'One of the greatest ironies in history'

38 years later, pilots recall how Iran inadvertently enabled Osiraq reactor raid

Surviving participants in Israeli airstrike that destroyed Saddam’s nuclear site gather to retrace mission that ‘remade the Middle East’

The IDF pilots who participated in the Operation Opera bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. (Israel Defense Force archive)
The IDF pilots who participated in the Operation Opera bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. (Israel Defense Force archive)

Thirty-eight years after Operation Opera — the Israeli air attack that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak — surviving pilots gathered to mark the event, noting “one of the greatest ironies in history”: that the attack was enabled by the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

When Israel discovered in 1977 that Iraq was building a plutonium reactor that could be used to make nuclear weapons, the fighter jets at its disposal —  F-4 Phantoms and Skyhawks — were not capable of flying the over 1,000 miles into enemy territory and returning safely, recalled retired Maj. Gen. David Ivry, the IAF commander at the time, in a TV interview at the recent gathering.

But in 1979, Israel had a stroke of good fortune.

The Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a staunch US ally, leading the US cancel a massive deal to supply Iran with 75 top-of-the-line F-16 fighter jets.

Too early for this angle, says Eilam. The view of the Iraqi nuclear reactor as seen on the screen of one of the attacking F-16s (Photo credit: IDF/AF via Tsahi Ben-Ami/ Flash 90)
The view of the Iraqi nuclear reactor as seen on the screen of one of the attacking F-16s (Photo credit: IDF/AF via Tsahi Ben-Ami/ Flash 90)

The Americans then offered them to Israel.

Iranian Islamic Republic Army soldiers carry posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution of 1979. (Keystone/Getty Images/via JTA)

“I immediately said yes,” recalled Ivri in the interview with Channel 12, broadcast on Sunday night. “Without asking anybody. When someone offers you the best fighter jets, first of all you say yes, then you see…,” he said.

The Osirak reactor prior to the 1981 Israeli bombing (photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The fact that the jets came to us because of the Iranian revolution is one of the greatest ironies in history,” said Col. (Ret.) Ze’ev Raz, who led the June 7, 1981, raid, and who also participated in the get-together marking 38 years since the strike.

But even with the new jets, it was far from clear that they would be able to make it to Iraq and return safely with the fuel capacity of the F-16, which led to the air force employing a wide range of workarounds to try to make the mission possible.

Amos Yadlin, former Director of Military Intelligence (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Amos Yadlin when he served as head of IDF intelligence (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“There was no mid-air refueling, no GPS, none of these technologies,” said Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who was a pilot during the mission and went on to become the head of IDF intelligence. “The pilots had to really concentrate,” he said, noting that even the tiniest miscalculation could mean there was not enough fuel to return.

“We flew at speeds best suited to conserving fuel and not the best speed for flying in enemy territory,” said Yadlin.

Ivri said that they were so worried about not having enough fuel, they did something that was “normally forbidden.” Once the jets were lined up on the runway ready to depart, they wheeled out a tanker to top up their tanks to the absolute limit.

To maximize the chances for success, Ivri sent eight aircraft instead of the originally planned four. Seven of the pilots were experienced and the eighth was included because of his role in preparing the maps and examining whether the jets the IAF had at the time could make the return trip.

That was Ilan Ramon, who went on to become Israel’s first astronaut and who perished in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

Late IAF pilot and astronaut Ilan Ramon, interviewed shortly after 1981’s Operation Opera, in which Israel destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. (Screen capture: Channel 10)

Raz said that Ramon had played such a big part in the planning for the raid and figuring out the fuel use, that he would have felt bad about not including him, even though there were more experienced pilots clamoring to be part of the attack, and “even though he had never dropped a bomb in enemy territory before.”

At the gathering to commemorate the event, the pilots reenacted their attack on flight simulators, met with current senior IAF personnel, and shared their experience with several youths brought there as part of the Ramon foundation set up in his memory.

“It was a very marginal operation [in terms of feasability] that I don’t believe any other air force would have carried out,” said Ivri.

Nevertheless, the pilots said they believed the true hero was prime minister Menachem Begin, who ordered the attack.

The Israeli Air Force F-16A Netz 243 flown by Colonel Ilan Ramon in the Operation Opera bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. (KGyST/Wikipedia)

“The real hero of this operation was not the pilots, but those who took the decision, and it was a very difficult decision,” said Yadlin. “Firstly, the whole Middle East was hostile and the diplomatic damage could have been huge.”

The bombing of the reactor was condemned by the international community. France, especially, was furious, having invested large sums of money in its construction.

Yadlin hailed “the decision by Begin, and the doctrine that was established with this operation and later named after him: that if there is an Arab leader who calls for the destruction of Israel, Israel will not allow them to have nuclear weapons.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin inspects an F-16 fighter jet (Screencapture/Channel 12)

Israel again employed the Begin Doctrine on September 6, 2007, in a mission known as Operation Orchard, when Israeli jets destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria. Israel has also repeatedly warned that it could attack Iran to prevent that country gaining nuclear weapons.

“That doctrine was founded in this [Osirak] operation, and it has not yet ended,” said Yadlin.

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