Operation Opera: how 8 Israeli F-16s destroyed an Iraqi nuclear plant 33 years ago today

Jun 07 2014 - 23 Comments

33 years ago, one of the most famous and dangerous long range attack mission in Israeli Air Force history.

Israeli Air Force’s interest in the Lockheed Martin F-16 was born after the Yom Kippur War when the IAF realized that, alongside the F-15 Eagle, they needed a new, advanced, relatively cheap, multirole jet.

The negotiations with the U.S. to acquire the F-16 started in 1975 and after some years of delay, caused by the Middle East tensions, the Fighting Falcon sale was finalised in 1979 as result of the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

The first F-16s were delivered to the IAF in 1980 and the following year, before all the Netz (as the F-16A is called by IAF) were handed over, the new Vipers took part in one of the most famous mission in Israeli Air Force history, the Operation Opera.

The operation was aimed at destroying the Iraqi Osirak nuclear plant, also called Tamuz 1, at Al Tuwaitha, 12 miles southeast of Baghdad.

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As explained by Bill Norton in his book Air War on the Edge, A History of the Israel Air Force and its aircraft since 1947, the IAF conducted this attack following Saddam Hussein’s bellicose claims which led to the Israeli fear that the French-built facility could have the capabilities to produce weapons-grade fissionable material.

The training was conducted in the Negev where a mock-up of the nuclear plant was built: against this facility at least two attacks were simulated in August and September 1980. After the training missions, four dates were set and after three of them were cancelled, on Sunday May 10, 1981 pilots were already aboard their aircraft when the operation was cancelled once again because of the risk some French employees could be inside the Osirak plant at the time of the attack.

But finally on Jun. 7, 1981 at 15:55LT Operation Opera was launched.

IAF F-16

Eight F-16s, belonging to both 117 and 110 Squadrons both based at Ramat David, took off from Etzion, the best placed base for the attack, escorted by six F-15s while an E-2C Hawkeye provided airborne early warning and control and several CH-53s for SAR duties were deployed near the Iraqi border.

Two more Fighting Falcons were kept as a reserve.

The F-16s were armed with two 2,000 pounds Mk. 84, two AIM-9J Sidewinders, two 370 gal. external tanks under the wings and one 300 gall tank under the belly.

[Read also: Israeli Air Force strikes Syria for the second time. Syrian air defenses unable to react.]

As told by Norton, the Israeli jets flew more than 600 miles in the skies of three supposedly enemy nations: to reach the target, the first country that the aircraft overflew was northern Saudi Arabia and its deserts.

The route over Iraq was planned not only to avoid the radar coverage but also the airfields; inbound to the target the F-16s flew at an altitude between 150 and 300 ft.

At 17:35 with the sun at their back complicating any intercept attempt, the aircraft arrived over the target: before releasing their bombs the F-16s lit their afterburners at about 12.5 miles from the nuclear plant, climbed to 8,000 ft and then dived at 600 kts releasing their Mk. 84s at 3,500 ft.

The weapons were delivered on target by two waves of four Falcons each.

Even if two bombs missed the target the others were able to destroy and damage the reactor and several facilities. Some Mk. 84s had very long delayed fuzes to avoid any attempts to repair or rebuild the plant.

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The attackers remained on the reactor site for less than two minutes and the only opposition they faced, were an inefficient AAA fire and some SAM launches which missed the F-16s.

On their way home, the Fighting Falcons climbed to 40,000 ft to save fuel and overflew the third hostile country, Jordan, which however didn’t show any opposition against them.

One F-15 and one F-16 diverted from the planned route to complicate any intercept attempts, while all the aircraft landed at Etzion after a 3 hours of mission, during which no aircraft was damaged.

A documentary (spit into three videos you can find below) explains how IAF planned and executed the Operation Opera, to date one of the best examples of how a long range attack mission can be carried out.



Image credit: IAF


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  • The Raid on the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor, Operation Opera

    • Tom Cooper

      Is it really necessary to ‘insist’ on the old legend about ‘Saddam Hussein’s bellicose claims’ – which was proven a lie already back in July 1981?

      Namely, after Prime Minister Begin explained that the reason for this attack were Saddam’s threats to nuke Israel, supposedly published in some Iraqi and then in Kuwaiti newspapers, the administration of President Reagan rushed to attempt claiming the same. In order to substantiate such a position, they have ordered the specialists of the Library of the Congress to find the newspapers and the article in question.

      After at least three weeks of search, it turned out Saddam never made any such statement, no matter where, and that nothing similar has ever been published in any newspapers, regardless if in Iraq, Kuwait or anywhere else.

      On the contrary, even Begin had to admit (on 12 June 1981) that the Israeli government had no evidence of Saddam Hussein ever said anything of that kind, explicitly or otherwise. I.e. that he was lying (for relevant details see Stephen Green’s book ‘Living by the Sword’, published back in 1988).

      Furthermore, and as can be read in books like ‘The Last Confession’ (by Dr Ja’far Dhea’a Ja’afar and Dr. Nua’aman al-Nua’aeemee), or ‘Mirage of Iraqi Nuclear Weapons’ (by Dr. Emad Khadoree; all of authors in question were personally involved in Iraqi nuclear program), Iraq had no program for development of nuclear weapons as of 1981. They had barely some 200 nuclear scientists as of that time, most of whom were still undergoing training abroad. So, there was neither capability nor know-how; even if, the presence of French and Italian engineers at the construction site (which was regularly inspected by the IAEA) was safeguarding that the Iraqis couldn’t think about starting a nuclear-weapons program without this becoming known.

      If at all, it was the Operation Opera that prompted Baghdad to start a serious work on (super-secret) project in this direction.

      Another ‘spice’ to the story: in Israel, it’s long since a sort of ‘public secret’ that these ‘8 F-16s’ (plus 6 F-15s that escorted them) were not the only IDF/AF planes involved, but that ‘nearly every single serviceable aircraft’ (and helicopter) was airborne (or at QRA) during this operation.

      Perhaps it’s about the time to spend some time researching this, instead of simply copy-pasting old legends, proven wrong already 30 years ago.

      • Ed Smith

        A friend of mine was having a snack on the balcony of a Bagdad hotel within sight of the Osirak reactor at the time of the strike. He told me that F-16’s appeared out of the only cloud in sight and sent a missile into a small door at the base of a cooling tower and then left.
        My friend hastily packed his bags and headed to the airport for the next plane out of the country regardless of the destination.

      • OG_Locc

        What exactly is it you’re trying to say? Because he never made the exact claims you’re nitpicking – that it wasn’t a target worth hitting?

        • Tom Cooper

          Yes, that attack was based on lies and utterly contraproductive.

          As surprising as it might sound for many, not everything done in the Middle East is an ‘existential threat’ for Israel. At least keep in mind: ‘Arabs’ also like to live in peace.

          • OG_Locc

            “At least keep in mind: ‘Arabs’ also like to live in peace.”

            LMAO! Thanks for reaffirming my earlier suspicions – that you live in an alternate reality. That’s the funniest thing I’ve seen here since the unveiling of the Qaher 313.

          • Greg

            Another good point from you, Tom Cooper. You can’t expect American fanboys to know that while American mainstream media will not tell them. Israel is the real threat to peace in the Arab world.

          • Bertibus

            So there’s no civil war in Syria? Hezbollah doesn’t occupy southern Lebanon? Iraq is one big happy family?

            • Greg

              Behind all of those, there is Israel and America occupying parts of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

  • Ser Arthur Dayne

    In the article is stated that some SAMs were fired, in the third video 2 of the pilots say that not a single missile was shot to them…
    I was expecting some more details about the loadout, where they carrying “classic” underwing tanks or the bigger ones? 2 or 4 sidewinders? Was there the small belly fuel tank too?
    And the eagles? Did they went in low level over baghdad with the F-16 or were they stationing high over Iraq waiting for Iraqi fighters to scramble?

    • Sinnister

      My guess is they were at high level altitude with LGB’s.

      • Ser Arthur Dayne

        I doubt F-15A ever had LGB capability…it would be interesting a reply from the author, maybe the sources he has can help us

        • Sinnister

          You’re correct, at least not at that time in history. Wikipedia (for what that’s worth) says the F15 was upgraded to GPS guided bombs in 2000. However, it doesn’t say specifically which model but insinuates all.
          May have been just great bombing due to great training programs.
          Really has me curious. Great question.

    • Tom Cooper

      The F-16s were carrying 3 drop tanks, 2 Mk.84s, and 2 AIM-9L Sidewinders each; F-15s their full loads of AIM-7s, AIM-9s and drop tanks too.

      While the F-16s were attacking, the F-15s split into three pairs, each of which flew a BARCAP in front of one of three nearest Iraqi air bases (Rashid AB in
      Baghdad, Tammuz in the West and Abu Ubaida al-Jarrah in the East).

      Regarding the route: the attack formation approached Iraq via northern Saudi Arabia, then turned north along the same route used by US planes for their first attack on Iraq in January 1991. Expecting no threat from the south, the Iraqis haven’t covered this approach route with their early warning radars (by 1991, they had an early warning radar station covering that route: in return, this station became the target of the US Army’s ‘TF Normandy’).

      The essence of the operation was surprise coupled with high speed of execution. From their earlier recce ops over Western Iraq, and from studying Iranian operations over that country in autumn 1980, the Israelis knew that the Iraqis usually needed 2-3 minutes to react to emergence of a new threat; up to 2-3 minutes more during the afternoon – because of the heat (most of activity of battlefields between Iran and Iraq took place either in the morning or during late afternoon too). That meant that once their F-16s approached Baghdad and were detected by Iraqi radars while some 30-40 kilometres away from target, they had about 4-5 minutes to fly that attack and distance.

  • Francis Miller

    Clean and cost effective.Sometimes I think that the two past Presidents of the USA had to learn some lessons from Israel before engaging three wars In the M.E.

    • DJMA

      Well, it was a tactically brilliant operation that we now know led to the acceleration and dispersal of Iraq’s actual nuclear program. Unfortunately, the real world is usually more complicated than the clean stories we’d like to write about it.

  • Lucifer

    I am just wondering why article never mentioned in the article that prior to IAF attack, Iran Air Force carried a mission over the same target in Operation Scorch Sword with their F4-E.

  • Too bad our present leadership doesn’t have the nerve the Israelis do!

    • Ezra Pound

      Please get out of America and move to the country where your true loyalties lie. Israel is not only NOT a US ally, it is a dangerous parasite dragging America down, and it is a bona fide enemy that should be bombed out of existence for its intentional attack on the USS Liberty and for its role in planning and coordinating the 9/11 attacks (5 dancing Israelis caught filming the first attack and celebrating it admitted on camera that the Israeli government sent them to “document the event.”)

  • Ezra Pound

    Remember the USS Liberty.

  • Claudia G Cotner

    I can see the usual anti-semites and Israel haters are here, despite V.P. Cheney thanking Israel in in the 1991 Dessert Storm War for not allowing Sadaam to have nucler weapons. They may well have been used on US and other troops, but the hatred for the Jewish State is so great the idiots here can’t see it!…Maurice H Bank

  • Ali Naaseh

    Don’t forget, no matter how ‘successful’ the operation was, it was still illegal (as was the preceding Iranian operation, Scorch Sword).

    Why, you may ask? While the inherent right of self-defence is enshrined in Article 51 of the UN charter, recall that international law only allows PRE-EMPTIVE self defence if the situation is imminent (“A More Secure World,” 2004), a situation that is “overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation” (Caroline, 1837). This situation was not imminent – there was no hard proof that the factory had produced fissile material.

  • Americal1970

    “1/3- Raid on…” The YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated due to multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement.