“Don’t let Joshua know a thing about it.”
These were the instructions that Colonel Efraim Lapid, head of the IDF Intelligence Corps Collection Department, received from the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Rafael Eitan (Raful). The date was early June 1981 and H-hour for Operation Opera— the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak— was approaching quickly.
On the eve of Shavuot on June 7, 1981, a handful of IDF officers were ensconced in the Intelligence Corps operations room in Tel Aviv. In the adjacent operations room, a few more officers were directing the operation. At their head stood the commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Major General David Ivry, and next to him, Chief of Staff.
In retrospect, Operation Opera—the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor - was one of the most transformational events in the Middle East in recent decades.
The story begins in 1974, when a deal was signed between Iraq and the government of France. The deal called for France’s construction of two nuclear reactors in Iraq.
The Mossad soon discovered that the concern over the Iraqi reactor was indeed justified: in addition to scientific research the Iraqis were building a hot cell laboratory to separate plutonium from radioactive rods and were producing military-quality nuclear fuel. It was obvious they were planning to assemble an atomic bomb. The estimated date for production was 1980. Later, the date was pushed back to the fall of 1981.
This postponement was not caused by natural defects in the materials. Before the ink on the French-Iraqi agreement had dried, the Mossad already began sabotaging bomb production in the reactor. The clandestine organization tracked the sites where the equipment was being manufactured and its delivery route, and made sure that an invisible hand caused heavy damage. More than once the Iraqis complained to the French that the equipment being shipped was impaired.
French suspicion of Israel’s involvement in the subversion grew on April 6 1979 when a mysterious explosion occurred in the factory in Toulon, where the reactor’s dome was produced.
By 1980 it was clear that even if production was postponed, sooner or later it would make its debut. The big question was whether to attack the reactor and risk war with Iraq and a devastating international response against Israel or accept the fact that Iraq will be nuclear and hope for the best. The prime minister appointed a special committee, headed by the former Chief of Intelligence, Major General Aharon (Arele) Yariv, to study the issue. Yariv’s unequivocal recommendation was not to attack.
The Mossad was split by sharp differences of opinion between the head of the organization, Yitzhak (Haka) Hofi, and his deputy, Nahum Admoni (his successor). In the Intelligence Corps, the head of the Research Branch, Brigadier General (later major general) Aviad Ya’ari supported an attack – in diametric opposition to the head of the Intelligence Corps Major—General Saguy. The chief of staff, Raful, and the commander of the air force, Major General David Ivry (later deputy chief of staff, ambassador to the United States, and director of the National Security Council) believed that an attack was feasible.
Planning the attack began in 1979, when Weizman was defense minister. Weizman and Chief of Staff Eitan ordered a team to formulate two alternatives for neutralizing the reactor: a ground operation by Sayeret Matkal (Israel’s elite special forces unit) or an air strike.
The head of the secret team that examined the options for hitting the reactor was Colonel Aviam Sella, director of the air force’s operations department.
When the initial plans for an air strike began to crystallize, the IAF’s frontline planes were Phantoms, Skyhawks, and F-15s. These aircraft lacked the range for a round-trip flight to Baghdad. Israel’s air refueling ability was still undeveloped in this period.
An unexpected result of the Khomeini Revolution in Iran had enormous implications for the IAF: The United States decided to transfer eight F-16s, originally destined for the Shah’s army, to Israel. The planes landed at the Ramat David Base in the north of the country in July 1980. Eight of the twelve pilots, who trained on the F-16 in the United States, prior to their arrival in Israel, were designated to take part in the Osirak attack.
Anatomy of the attack
Preparations for the attack on the reactor continued parallel to secret discussions in the government. Begin insisted that decision be unanimous.
At the same time, the research department staff checked and rechecked the plans for attacking the reactor. They concluded that there was no importance in destroying the dome, but the reactor core, ten meters underground, had to be penetrated.
The head of the department was a young officer, Major Yitzhak Ben-Israel. After innumerable calculations, Ben Israel and his staff realized two giant dumb bombs were likely to do the job and blow up the reactor core, but just to make sure, the mathematicians recommended upping the number to eighteen. A decision on the flight path remained: on the one hand, the route had to be as short as possible because of fuel constraints, and as far as possible from radar stations, settlements, and ground observation.
In the meantime, the air force’s operations department drew up contingency plans in the event of complications. Possible landing sites for Hercules planes were located in the heart of the desert, the Mossad obtained Iraqi paper currency to be used by downed pilots to bribe the kings of the desert, the Bedouin, while awaiting rescue.
In the weeks prior to the attack the air force repeatedly ordered its planes to penetrate Jordanian air space. The Jordanians, who were in an official state of hostility with Israel but maintained friendly relations with it in practice, were furious at the violations of their sovereignty, but the desired effect was attained: “To get them used to” the fact that Israeli planes occasionally intruded across the border.
In the spring of 1981 Israel received solid information: Seventy kilos of enriched uranium were to be shipped to the reactor in June, after which time an attack would be impossible.
“A giant clock is hanging over our heads and it’s ticking away. I am referring to Iraq, whose nuclear weapons production is a danger to every man and woman in Israel. Sadaam Hussein will not hesitate to use a weapon of mass destruction against us,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared in the government meeting that approved the operation.
May 14 was the original date planned for the attack in Iraq. The latest intelligence reports showed that the reactor was protected by five SAM-6 (surface-to-air) batteries and a large number of anti-aircraft guns. As luck would have it, the reactor’s air defense layout was recently reinforced because of Iranian air strikes that had begun in January. The main problem was that the weapons now faced south – the direction of the enemy. Therefore, air force operations decided to have the planes swoop in from the north. In the final days before the attack, a SAM-6 battery from another area had suddenly disappeared from air force intelligence’s observation. It was assumed (an assumption that later proved correct) that it had been moved to the reactor. The risk level grew.
On the morning of the attack the chief of staff and commander of the air force made their way to Etzion Base from Tel Aviv in separate planes. Shamai Golan from the intelligence air group also flew the same route in a military executive plane. Golan clutched a black briefcase that he had picked up earlier from Mossad headquarters in the center of the country, and nobody, except for him, knew its contents.
The date of the attack was set for Sunday, when the French workers in the reactor (the few who remained after the Iranian air strikes) were on weekend vacation. Take off would be in the afternoon to allow the pilots to reach their objective at zero altitude in the last light of day and return at high altitude protected by darkness. A tense atmosphere enveloped Etzion on the morning of May 14. The mechanics scuttled around the hangars, the planes had arrived an hour earlier from their mother base in the north, and armed and fueled without anyone knowing their mission’s destination.
When Shamai Golan’s plane landed in the late afternoon, an unexpected mishap occurred: Golan slipped and his briefcase spilled open. Suddenly, hundreds of Iraqi bills flew out and scattered between the planes’ roaring engines. One of the mechanics, who immediately realized the planes’ target, fainted on the spot. Golan extended his hands to catch the fleeing money, and with the help of other mechanics managed to retrieve the bills and stuff them back into the briefcase.
A short while later absolute silence engulfed the squadron’s briefing room at Etzion. The last mission briefing. In the first row sat the eight F-16 pilots – divided into the two quartets that would attack the reactor in two waves hard and fast.
The first quartet (call sign: Scalpel) was led by operation commander, Lieutenant Colonel Zeev Raz, the commander of Squadron 117, the first jet squadron in the IDF. Together with him were Amos Yadlin as number 2, Hagai Katz, and Duby Yafe. The second quartet (call sign: Cluster) was led by Lieutenant Colonel Amir Nahumi, commander of Squadron 110, Knights of the North. The pilots in this quartet were Colonel Yiftach Spector, wing commander, as number 2, Israel Shafir as number 3 (and number 7 in the formation). The last plane, number 8, would be piloted by twenty-seven year old Captain Ilan Ramon, the only bachelor in the group, and later Israel’s first astronaut (who would lose his life in 2003 when the American space shuttle Columbia broke apart and exploded during reentry).
The pilots of the six F-15s from Squadron 133 sat in the second row of the briefing room. Their job was to attack the anti-aircraft batteries and defend the raiding party if Iraqi planes gave it chase and engaged in a dogfight. Seated with the F-15 pilots was head of the operations department, Aviam Sella.
The briefing opened with a short intelligence review, followed by operational instructions by the group leaders. There was no need to elaborate, everything had been gone over and practiced countless times.
The attack planes were on the runway, gunning up. In order to lift off with the maximum amount of fuel, Ivry allowed hot fuelling while the engines were running. The covering planes were also ready. Suddenly, an order came from Prime Minister Begin to cancel the mission. Begin had been under mounting pressure ever since the head of intelligence and Mossad director opposed the operation.
The pressure became unsustainable when on the very day of the operation he received a letter bristling with innuendoes from the Opposition leader, Shimon Peres, recommending aborting the perilous adventure. Begin consulted with Raful, who feared that too many people knew about the operation and that a leak could jeopardize the lives of the pilots. Therefore, Begin ordered mission abort. Ivry, Raful, and Begin all believed that the information was intentionally leaked to Peres in order to thwart the operation.
Suspicion immediately fell on one of the eight attack pilots, Duby Yafe, who was the nephew of the former defense minister Ezer Weizman, but especially on the intelligence chief, Yehoshua Saguy.
After the mission was called off, it was decided to issue a new order for the attack under the name - Operation Opera. To be extra cautious, and not even involve one typist too many, orders were handwritten – ten copies at most. The basic details didn’t change, Opera paralleled Ammunition Hill.
The commander of the air force was restless on the afternoon of June 7. The Mossad had to get its people out of Iraq. This meant there would be no one on the ground to report, on weather conditions in the reactor area.
At 16:01, the planes roared off the tarmac, each armed with two 900-kilo bombs. Two extra fuel tanks had been added under the wings, a third tank under the belly, and air-to-air Sidewinder missiles on the tips of the wings. The six F-15s also took off, flying in pairs of three just behind the lead planes. Each F-15 was armed with four Sparrow missiles, four Sidewinders, and an electronic warfare (EW) system.
Minutes after takeoff something happened that threatened to return the planes to base: King Hussein of Jordan was heard over a radio transmission reporting to Aman, from his Yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba, that he had just witnessed Israeli fighters heading east.
The king’s relations with Sadaam Hussein were excellent in this period. He rushed a call through from this yacht to the Jordanian military staff in Amman and ordered them to warn the Iraqis that Israeli planes were screaming in their direction.
The other side affirmed that it received the message and promised to convey it to the Iraqis. Hussein did not know, according to foreign sources, that the person on the other end of the line was not a Jordanian officer, but an Arabic-speaker from Israeli intelligence. The warning, probably, never reached its destination.
The planes flew at an altitude of a hundred meters, at 400 knots, in absolute radio silence. At the same time, in Israel’s skies, control and assistance planes were aloft, functioning as air control platforms and communications relay stations. Rescue forces were also in the air.
All told, seventy planes and helicopters took part in the operation. The F-16 pilots in the spearhead, flying at zero altitude, could sense the astounded inhabitants of the desert, some of whom waved a greeting at them, unaware that the planes were Israeli. Ninety minutes into the flight the glistening dome of the Osirak reactor suddenly appeared. Zeev Raz ordered speed increased to 600 knots. The planes immediately climbed to 10,000 feet and prepared for a dive attack.
“Watch it, anti-aircraft fire!” Raz warned over the radio. At 17:35, the attack commenced. Raz lingered a moment to carry out a heavy-load maneuver before attacking, but number 2 preceded him, Captain Amos Yadlin, and flew directly at the target."
“I’m on my back,” Duby Yafe later wrote in his diary, “coming in slowly, not to err, another slight correction, and that’s it. Now - Pickles 1 and 2. The bombs were released. A second has passed. Bank hard to the left and keep an eye out for missiles in the sky.”
“Full burn. I pull, and here it is looming before me the wall and insides, no mistake about it, the silvery dome in the evening sun,” Relik Shafir wrote. “Seven G, I ‘fold’ the plane at high speed, and see smoke starting to rise – still no big explosion.”
“I’m on my back. Now it’s only the plane and me. Heavy fire from inside the structure . . . don’t flub it. Another slight correction. Now. Bombs away!”