The broad concept for the strike against the al-Tuwaitha facility, code-named Operation Opera, was agreed to as early as November 1979, but the sensitive nature of the target and its distance from Israel demanded a great deal of preparation. When the idea was initially conceived the round-trip distance of 1,500 miles meant that the aircraft then available—Skyhawks and Phantoms—would have required in-flight refueling over hostile territory, a major complicating factor. The delivery to the IAF in 1980 of F-16s resolved that problem. Although the distance would test the F-16s and their top cover F-15s, meticulous planning would allow the mission to be flown unrefueled. A key factor in that calculation was retaining access to the airfield at Etzion, near the Gulf of Aqaba on the Sinai Peninsula. As part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel was in the process of evacuating the Sinai, but because Etzion was the most suitable location for launching a strike deep into Iraq, its handover was delayed.
Another notable event was the cooperation between Israel and Iran, a country whose post revolution leaders regularly called for the “annihilation” of the Jewish state. Prior to the start of the Iran-Iraq War, Israel provided Tehran with intelligence on Iraq’s military readiness, including details of the Tammuz reactor. The IRIAF returned the favor with a well-planned strike against three Iraqi air bases on April 4, 1981, destroying some thirty to forty IQAF aircraft and a substantial amount of infrastructure. In addition to weakening the IQAF, the Iranian raid diverted Iraq’s attention from Israel and exposed shortcomings in their air defenses that the IAF later exploited. Iran also gave Israel technical details of the Iraqi reactor. Additional intelligence came from the United States, whose KH-11 satellites routinely monitored al-Tuwaitha.
Even without the setback caused by the IRIAF strikes, the IQAF was struggling. Following the 1973 October War a faction of the IQAF attempted to replace Soviet doctrine and equipment with Western ideas and matériel, a push that led to the acquisition in 1976 of Mirage F-1 strike/fighters from France. However, Western aircraft were expensive and their operational concepts difficult to master; consequently, progress stalled and the IQAF became embroiled in an internecine three-way quarrel in which some favored organizational modernization, others wanted to retain the discredited but comparatively undemanding Soviet approach to air warfare, and others still wanted to revive the doctrines taught by the RAF in the 1950s. If there was a model of Iraqi airpower, it could only be described as “confused.”
While Iraq’s airmen procrastinated, Israel’s got on with the job. Gaps in the air-defense networks in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq were identified, and a route and flight profile was chosen to minimize the risk of detection and maximize fuel efficiency. Deception techniques were prepared, under which the IAF pilots would make radio transmissions in Arabic and, if challenged, pretend to be a Jordanian or Saudi air force formation that had wandered off course. Pilots practiced navigation, tactics, and weapons-delivery techniques, attacking a replica of the reactor.
While the IAF’s preparations were impeccable, they involved little that was new: the IAF simply did what first-class air forces do. One aspect that did offer professional interest, however, was the choice of weapon. Weapon selection centered on two issues: how much damage was needed to achieve the objective, and was there a risk of releasing nuclear-contaminated material into the atmosphere? In order to minimize the possibility of radioactive fallout, the reactor would have to be bombed before it became operational (“hot”), a condition Israeli intelligence reportedly believed would be reached in late 1981. Exhaustive investigations by specialist engineers satisfied the Israeli government that the risk of causing atmospheric contamination was slight.
That left the size, type, fuzing, and number of weapons to be determined. After analyzing the reactor’s construction, Israeli planners concluded that unguided, 2,000-pound high-explosive bombs should be used. Eight should be sufficient; twelve would provide a margin of error. Since the F-16s would be carrying full fuel, they were limited to two bombs each, indicating a formation of six aircraft, to which IAF commander Maj. Gen. David Ivry added two backups, making a strike force of eight. Some bombs would be fuzed to explode instantaneously to crack the casing, while others would have delayed fuzing to allow them to reach the reactor’s core before exploding, maximizing damage.
The use of unguided (“dumb”) bombs was noteworthy. U.S. pilots had used precision-guided munitions extensively ten years previously in North Vietnam, and there was no technical reason why the IAF could not have done the same; indeed, given the sensitivity of the target, it might seem odd that they chose otherwise. Perhaps because the mission was already pushing the boundaries of range, payload, and planning the IAF wanted to control as many other variables as possible—in this instance, the risk of malfunctioning or unusable (because of weather) bomb guidance systems. The F-16s were fitted with an excellent continuously computed impact point sight, which, together with the pilots’ skill, gave the IAF’s commanders every confidence the target would be hit. During practice for the raid, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, flew in a two-seat F-16B to observe progress.
The execution of the plan was near flawless. Eight F-16s with six F-15s as top cover took off from Etzion in the early afternoon of June 7 and flew unchallenged at low level over Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Remarkably, as the formation crossed the Gulf of Aqaba, it was seen by King Hussein of Jordan, who was holidaying there. Hussein deduced that the aircraft were heading for al-Tuwaitha and ordered his military headquarters to advise the Iraqis. The message either never reached Baghdad or was not heeded.
Crossing the Euphrates River well inside Iraq, the Israeli pilots were astonished that their antimissile warning systems remained silent, indicating that the enemy’s air-defense radars either had not detected them or were inactive. No Iraqi SAMs were launched, and no IQAF fighters were scrambled.
Situated in a drab suburban area and surrounded by a prominent wall, the al-Tuwaitha reactor was easily identified. The Israeli pilots pulled up to about 8,000 feet for a dive attack. Rolling-in at 5-second intervals, they dropped their bombs from 3,500 feet before breaking away hard and releasing missile-avoidance flares. Of the 16 bombs, 12 hit the main reactor. Leaving the site smoking and on fire, the formation climbed to 42,000 feet for the 90-minute flight home, again untroubled by the enemy.
A final small but thoughtful contribution was made by Major General Ivry as the strike force crossed the Israeli border. It can be easy in the excitement of completing an operational mission—let alone one of this significance—for a pilot to lose concentration and make a careless mistake during approach and landing. Ivry took the microphone, congratulated his pilots, and asked them to remain focused until they were safely on the ground. It was a nice touch, and a reminder that for all its seeming invincibility, the IAF was a small and personal organization. Saddam Hussein, by contrast, reportedly ordered the executions of the head of Iraq’s Western Air Defense Zone and all of the command’s officers above the rank of major.
International reaction to the raid was overwhelmingly critical, even from Israel’s staunchest supporter, with the American ambassador to the United Nations likening it to the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But much of the outrage was token: not many governments, including those of Iraq’s nominal Arab allies, were upset to see Saddam’s nuclear ambitions disrupted. And in Israel there was only satisfaction, with postmission intelligence revealing it was likely to be ten years before the reactor could be repaired.
As a military operation and statement of intent, the al-Tuwaitha raid was an unqualified success. The planning and execution were exceptional and the results decisive. If Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program did indeed constitute an existential threat to Israel, then it had been eliminated for about a decade; furthermore, the sheer brilliance and audacity of the operation burnished the IAF’s already imposing reputation. The raid thus served three of the Begin Doctrine’s objectives of counterproliferation, preventive strike, and deterrence.
It might seem contrary, therefore, to suggest that, as an exercise in airpower, the raid should be viewed with some caution. The issue is not the IAF but their Arab opponents. The fact that 14 hostile aircraft could spend 3 hours flying 1,500 miles over three enemy countries without being challenged beggars belief. That Iraq was already in a state of war, that the al-Tuwaitha reactor was a high-value target and had already been attacked, and that Israel’s policy of preemption was public knowledge merely compounded the offense. Given Egypt’s and Syria’s early success with GBAD in the 1973 October War, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the Baghdad area, including al-Tuwaitha, should have been defended by a 24/7 system.
As the sporting truism has it, we can only beat the opposition that takes the field. But when that opposition performs as badly as the Iraqis, it is necessary to ask: how would we have performed against someone else, against someone even moderately competent? Regardless of that, Operation Opera was an exemplary demonstration of playing to one’s strengths. In the Middle East, the Israeli model of airpower was supreme, and it made perfect military sense to use it preemptively and forcefully.
Once again, in the short term, Israel had thwarted a perceived threat to its existence, but also once again, the deeper strategic/political implications were less certain. According to the prominent American political commentators Bob Woodward and Richard Betts, the raid may have had the opposite effect to that intended. Looking back a quarter of a century after the event, Woodward reported that “Israeli intelligence were convinced that their strike in 1981 on the Osirak nuclear reactor . . . had ended Saddam’s program. Instead [it initiated] covert funding for a nuclear program . . . involving 5,000 people testing and building ingredients for a nuclear bomb.” Betts went even further, concluding that the additional resources Saddam allocated to Iraq’s nuclear program after the IAF’s raid “may actually have accelerated [Iraq’s nuclear program].” But probably neither of those opinions would have worried the IAF, whose masterful application of the Begin Doctrine had bolstered its standing as Israel’s weapon of first choice.