Israel's Attack on Osiraq: A Model for Future Preventive Strikes?

Roundup: Talking About History

Peter S. Ford, excerpts from "Israel's Attack on Osiraq: A Model for Future Preventive Strikes?" Naval Postgraduate School Masters Thesis (September 2004):

Twenty-three years ago, Israeli fighter pilots destroyed the Osiraq nuclear reactor and made a profound statement about global nuclear proliferation. In light of the recent preventive regime change in Iraq, a review of this strike reveals timely lessons for future counterproliferation actions. Using old, new, and primary source evidence, this thesis examines Osiraq for lessons from a preventive attack on a non-conventional target. Before attacking Osiraq, Israeli policymakers attempted diplomatic coercion to delay Iraq’s nuclear development. Concurrent with diplomatic actions, Israeli planners developed a state of the art military plan to destroy Osiraq. Finally, Israeli leaders weathered the international storm after the strike. The thesis examines Israeli decisionmaking for each of these phases.

The thesis draws two conclusions. First, preventive strikes are valuable primarily for two purposes: buying time and gaining international attention. Second, the strike provided a one-time benefit for Israel. Subsequent strikes will be less effective due to dispersed/hardened nuclear targets and limited intelligence.


The overarching question remains: did Iraq lose all interest in obtaining a nuclear weapon after the Osiraq strike or did they redouble their nuclear efforts? The strike devastated Iraq’s nuclear program, decimated the regime economically, and hardened Saddam Hussein’s desire to become the leader of a nuclear nation. In his case study review, Patrick Morgan links deterrence to controlling conflicts by using appropriate threats and indicates that in spite of taking the correct deterrence steps, a motivated challenger can attack. The motivation of the challenger is a decisive issue in the level of success a deterrent relationship will have. Peter Lavoy indicates that a deterrence association between states can be offensive as well as defensive in nature. “The case studies show that many new actors plan to use unconventional deterrents both to support the status quo and to change it.”88 Iraq clearly desired nuclear weapons as an unconventional deterrent against the Zionist entity. Thus, in this thesis deterrence includes offensive actions such as preventive strikes and allows the examination of motivating factors in both Israel and Iraq.

1. Short Term Value

The policy of the Government of Iraq was a direct reflection of Saddam Hussein’s private desires. His regime implemented his policy without question. Khidhir Hamza mentions his unflinching obedience to illogical orders due to the deadly consequences of disobedience. According to Morgan, “No wonder it was difficult to deter Iraq…the trouble was the coalition promised to damage Iraq’s economy and society…that was entirely ‘bearable.’ The way to deter Iraq was to have promised to kill him [Saddam Hussein] or remove him from power – the only things he really cared about.”89 Power and regional hegemony motivated the Iraqi leader. In this manner, much of Iraq’s coarse foreign policy was a reflection of its dictator’s desire for power.

Saddam Hussein’s attempt to obtain nuclear weapons was a natural extension of his need for influence. The Israeli strike on Osiraq occurred before the reactor went critical. Thus, the bomb grade Uranium was still available to Iraqi scientists. According to Khidhir Hamza, they salvaged 25 kilograms from the rubble. Within six years after the strike, Hamza estimates Iraq had twelve thousand scientists and technicians working to develop a nuclear weapon. Economically, following the strike, Iraq poured an estimated ten billion dollars into its, now buried, nuclear facilities scattered throughout Iraq. These scientists were able to work relatively uninterrupted for 4 years before Desert Storm hampered their efforts. They developed viable shaped charges, manufactured their own explosive caps, and cast their own Uranium sphere. Although Iraqi scientists accomplished significant milestones in design technology, they lacked an enriched core able to sustain a significant explosion.90 It was only a matter of time before Iraqi scientists obtained this fissile material. However, Desert Storm interrupted this attempt and further thwarted the Iraqi dictator’s plan for nuclear weapons. Thus, the Israeli strike on Osiraq delayed Iraq’s nuclear development, but did not dissuade Hussein’s search for “the bomb.”

In attempting to dissuade Iraq, the Israeli government did not view Hussein as irrational. An intelligence dossier on Hussein correctly reported him as a power-hungry, calculating risk-taker. Lavoy states, “The common assumption is that we [the deterrers] are rational, they [the challengers] are constrained by culture.”91 Israel chose to restrain Saddam Hussein by attacking one of his instruments of power. While this action did not discourage Hussein from his desire for nuclear weapons, it did buy time for Israel in the conflict. One condition of successful deterrence is having a proper perspective of the challenger. While the Israeli preventive strike on Osiraq served several short-term goals for Israel, it had long-term repercussions for the world.

2. Long Term Value

The Israeli preventive strike solidified a long-term change in the deterrence landscape. The strike was the first example in the Middle East of a precision aerial attack on another nation’s nuclear facilities. This Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) opened new realms of possibility based on a modern air force’s capability. According to Morgan, “Why is this a revolution? The best answer is that it should greatly affect the way force can be used. Force has usually been a blunt instrument.”92 Morgan claims nations with precision strike ability will now find deterrence much more appealing. This is incorrect. Precise force is still force. Military action should be the last resort any statesman chooses, due to its life and death nature. As quick and surgical as any precision strike appears prima facie, the long-term effects lie within the deterrence relationship of the states and not the effects of the weapons. Eliot Cohen states: “The days of Osiraq-type raids on a single, easily located, and above-surface nuclear facility are over. Secrecy, camouflage, deception and dispersion will make preemption a far more extensive and uncertain operation than ever before.”

Osiraq was a one-time good deal for the Israelis. The lessons since Osiraq prove Cohen correct so far. The long-term effects of any surprise attack will produce the following results: “harder” targets and more staunchly antagonistic enemies. This does not mean this author condemns military strikes to serve the state’s purpose. On the contrary, a military strike should be devastating and used when a nation is prepared to follow with additional military action. Domestic political aspects often override significant international political factors. This was the case with Israel in June 1981. Every intelligence indicator Begin received indicated Israel had time to mitigate Iraq’s nuclear reactor by other than military means. Begin saw the attack as a political launching pad and his ideological responsibility to the people of Israel. Concerning domestic issues Morgan states, “there is recurring evidence that governments, elites, and leaders are often barely moved by general deterrence threats that they ought to take into account. Often short-term thinking, not attuned to larger implications and potential consequences of what they are considering, drives them. They seem caught up in domestic political or ideological preoccupations.”

Strategically, Israel has a lack of Geostrategic depth and extreme sensitivity to loss of Israeli lives. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a staunch, determined enemy provoked strong reactions in Begin’s government. Morgan also states, “Top decision makers rarely understand the military preparations made to deal with crises, resulting in force postures unsuitable for deterrence situations.”95 Such was not the case in Israel, Begin and his trusted advisors were all very familiar with the Israeli Defense Force’s capabilities. The ideological and domestic political factors drove Begin for an early June strike....


Preventive strikes are relatively simple to plan and execute. They make a global statement immediately. However, the repercussions of these strikes are lasting and costly. Currently, the United States can see the truth of this implication daily. Policymakers eagerly looked for a precision Navy Tomahawk or TLAM to meet momentary political needs in the Middle East several years ago. Now the United States is seeing the long-term consequences. The conclusion of Planning the Unthinkable encourages United States decision makers to be prepared. A one-size-fits-all precision strike course of action will not produce good results.

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