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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Operation Opera, June 7, 1981

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Today in 1981, aircraft of the Israeli Air Force bombed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor located near Baghdad. The consequences of the raid, both intended and unintended, helped to shape world opinion of Israel and took Iraq out of the nuclear club for the remainder of the 20th century.

Iraq’s nuclear program began in the mid-1960’s, but it remained a mostly academic exercise until the late 1970’s, when the nation’s government sought to purchase an Osiris-class nuclear reactor from France. This was not the Iraqis’ first choice, but France would not sell Baghdad a breeder reactor designed to be farmed for plutonium. The French called the reactor Osirak, a combination of the class name and Iraq. The Iraqis dubbed it Tammuz 1 after the month in the Arabic calendar in which the Baath Party, the nation’s ruling clique, came to power in 1968.

Israel learned of the reactor's existence during the early stages of its construction. The government in Tel Aviv voiced its concerns to the United Nations. At that time, Iraq was a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, meaning that the nation's reactors could be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Despite this, Israel had little faith that Iraq would not attempt to procure weapons-grade material from the reactor.

The next stop for the Israelis was France, the country which sold Iraq the reactor and was helping to build it. The French government had not interest in halting the program, and so the nation of Israel was left with two options: do nothing and hope that Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, would not develop nuclear weapons that could threaten Israel and neighboring countries, or destroy the reactor. In the end, the decision was taken to mount a raid against the reactor.

The mission to destroy the Osirak reactor was fraught with danger. The distance from the designated Israeli airfield to the reactor was over 1000 miles. Under normal circumstances, a mid-air refueling would be necessary, but in this case it was out of the question because the aircraft would be flying over Jordanian and Saudi territory, both countries that were given no prior warning about the raid. The aircraft would have to carry their own extra fuel on top of their heavy weapons loads.

The strike group was comprised of 8 F-16A fighter/bombers, each armed with 2 2000-pound bombs and carrying external fuel tanks. 6 F-15As were sent to provide fighter cover for the F-16s in case the group was attacked by Iraqi fighters. They would fly low for almost the entire mission and even lower once they entered Iraqi airspace. The fuel situation was so tight that any F-15 forced to engage in a dogfight would stand almost no chance of making it back to base.

The 14 aircraft took off in the afternoon of June 7th from Etzion Air Force Base in the Negev region of Israel near the nation's southernmost point. All went well until one of the F-16s strayed off course and flew directly over the Jordanian city of Aqaba. Hundreds of residents saw the jet clearly and a warning was sent to the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The element of surprise was now gone; all that the Israeli pilots had going for them now was the knowledge that the Iraqis did not know the target.

Once the group entered Iraqi airspace, four of the F-15s split off and spread out to create a diversion should the Iraqi Air Force be looking for the bombers. The rest of the group descended to less than 100 feet in the hope that they could stay below the horizon of any search radar in the area. 13 miles from the reactor, the jets climbed above 3,000 feet and begin diving towards the target. Their bombs were released in 5-second intervals. The pilots reported 16 hits on the reactor complex, but later learned that two of the weapons did not detonate. It was only after the bombs had been dropped that the local air defense battalion opened fire. Evidently, word of the incoming raid had not reached them and they were caught completely by surprise. Once clear of the area, the group climbed to a more comfortable cruising altitude and headed back to Israel.

The reactor complex was not completely destroyed, but was put out of commission for the foreseeable future. France originally agreed to help in the reactor's repair, but backed out in 1984. Eleven people were killed in the attack: ten Iraqi soldiers and one French engineer. US bombers finished the job of destroying the site during the Gulf War in 1991.

Israel defended the attack by claiming that it acted in self-defense as outlined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Despite this, outrage over the attack was swift and harsh. The UN Security Council voted to place Israel's nuclear facilities under the same safeguards that Iraq had supposedly abided to, but Israel refused to comply. The United States condemned the action, but unofficially the raid was looked on as a necessary precaution. Nonetheless, the US withheld a shipment of aircraft promised to Israel as a response. The French were outraged by the death of one of their citizens; diplomatic relations between France and Israel remain strained to this day.

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