Thirty-five years after Operation Opera – the Israeli air attack that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, retired IAF officers and Mossad agents revealed hitherto unknown details of the operation...
In an expose aired on Channel 10, Col. (Ret.) Ze’ev Raz, who led the June 7, 1981 raid, said that Air Force technicians “recognized that flying to Iraq and back” — some 2,000 miles in all — was slightly beyond the range of our jets, so we used all sorts of tricks to extend it.”
From Times of Israel, 7 June 2016:
The Israeli Air Force could not rely on US flying tanker planes for mid-flight refueling at the time, and Israeli refueling capabilities, then in the making, would not be operational until 1982, by which point intelligence assessments were that the nuclear reactor would go online.
The strike could not be delayed, and therefore innovative methods for making the fuel last were introduced. All eight F-16As made it safely back; even 35 years later, however, the specifics of how they did so were kept secret.
The operation was initially called “Ammunition Hill,” but when prime minister Menachem Begin realized that opposition leader Shimon Peres had found out about the operation, he ordered its cancellation — and its continuation under a new name.
“We later wrote the exact same operational command, but this time with the name ‘Opera’, chosen randomly by the computer,” retired Maj. Gen. David Ivry, the IAF commander at the time, said in the Friday report.
Ivry said the first signs that the Iraqis were building a nuclear reactor had been spotted in 1976 or 1977.
Gad Shimron, a former Mossad agent, said Israel during those years had inside intelligence on the Iraqis’ efforts to buy equipment abroad and their plans to build a reactor. The initial intelligence goal was to delay the completion of the reactor, and to ascertain whether a completed, online Iraqi reactor would have the technology necessary for the production of plutonium.
Shimron said Mossad gathered large amounts of information on the progress of the Osirak reactor’s construction. “You don’t need to be an intelligence expert to understand that if you have a project in Iraq with several dozen foreign experts, then espionage agencies interested in finding out what is going on will try to recruit [them],” Shimron said. “It goes without saying that there was someone on the inside providing information.”
Ivry said the Mossad’s work delayed completion of the Iraqi reactor by up to two and a half years.
Israeli Air Force footage taken during the strike on Osirak:
Shimron recalled that the reactor’s first core, ready for shipping at the small port of La Seyne-sur-Mer in southeastern France, exploded in “mysterious” circumstances and was damaged beyond repair.
Ilan Ramon, who went on to become Israel’s first astronaut and who perished in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, was at the time a young, single navigation officer. When the time came to hit Osirak, he was the man tasked with preparing the maps and examining whether the jets the IAF had at the time could make the return trip.
Ivry said he believed the jets could easily get to Iraq, and could hit the reactor; the problem was returning alive.
Arye Naor, Begin’s government secretary, said the prime minister was determined to hit the Iraqi reactor “even if it was the last thing he did as a prime minister.”
The assessment, Naor said, was that “one or two jets would not return.”
Ahead of the strike, the pilots scheduled to take part in the mission were handed Iraqi currency, in case they became stranded on Iraqi soil and needed to escape.
After the operation had been postponed once, Ivry timed it for a Sunday, figuring that the French nuclear experts working at the site would be on their weekly day off. The pilots were instructed to avoid dogfights with Iraq’s Soviet-made MiG jets if there were civilian airliners nearby; the planned route passed not far from the flight paths of Iraqi civilian aircraft.
Ramon, the youngest pilot on the mission, said in an interview soon after returning home: “You know it can end in two ways, it can end with nothing really happening and everyone returning, or it can end with one or more staying there.
“We went there as a convoy in the end. So the first one – they see; the second one – they aim; the third one – they zero in; and the fourth one gets shot [by anti-aircraft cannons].”
Ramon was the last pilot in the convoy – the eighth in two quartets of jets.
“Everyone knows the last one is the one that risks the most,” Raz said. “It’s like a herd of antelopes being chased by a tiger. The guys made fun of [Ramon], saying he’d be the one who would be intercepted. So he was stressed… He also had no experience [Ramon had never before launched a bomb on a live mission] but he operated very well and he hit his target.”
“He was a fine pilot and a great fighter,” Raz said.
Moshe Melnick, who led a formation of interceptor planes that accompanied the attack jets, said that the pilots had been asked to announce via the communications system after leaving the target that they were safe and sound.
“One of them, I think it was Ilan Ramon, was late to announce on the comms and there were long seconds of silence. We were all worried for a moment, but then he made contact,” Melnick recalled.
The bombing of the reactor was condemned by the international community. France, especially, was furious, having invested large sums of money in its construction.
But Ivry recalled that in 1991, then-US secretary of state Dick Cheney gave him a black and white aerial photo of the bombed reactor in ruins. Cheney wrote on the photo: “It made our work much easier.” The quiet, non-public gesture was made after the end of the first Gulf War.
Begin, in a public statement after the operation was successfully concluded, said: “The decision to bomb the nuclear reactor in Iraq was taken many months ago and there were many obstacles. There were also many considerations, but we finally reached a stage at which we knew that if we failed to act now, it would be too late.”
From Times of Israel, 7 June 2016:
Major-General Amos Yadlin (Ret.), one of the eight Israeli air force pilots who conducted the extraordinary June 7, 1981 raid on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, spoke last week at the 2016 UN Watch Gala Dinner in Geneva, Switzerland.
This mission was 35 years ago, which is a lot of time. For 10 years, we were forbidden to talk about it — it was top, top, top secret.
Then after the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein wasn’t that big anymore, we were allowed to start and brief about it, mostly in the air force, and some other places in the Israeli military.
And for 10 years, I was speaking about these sorties. After 10 years, I said enough is enough. And the last 15 years, I basically refused to talk about it. But I cannot resist Alfred. [Ambassador Alfred Moses, Chair of UN Watch.]
And since you ask, it is an important mission in the history of Israel, because never before was a nuclear reactor pre-empted to save a nation.
There was an attack, even in WWII, on nuclear facilities, but it was not a case of one tactical mission that basically decided the fate of a nation and the history.
But as a young fighter pilot — you know today from my sixties, 30-years-old today looks to me very young — a young fighter pilot, you are not interested in history.
You’re interested in taking your flying machine, flying 1,000 kilometers, which is beyond what the designer of the airplane thought that it can fly without refueling — we didn’t have refueling capabilities in the early 80s; without GPS; without even a reconnaissance picture of the target; and do all this in time of a war. Iran and Iraq were in a war at the time. So the level of alert and readiness was very, very high.
And you come to an area where there are no mountains, a valley between the two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. And you know that you will be discovered and be picked up by the early warning radars. So a very tough mission for a fighter pilot.
But every pilot in the squadron was fighting to be in the group of eight and to fly.
So it was a professional mission, but I always, between year 10 to year 20 when I spoke about it, I say: the heroes of this mission, this historical mission are not the pilots. The heroes are those who have taken the decision to do it. This is leadership, this is a leadership that takes tough decisions, even if they know what are the risks and consequences.
And I was lucky enough in 2007 to be among those decision-makers, and only then I understood myself why it’s so important and so difficult to be the decision-maker, because…
Let me end this part of the interview with a small anecdote. In the Israeli air force, the culture is that every second lieutenant can challenge a general or the commander of the squadron or the commander of the wing, the commander of the base.
And, among the eight pilots, there was only one pilot who had not participated before in the Yom Kippur War. And he raised his hand in the briefing and asked the air force commander:
“Look, we are going to destroy the nuclear reactor of Iraq, but I think this is very risky. According to all our calculations, four out of eight will not come back. We will destroy the nuclear reactor, but the Iraqis will have more motivation. They have a lot of money from oil, and the French will sell a reactor to whoever gives them a billion dollars. And within two years, there will be a new reactor there. So what are we doing? Is this worthwhile?”
Interesting question to the air force commander general. The air force commander general was about to answer it, but there was one general with a higher rank there, the chief of staff, the Ramatkal, Raful Eitan. A farmer from a moshav, I suspect he never graduated high school, but he gave a speech that I will take with me until my last day, on the difference between theory and practice.
And he said, “You know, it will not be two years. Because until Saddam Hussein will understand what happened, and he will have to think whether the Israelis will come again, and he already allocated his money, and the French may be hesitating to sell. It will not be two years, it will be five years. And for five years, you can risk your life. Because you volunteered to be a pilot, and that is a mission to do.”
Thank God, it’s 35 years, and maybe even more.