June 07, 2006

25 Years Ago Today

Another daring raid, even by Israeli standards

Osirak was a French-built 40 MW light-water nuclear materials testing reactor (MTR) in Iraq. It was constructed by the Iraqi government at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre, 18 km south-east of Baghdad in 1977. It was crippled by Israeli aircraft on June 7th 1981 in a preventive strike to stop the Saddam Hussein regime using the reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

On June 7, 1981, fourteen F-15s and F-16s flew off the runway of Etzion Air Force base in the Negev, flying over Jordanian, Saudi, and Iraqi airspace, to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor.

The attack was, of course, universally criticized. The United States notabene voted for a Security Council resolution condemning Israel and, as a punishment, delayed a shipment of aircraft to Israel that had already been authorized, as always true to the principled course they took when it was about standing by Israel's side: "Never annoy the Arabs. They could get mad with us."

The destruction of the reactor helped numerous countries besides Israel. Had Iraq obtained nuclear weapons they might have been able to achieve regional hegemony. Ten years after the attack, the American government noted this. In June 1991, during a visit to Israel after the Gulf War, then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney gave Major General David Ivri, then commander of the Israeli Air Force, a satellite photograph of the destroyed reactor. On the photograph, Cheney wrote, "For General David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm."

Professor Louis Rene Beres wrote that, "Israel’s citizens, together with Jews and Arabs, American, and other coalition soldiers who fought in the Gulf War may owe their lives to Israel’s courage, skill, and foresight in June 1981. Had it not been for the brilliant raid at Osirak, Saddam’s forces might have been equipped with atomic warheads in 1991. Ironically, the Saudis, too, are in Jerusalem’s debt. Had it not been for Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s resolve to protect the Israeli people in 1981, Iraq’s SCUDs falling on Saudi Arabia might have spawned immense casualties and lethal irradiation."

According to Yitzhak Shamir, "Deterrence was not attained by other countries – France and Italy – and even the United States. It was attained by the State of Israel and its Prime Minster who decided, acted and created a fact that no one in the world today – with the exception of our enemies – regrets."

As part of a series marking 25 years since Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, BBC News has interviewed four of the F-16 pilots involved:

Had mission commander Col Zeev Raz's risk assessment been proven right, one pilot would have ejected over Baghdad and another would have been waiting out in the desert for helicopters to rescue him in the night.

Yet the loss of two planes would have been a price worth paying in the eyes of the pilots of the eight F-16s and their two F-15 escorts: several believed they were averting nothing less than a new Holocaust of the Jews.

"No-one thought that all eight F-16s would return, no-one," the retired colonel says.

"We were really amazed that all of us landed back safely without a scratch."

Col Raz is the most vocal of the surviving pilots. For personal security reasons, three of them - Pilots A, B and C - would only talk to the BBC on condition of anonymity.
Osirak posed a formidable challenge: to fly a round trip of some 2,000km (1,200 miles) over hostile territory in new jets laden with bombs and extra fuel tanks.

The US-made single-seat F-16s had been in service for only a couple of years with the Americans, and had arrived in Israel less than a year before, though the pilots had been in training earlier in Utah.

"None of us had flown more than 100 missions in an F-16, which is not a lot, and the whole plane was completely new, its limitations were not completely clear, we were still learning," says Pilot A.

Pilot B was anxious about the runway at Etzion, Israel's Sinai Desert air base, which has since been returned to Egypt.

"I was very concerned whether the runway at that altitude would be sufficient for a take-off at our weight," he recalls.

In the event, all eight F-16s got away safely along with their escorts, rising into a clear sky just before 1600 (1300 GMT).

"After you take off, you have to pinch yourself and say 'Hey, it's the real thing' because riding there it's basically 90 minutes of navigation with not a lot of activity and it's like in training," says Pilot A.

Flying in unchallenged, Pilot C remembers his first glimpse of the reactor. "It glistened with the sun shining from the low west," he says.

This was despite the dome having been covered in mud by the Iraqis, rattled by a small-scale Iranian air attack the previous autumn.

Col Raz remembers the view from the cockpit as his F-16 climbed for the bombing run: "We could look right and see Baghdad and look left and see the reactor."

Within a minute, all eight planes had dropped their twin bombs on Osirak. Only two failed to explode.

Once the bombs were released, Pilot C recalls, his only thought was "jinking the AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] and getting to low level".

With their lack of fuel ruling out dogfights, the pilots' greatest concern was the flight home.

When they touched down at Etzion, each had at most 450kg (1,000 pounds) of fuel left.

Col Raz recalls relief, happiness and "some hugs" back on the ground but the celebrations had to wait until the pilots got back to their home base in Israel.

"Even then we didn't have much time to celebrate because we were flown on a small cargo plane to Tel Aviv to debrief with the generals," he says.

"It had gone just like in planning and therefore there was not a lot to say at the debriefing," Pilot A adds.
One of those pilots, however, who couldn't be interviewed by BBC News anymore, has become later famous as Israel's first astronaut.

IAF Colonel Ilan Ramon, born June 20, 1954 in Ramat Gan Israel, died February 1, 2003 over the southern United States when Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to scheduled landing.

In 1981, Ilan Ramon had been the youngest of the pilots who flew the F-16 jets that blew up the Osirak nuclear reactor.

We owe them much.