Discussion Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Targeting Nuclear Programs in War and Peace

| October 2009


When do states attack or consider attacking nuclear infrastructure in nonnuclear weapons states? Despite the importance of this question, relatively few scholarly articles have attempted to identify the factors that lead a state to attack another state's nuclear facilities. This paper conducts the first large-n analysis on when states use force as a way to control proliferation. We develop four arguments on when staes attack nuclear infrastructure and identify specific hypotheses that flow from each of them. We test these hypotheses using a new data set on all instances when countries have struck or seriously considered striking other states' nuclear infrastructure between 1941 and 2000. Our findings challenge existing arguments that states are deterred from attacking nuclear programs by the prospect of a military retaliation from the proliferating state or concerns about international condemnation. Instead, we find that states are more likely to attack nuclear programs when they believe that the proliferating state might use nuclear weapons or engage in other offensive behavior. States are willing to accept substantial costs in attacking if they believe that a particular country's acquisition of nuclear weapons poses a significant threat to their security.


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For Academic Citation: Fuhrmann, Matthew, and Sarah E. Kreps. “Targeting Nuclear Programs in War and Peace.” Discussion Paper, Paper 2009-11, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2009.

The Authors