On Jun. 7, 1981, Israel shocked the world with its daring raid against the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Al Tuwaitha, near Baghdad.
As told by Bertie Simmonds in his book F-16 Fighting Falcon, the story began in 1976 when the French government sold an Osiris-class nuclear reactor to Iraq. Dubbed ‘Osiraq’ or Osirak by the French, it was maintained by both Iraqi and French personnel.
In the intervening years there have been some very persuasive arguments and direct evidence to say that the tightly-controlled reactor could not have had anything to do with any direct nuclear weapons programme, rather it was to produce nuclear-powered electricity.
The worry as to what the Iraqi nuclear programme was for was shown during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1989. On Sep. 30, 1980, Iranian McDonnell Douglas F-4E fighter-bombers attacked the facility in Operation Scorch Sword, causing some damage but not destroying the Osirak reactor but French technicians returned to repair the damage.
A later recce mission by Iranian RF-4Es rook pictures of the facility — pictures that were rumoured to have been sent to Israel. In the background during the late 1970s, Israel persisted with diplomatic means to try and halt use and development of the reactor, but without success. The rumours were that other, more clandestine means were used, including using planted bombs in the facility and more threats and attempted assassinations to those connected with the Iraqi project. By late 1979 Israeli President Menachem Begin was apparently in favour of a policy of ‘first strike’ to neutralise the threat from the Iraq nuclear facility.
The Israel Defence Force/Air Force delayed their own mission long enough to get the machines it needed for the attack — the F-16 Netz. With Netz deliveries at around four a month, it took time for the IAF to get the aircraft and spares available for the attack. They wanted around eight aircraft with a number of machines ready in case any aircraft went unserviceable.
The F-16 was the weapon of choice due to its considerable range, which meant that the target which was 700 miles away from Israeli territory was within striking distance — just. Also, the Netz could carry the 2000lb Mk.84 free-fall bomb, which was the IAF’s weapon of choice for the mission. And finally, the F-16’s modern weapons delivery suite and Continuous Computed Impact Point (CLIP) imagery in the head-up display would make delivery from low-level more assured.
When the F-16 airframes became available, it was game on for Operation Ofra — or Opera.
Training began in the Negev desert in the summer of 1980, where a replica of the reactor was built so that the pilots could familiarise themselves with the facility they would be attacking. The first simulated attack took place on Aug. 23, 1980, and cabinet approval for the mission was given in the October. A second simulated attack happened in November.
After months of training the IAF pilots were highly proficient in both their mounts and in being able to deliver weapons on the intended target. Eventually, one day before the attack, Colonel Iftach Spector — who was to participate in the raid himself — announced when they would be going.
With the raid planned for as early as November 1980 and later May 1981, eventually the time was set. On Sunday, Jun. 7, 1981, at the Etzion airbase, 12 miles from Eilat, on the Red Sea, the plan was to be put into operation. Eight F-16 Netz aircraft would be supported by six McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles. Just-delivered Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes and CH-53 Sea Stallions would provide search and rescue should any pilots be shot down — and the IAF was expecting one or two losses. Each Netz carried two Mk.84 2000lb bombs, two external wing tanks, a centreline tank and two AIM-9 Sidewinders.
This was a tricky mission as the tanks would have to be jettisoned alongside the live ordnance. Normally external weapons would be dropped before tanks were dropped — but not this time. Colonel Ze’ev Raz said: “This is something that I don’t think is even done today. The problem is that the tanks are near the bombs and when you carry bombs on the wings you’re not allowed to jettison them until the bombs are dropped.” It’s thought that the 16 wing tanks are still out in the desert somewhere.
At 3pm local time the aircraft took off and history was about to be made. The F-16 Netz machines were made up of aircraft and crews from both 110 and 117 Squadrons. Discipline and radio-silence had to be maintained at all times and despite some fears as to whether all of the heavily-laden aircraft could get off the ground, around an hour after the F-16s staggered into the air from Etzion.
Alone the F-16s were vulnerable to air-to-air attack, but together with the F-15s, the formation crossed north-east from Saudi Arabia, into Iraq by an indirect route often flying over empty swathes of desert to get to their destination. The route would see them fly at low-level over deserted areas of Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia before they crossed the Iraqi border.
At around 5.30pm local time, the formation broke — with the F-15 Eagles screaming for height to protect the attacking F-16s. Meanwhile the attack pilots, with fuel burnt off and wing-tanks jettisoned, gained sonic height to acquire their target. With some extra altitude, the Netz pilots could identify the Osirak Nuclear Reactor itself: it was unmistakable; the dome was 60ft in diameter and around 11ft thick.
The attack went in at around 5.35pm, with first section leader Ze’ev Raz in F-16 Netz, coded 113 with Amos Yadlin in the historic Netz 107 airframe with him and ‘Doobi’ Yoffe and Colonel Relik Shafir, deputy commander from 117 Squadron in Netz 129 just behind. The other four machines followed their lead. Reports indicate that the weapons were delivered on the target by two waves of two pairs of Netz aircraft. Around 10 miles from the target they popped up from ground level to just under 10,000ft to deliver the ordnance in a 35-degree dive at around 600 knots.
Commander Ze’ev Raz said: “We knew they should have been able to see us 15 minutes before we got there, but their attention was on the east not the west. We dropped our ordnance and saw nothing fired at us. After two minutes at low level we climbed to 40,000ft and still they didn’t attack us. We saw no fighters and were surprised and even a little disappointed.”
Some reports indicate that all 16 Mk.84 bombs hit the target but one failed to explode. Others claimed that one or two failed to explode and that one went wide of the facility. Either way, considering that it was thought two Mk.84s could destroy the facility, it was an excellent piece of airmanship, with the aircraft being over the target for just around one-and-a-half minutes. Apart from sporadic anti-aircraft fire and some reported surface-to-air missile launches greeting the second element led by Amir Nachumi, the defenders did little to hinder the attackers.
It’s thought that chaff and countermeasures were used when the attackers exited the target area and other reports claim that some Iraqi targeting radars were turned off as personnel were away on a break. Either way, the eight F-16 Netz machines linked up with the F-15 Eagles and headed for home with no losses.
It was rumoured that as part of the deal for gaining Intel for the attack, Israeli aircraft were granted a safe haven in Iran should any aircraft be damaged and not be able to make the long flight back to their homeland, but even if it was true, it was not needed. It is believed that Saddam Hussein had a number of his Air Force’s top brass executed for their failure to intercept the mission. It was also reported that 10 Iraqis were killed and one French civilian and engineer Damien Chaussepied. Later in 1981 the Israeli Government made a payment of restitution to his family.
After a three-hour flight which saw no form of interception, the aircraft landed at Etzion and were quickly re-distributed to their parent units.
Outwardly the attack was criticised around the world — even if secretly a number of Middle East and the Western nations were supportive of the attack, one would assume the same from the US, who — while was criticising the attack, had supplied intel from various spy satellites. On hearing of the attack President Ronald Reagan was reportedly shocked, asking; “They did what?” before saying: “Well, boys will be boys.” The majority of his chiefs of staff were against the action, including the then Vice President George Bush Senior, but Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State said: “Mr President, before this is over, we will be on our knees thanking God Israel did what it did.”
F-16 Fighting Falcon is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.
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