Home Aviation History A detailed description of Operation Wooden Leg, the Israeli F-15 Baz long-range strike that destroyed PLO’s HQ complex in Tunis

A detailed description of Operation Wooden Leg, the Israeli F-15 Baz long-range strike that destroyed PLO’s HQ complex in Tunis

by Dario Leone
A detailed description of Operation Wooden Leg, the Israeli F-15 Baz long-range strike that destroyed PLO’s HQ complex in Tunis

Operation Wooden Leg had lasted almost twice as long as the Osirak raid of 1981.

Bought in the mid-1970s to secure air superiority for Israel in the Middle East for decades to come, the F-15 Eagle has indeed been the unrivalled master of the skies since its arrival in December 1976.

In the 1980s, the air superiority fighters were also modified to perform long-range precision bombing strikes, and their mission capability was significantly boosted with the arrival of the awesome two-seat F-15I Raam in 1998.

As explained by Shlomo Aloni in his book Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat, it was in fact thanks to the foresight shown by the IDF/AF that the Baz (as the F-15A/B/C/D air superiority fighters were christened by IAF) developed into a long-range strike aircraft. Following the Lebanon War, the Israeli government was able to authorise a strike on the PLO headquarters in Tunis in October 1985 following a terror attack on Israeli citizens far from home. The previous month on Sep. 25, the PLO’s Force 17 had attacked an Israeli yacht 4 the coast of Larnaca, Cyprus, killing the crew of three. This action would duly result in the IDF/AF carrying out its longest ever bombing mission.

Israel was a nation in crisis in 1985, with its economy in the brink of collapse following rampant inflation. The June 1982 war had yielded no diplomatic breakthrough with Israel’s neighbours, or put a stop to the PLO terrorist threat, so on Jan. 14, 1985 the Israeli government decided to withdraw from Lebanon. The pullout had been completed by June of that year, although a small IDF force remained to support the Christian militia in the buffer zone in southern Lebanon until May 2000.

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Hundreds of Israeli soldiers had lost their lives in Lebanon between 1982 and 1985, yet no diplomatic solutions had been reached with neighbouring Arab countries as a result of this campaign. Even the PL0’s deportation from Lebanon proved to be a hollow victory, as its guerilla  war against Israel was continued by Shiite Muslim militia groups as Amal Movement and Hezbollah, which were created following the war to fill the political vacuum left in the south of country.

In a counter-terror operations conference held in 2005, a respected Israeli defence analyst summed up the situation facing the IDF post-1982 when he made the following analogy;

‘A military force can defeat terror on the tennis court, only to find out that the terrorists have already started playing basketball — an entirely new game on a new court.’

And this was the situation that Israel found itself in in 1985 following the Palestinian attack off Cyprus. The IDF had smashed the PLO’s infrastructure in Lebanon, but the Palestinians had decided to open a new front far away from Israeli soil.

A massive retaliatory air strike was deemed by the Israeli government to be the only way the PLO could be deterred from this course of action, and the organisation’s new HQ complex in Tunis, 1280 miles from Israel, was selected as the target.

Codenamed Operation Wooden Leg, the mission’s planning and execution was entrusted to the Spearhead Squadron. At the heart of the attack would be six of the seven F-15B/Ds assigned to the unit, and they would be flown by the squadron’s six GBU-15-qualified crews. These aircraft/crews would also be supported by other IDF/AF assets, including four Double Tail Squadron single-seat jets. Two single-seat Bazs would trail the two-seaters as Nos 7 and 8 all the way to Tunis, where they would drop unguided GP bombs. Two more Double Tail Squadron jets were part of the spare force for the mission, and they would fly with the primary strike aircraft until the critical in-flight refuelling point.

A detailed description of Operation Wooden Leg, the Israeli F-15 Baz long-range strike that destroyed PLO’s HQ complex in Tunis

Once the jets had topped off their tanks, the eight F-15s would then press on with the mission and the two spare jets would return home. However, if one or two of the jets failed to take on sufficient fuel for the rest of the operation, or suffered a technical malfunction whilst on the tanker, the spare, or spares, would immediately take its place, leaving the faulty jet to head back to Israel.

As was the case with previous IDF/AF special operations, the Wooden Leg aircrew were the best in their field when it came to using PGMs. Sticking with tradition, the formation’s still officially unidentified senior officer flew in the liar that occupied the No 4 position, as had been the case in 1981 when fellow Mirage IIIC ace Yiftach Spector led the Osirak raid in a brief break from his job as CO of Ramat David air base. Seven of the aircrew involved were already MiG killers, while eighth participant would join this prestigious group the following month.

The Israeli government authorised the strike on Sep. 26, 1985 and the aircrew involved flew a complex training mission the following day in order to practise the in-flight refuelling drill and PGM delivery aspects of the operation. With preparations complete, on the morning of Oct. 1 the Baz crews headed to their jets at the start of the IDF/AF’s longest ever bombing mission.

The ten F-15 strike aircraft took off at 0800 hrs local time, with the No 5 jet pressing on to the tanker despite one of its two multi-function displays refusing to work. An hour into the flight, the Bazs rendezvoused with two Boeing 707 tankers, and the in-flight refuelling phase of the mission was successfully accomplished. With each aircraft now laden down with 13.5 tons of fuel, the F-15s pressed on to Tunis, whilst the two air spares headed home.

After one final INS update, the formation split into two flights of four in trail, with a four-minute separation interval. A few minutes later, another technical malfunction struck the No 3 jet when the aircraft’s bomb delivery system went off line whilst the PGMs were being given a final check time by the crews. Since each Baz had its own aim point within the PLO HQ compound, there was no back-up available that could bomb No 3’s target. The crews quickly discussed target reallocation, but it was decided to keep things as they were, for individual crews were intimately acquainted with their respective targets.

For the GBU-15 to be effective, its engagement envelope was dependent on a clear line of sight between the target and the data link equipment carried in the retreating bomber — clouds and smoke greatly affected the navigator’s ability to guide the bomb. The maximum drop altitude and range for the PGM was 40,000 ft and 24 miles, respectively. As the bomb glided down towards the target, the pilot broke away from the area while the navigator continued to guide the PGM to its aim point using a television camera image transmitted from the bomb to the Baz via a data link pod. This picture was the ‘uplink’ in the system, while the steering input to the bomb from the Baz’s navigator was the ‘downlink’.

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As the bombers began to approach the Tunisian coast, Baz crews were dismayed to see plenty of cloud in the sky near the target area. And it was only when they got closer to Tunis itself that they were relieved to see that the target area was cloud-free, which meant that the PGM attack could indeed go ahead.

Once within range, the first three Baz bombers released their ordnance — following a wait of 90 seconds, three direct hits were seen. It was now the second wave’s turn to attack, with Nos 5 and 6 dropping their PGMs. Only the weapon released by the first jet scored a direct hit, however, for No 6’s bomb missed the target.

Having expended his GBU-15, the mission leader now joined up with the final pair of F-15s (which were not armed with PGMs) on their bombing run so that his navigator could photograph the smoking ruins of the PLO HQ complex. No 8 acquired his target and released the six 500-lb Mk 82 bombs carried on the jet’s underbelly vertical ejector rack. However, thick smoke over the target precluded the pilot of the No 7 jet from visually identifying his aim point, so he and the formation leader circled Tuinis once more, before returning for a successful bombing run that was made from a different direction.

Israel immediately announced that the attack had been a complete success. The PLO’s HQ compound was in ruins, up to 75 people (of which around 60 were PLO members, some reportedly from Force 17) had been killed and dozens more were injured.

Leaving a shell-shocked Tunis behind them, the F-15 crews headed east — each jet was still carrying ten tons of fuel. Their flight home to Tel Nof was made that much easier after they rendezvoused with a command & control Boeing 707 that had also been involved in the mission. With the latter jet acting as a mother-ship, the F- 15s all landed safely back at base at 1400 hrs local time, thus ending the six-hour operation. This mission had lasted almost twice as long as the Osirak raid of 1981.

A detailed description of Operation Wooden Leg, the Israeli F-15 Baz long-range strike that destroyed PLO’s HQ complex in Tunis

Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Israeli Air Force Facebook Page

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