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 on Friday.
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.”
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.”