to be activated.

The four waves can also be broken down into four contexts: WWII, the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not entirely coincidentally, perhaps, every country involved as either an attacker or defender—let’s leave Norway out of the picture—has pursued nuclear weapons at one time or another. (Here, I’m going with the 2007 NIE.) But so far, at least, no country that has had its facilities bombed has succeeded.

Also of note: Iraq was involved, either as attacker or defender, in every strike of the second and third waves.

Have I missed anything? Probably I should say something about the three Taliban attacks on Pakistani military facilities in 2007 and 2008, described here. It’s unclear whether these were specifically intended as attacks on nuclear targets. Perhaps so: on July 2, 2009, the Taliban blew up a bus in Rawalpindi full of employees of Khan Research Labs. Let’s tentatively call it a fifth wave, but of a basically different character.

If you can think of anything else, sing out.


  1. Anon (History)

    Also there was the India and Israel jointly planned, but abandoned, strike on Pakistan’s Khusab nuclear complex when it was under construction in the late 1980s

  2. Josh (History)

    According to this Pakistani account, the target was Kahuta.

    Some also maintain that the Soviets engineered the 1967 Middle East war in order to have a chance to bomb Dimona.

    I take it all with a grain of salt.

    Regardless, there have been a number of strikes of this nature contemplated but never carried out, for which documentation is available. Lyle Goldstein wrote a book about this.

  3. Anon (History)

    Armscontrolwonk, wake up. Dr. Sanathan, the Indian nuclear scientist in charge of India’s Pokharan 2 tests in 1998 has just admitted that the H-bomb did not perform.
    Your analysis please. And also what brought about this admission now, and where India stands wrt its N weapons program today.

  4. Pirouz (History)

    There is considerable controversy over the results of the airstrike on Iraq’s nuclear site by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. Spector’s claim, dated 1987, that Iran’s strike was unsuccessful is now in question, given the results of subsequent research. According to Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, writing in 2004 with the benefit of Iranian military sources, this is what is now known:

    “[Two F-4E Phantoms armed with] two strings of Mk.82 bombs – equipped with Mk.15 Snakeye retarding fins -fell where planned. French reporters who photographed the attack confirmed that several large fires had been started, causing considerable damage. According to an eyewitness, two bombs hit the dome that was to cover Tammuz-1, but bounced off it. Other bombs reportedly caused damage to the pumps and pipes in the water-cooling tower (west of the main facility, which is surprising, given that Iranian pilots deliberately dropped their weapons to the east of the reactors), and the installations for storing and treating liquid radioactive waste. Several labs and service facilities were hit, and heavy damage was caused to various piping systems and plumbing installations.”

    It is interesting to note that in 1980, the Iranians were the first to target a nuclear reactor site. However, as they didn’t possess reliable intelligence on whether the Iraqi reactor was actually fueled, specific targeting was planned and adopted to prevent the risk of any nuclear fallout. In stark contrast, in the 1991 Gulf War, the United States set a precedent by specifically attacking Iraq’s Tuwaitha nuclear site while radioactive materials were present.

  5. Azr@el (History)

    Carrying water for Israel all the time must make your arms awfully tired, it sure does a number on your perceived level of objectivity as well.

    Josh replies: Don’t take it so personally if I don’t approve all of your comments all of the time.

  6. johnbragg (History)

    Well, after 5 minutes with Google news, I’d say that this is not earth shattering news, as apparently most non-Indian technical data suggested 20kt rather than 40kt. What brings this admission now is Sanathan’s desire to pressure the Indian government to test and perfect their bombs rather than be pressured to sign the CTBT by the new US administration.

  7. J House (History)

    The NYT reported last year that the Bush admin had an active, covert program designed to ‘disrupt’ Iran’s indigenous uranium enrichment program.
    One wonders if that policy has continued under the current admin, or, whether the effort involves military forces.

  8. Aaron Mannes (History)

    My CT-Blog colleague Aminesh Roul says in 2006 the Baluchi insurgents mortared Pakistani nuke facilities –

  9. Rex Brynen (History)

    Fateh’s 7 March 1988 attack against a bus in Dimona carrying workers for the nuclear facility may (or may not) fall into this category.

    It isn’t clear whether the attackers were intending on targeting the facility in some way, or simply happened across that particular bus. There is evidence from Fateh sources, however, that the Dimona area was specifically chosen for reasons of nuclear symbolism. Moreover, this is how the Israeli government read it too, with the attack being a major reason for the subsequent assassination of senior PLO “Western Sector” commander Abu Jihad in Tunis in April.

  10. Pavel (History)

    If I remember correctly, a Japanese balloon hit one of the buildings at Hanford at some point, causing a fire. Not that Japan was targeting Hanford, though.

  11. Jochen Schischka (History)

    To my knowledge, the Al-Hijarah-shots were indeed targeted at the Dimona-plant (why else did four of these missiles land in the Negev desert? The standard Al-Hussain didn’t have that large maximum deviation…).
    And, with a concrete ‘penetration warhead’ plus the known imperfections of the general Al-Hussain-design, this was in fact highly optimistic (maybe desperate would be a more accurate descripton);
    As a former UNSCOM-inspector once told me, the Iraqis assumed that ‘Allah will guide these missiles to the target’…

  12. Josh (History)


    Very interesting details. Is this book the source?

    Aaron, Rex:

    Thanks. There’s more out there than I’d realized. Maybe we need a separate category for non-state actors.


    Was this one of the Japanese intercontinental incendiary balloons? A lucky hit indeed.


    Are you sure there were four such missiles? Can you cite a source?

    As for the accuracy of the al-Hussein, it didn’t have any, which is what one would expect from an improvised missile that fell apart and tumbled during re-entry. Several of the missiles fired at Israeli cities wound up in the Mediterranean or the West Bank. The two missiles apparently aimed at Qatar and Bahrain fell in the Persian Gulf.

  13. Josh (History)

    A correction: According to Gulflink, one Iraqi missile was fired at Qatar, and missed the country by miles. That much, I remembered correctly.

    But according to this report, three missiles — not one — were fired at Bahrain. One was engaged by a Patriot. One blew up in flight. One “overshot” the target, presumably going into the drink.

    Still, the point is, they weren’t the world’s most accurate devices.

  14. Pirouz (History)

    Hi Josh:
    There is indeed a paragraph devoted to the IRAF raid in the book you’ve cited. But the description I provided came from an article titled:

    Target: Saddam’s Reactor
    Israeli and Iranian Operations Against Iraqi Plans to Develop Nuclear Weapons
    by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop.

    The article is available online at :

    It’s an interesting read, that actually details a fair amount of collaboration between the Iranians and Israelis, in striking Iraq’s nuclear site.

  15. Jochen Schischka (History)


    Actually, the Iraqis claimed to have fired even five Al-Hijarah-missiles at the Dimona-reactor (and, according to the following source, all in all six iraqi missiles, unfortunately of unspecified type, landed in the southern Negev), look here:

    The UNMOVIC-Compendium mentions this explicitly, too (page 425).

    No accuracy at all may be too harsh a judgement in case of the Al-Hussain. Based on a map of the impacts in and around Tel Aviv (sorry, couldn’t find that as open-source-material online), i estimate a CEP of 6-9km and a maximum deviation in the range of 25-30km for the Al-Hussain (and since the Al-Hijara was apparently nothing but an Al-Hussain, most likely the ‘short’ H3-variant, with a concrete-filled warhead of similar weight, i assume that those values were more or less the same for that version).

    So a missile landing over 100km from the other two prime targets surely wasn’t aimed at either Tel Aviv or Haifa.

    Awful accuracy, yes, certainly.
    Hitting a targeted building the size of the Dimona-reactor would have been an extremely lucky strike, even if they would have fired hundreds of those missiles at that particular target.

    As i wrote before, rather desperate than only optimistic

  16. Josh (History)

    Jochen —

    Thanks. I’ll look that up.

    I think we are agreed on the substance of the accuracy question — not good enough to hit Dimona.

    There are other reasons to fire south, too, but more on that later.

  17. Hippo1


    Cooper and Bishop also discuss the attacks on Osiraq in their 2000 book Iran-Iraq War in the Air: 1980-1988. In this book they suggest that the initial raid September 1980 may have been the result of Iranian pilots striking at a target of opportunity in order to dump weapons left over from attacks on another target. The book is an extensive discussion of the air war and undoubtedly discusses any Iraqi attacks on Bushehr, but since it lack an index I have been able to easily track down any discussions of such attacks.

  18. Jochen Schischka (History)


    I think we should not only evaluate the iraqi ability to actually hit Dimona (which was in fact almost at zero probability – although statistically not 100% impossible, only 99.99something percent…).

    What should count in my opinion is also their (documented) intention to try this (despite the odds).

  19. Josh (History)


    The first source you pointed me to is what I was already looking at. It doesn’t say what types of missiles were fired at southern Israel, and seems to be speculating about Dimona as the target. I’ll have to go look at the UNMOVIC Compendium next, and see if there’s any more specific information about missile payloads. Haselkorn’s book says just one concrete warhead.

  20. Jochen Schischka (History)


    The passage in this dodscud-e-paper i was trying to point you at is:

    “Authorities later determined that Iraq fired only the Al Hussein extended range missile except for five attacks with the Al Hijarah variant.”

    (and the given source for this is: “ Defense Intelligence Agency, Defense Security Assessment 181A-91, “Iraq-Kuwait: Situation Update,” February 23, 1991; Central Intelligence Agency, “Chronology of Iraqi CW Development;” Jane’s Information Group, “Al Hussein,” Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems 1995-96, September 16, 1996.”)

    If you’re inclined to interpret the statement

    “Iraq launched these missiles from Western Iraq against three general target areas ‘ Tel Aviv, Haifa, and the Negev Desert in Southern Israel, specifically, Dimona where Israel had a nuclear facility.”

    (given source: “United States Central Command, “NBC Desk Log,” February 25, 1991.”)

    as speculation, well, then check the UNMOVIC-Compendium, Chapter IV, page 425:

    “During the Gulf War, Iraq launched five al Hijara missiles against Israel in an attempt to strike its nuclear reactor at Dimona.”

    O.k., admittedly that may also be only speculation (although i’ve got the notion that this is based on information provided by the Iraqis), but let’s try using some common sense: What other type of target would the Iraqis have fired at with those concrete-warheads in the Negev (let me remind you that we know of at least one such incident)? It’s not that this is a particularly (hard-)target-rich environment.

    On the issue of only one concrete warhead being found: A possible (and rather probable) explanation for this may be that the Al-Hijaras most likely broke up on reentry, just like the Al-Hussain, and the non-explosive warheads, not slowed down by the ‘tumbling aerobrake’ at the back anymore, then buried themselves with Mach 2-4 somewhere in the desert (in a radius of up to 25-30km from the intended target!) without leaving a large crater (plus probably shredding themselves up in the process); The residual missile debris minus the warhead would have been indistinguishable from other Al-Hussains.
    Only in case of a warhead staying attached to the rest of the missile would the Al-Hijara have slowed down sufficiently for the concrete-warhead being clearly identifyable after impact.

  21. Josh (History)


    Thanks for walking me through this.

    Let me suggest an alternative interpretation and then comment on the pros and cons of the two ideas. This interpretation isn’t something I’ve come up with on my own, but I cannot remember exactly what the source was at the moment.

    “Hijarah” (stone) recalls the stone-throwers of the intifada, and as such, could be considered a statement of solidarity, a purely symbolic gesture. The reason to fire a parting barrage towards the south would be the lack of Patriot coverage in that area. Recall that the Patriot batteries were believed to be generally effective during the events of the war.

    Also, the Negev desert is the widest part of Israel, and therefore a good choice for any symbolic strike; as the Iraqis probably knew, their missiles had a way of missing the country entirely when fired at the narrow center.

    Observations favoring this view: It was late in the war, when it was clear that Saddam’s strategy of trying to draw Israel into the war had failed — the right time for a militarily meaningless gesture of defiance. Also, there was precious little chance of hitting anything with a modified Scud besides a large city or (at the closer ranges of the Kuwait Theater of Operations) a large military installation.

    Observation against: Despite the Patriot coverage and geography issues, the symbolic heart of Israel, especially in the eyes of its adversaries, is Tel Aviv.

    Observations favoring the Dimona view: Concrete with reinforced steel could have been designed as penetrating weapons, however crude it might seem. Saddam was unlikely to take “no” for an answer from his advisers, and may never have realized that his weapons didn’t have the accuracy for such an attack.

    Observation against: There is no clear reason to wait until the last moment to launch an attack on Dimona.

    Judge for yourself…

  22. Jochen Schischka (History)


    First of all, let me suggest to you to read the complete Al-Hijara article in the UNMOVIC-Compendium (which makes for some very interesting reading anyway).
    If you don’t already have it, this can be downloaded here:

    Some additional thoughts on the Hijara-issue to consider:

    If the Iraqis intended to do only symbolical damage to Israel while avoiding Patriot-coverage (which didn’t work efficiently anyway), then why didn’t they shoot standard Al-Hussains with the usual ~450kg-warhead filled with ~280kg HE into the (mostly unpopulated) Negev? Wouldn’t have made a difference anyway…

    In case of the intifada-link, why no pebble-filled ‘cluster’-warhead but instead a steel-rod-reinforced concrete-payload (which the UNMOVIC-Compendium refers to as ‘kinetic energy warhead’)?

    A possible explanation for the timing of the shots may be as some sort of last-ditch attempt at retaliatory strikes with ‘indirect’ non-conventional weapons (Would a cracked-open Dimona-reactor have resulted in Baghdad getting nuked? Exactly that was threatened by the U.S. administration at that time in case of iraqi use of B- and C-weapons…and, in fact it doesn’t matter if this makes sense to us, now, but if that would have made sense to Saddam and his cronies back then…) – we all know how hysterical western societies react on everything even only vaguely ‘nuclear’ (and i think we can agree on that this is what all the shots at Israel were about anyway: terrorizing the population!).

  23. Josh (History)


    Concerning the symbolism theory, the Patriots were perceived as effective during the war. And if a missile is a symbolic stone, a country is a symbolic person. That’s one way to interpret a unitary kinetic warhead.

    I have updated the original post to reflect our exchange here.

  24. Jochen Schischka (History)


    Thanks for changing that paragraph – better now!

    Just a few afterthoughts:

    “the Patriots were perceived as effective during the war”

    As were the Al-Hussain-attacks – as bizarre as that may sound from a current perspective.

    Considering the ‘symbolic stone’ theory: I haven’t yet mentioned the costs involved (~1.9 million 2009-dollars per Scud-B-shot – Al-Hussains/Al-Hijaras were additionally heavily modified aka probably somewhat more expensive).
    But, of course, to a dictator building golden palaces while his population suffers, that would have been only a concern of rather subordinate character.
    Much more interesting in this context is the finiteness of Saddam’s Scud-supply (the Iraqis failed with their rev-eng-efforts and thus were dependend on imported Scud-Bs for their conversion-program – the soviet source apparently dried up after 819 R-17Es in 1987, and over 500 of those had already been fired at Iran during GW1 alone). Those few missiles were potentially future assets as (further refined and thus actually useful) carriers for a (never realised – see ‘Operation Opera’) iraqi nuclear weapon (and i can’t help but wonder if the syrian Scud-ER may be the final incarnation of Saddam’s Scud-evolvement program – that missile mysteriously shares several characteristics of the S-100/Al-Abbas, which never went beyond the early experimental stages, at least not in Iraq)…

    Let me expand a little bit on my (not too seriously meant) idea of a ‘pebble-filled cluster-warhead’:
    If i’d try such a luxurious ‘symbolic stone-throwing’, then i’d let the most dreadful curses in arabic engrave on considerably-sized and most-nasty-looking pebbles from a local desert (the Al-Hijara region would have been a particularly fitting location, isn’t it?), fill those into an accordingly modified warhead and let that package airburst over my enemies cities (the barometric fuze the Iraqis were working on would certainly have been sufficient for that job, maybe even the barometric arming switches of the Scud’s original HE-warhead could have been tweaked for that purpose) – imagine hundreds of cursed iraqi stones raining on israeli cities!

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