How a Syrian nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force 7 years ago today

On Sept. 6, 2007 the Israeli Air Force (IAF) conducted a precision air strike, code-named Operation Orchard, against a Syrian nuclear installation.

Even if Israel has never publicly admitted that some of its aircraft destroyed the facility, some details about the mission have been either disclosed or leaked throughout the years.

Some of them are well described in the book The Sword of David – The Israeli Air Force at War, written by Donald McCarthy.

According to McCarthy, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1968 before becoming a respected and well informed historian, the information for Operation Orchard is alleged to have come from Ali Reza Asgari, an Iranian general disappeared in February 2007, who may have been the source of the intelligence required by the Syrian nuclear site attack.

After gathering the required details, the Israelis planned a secret mission that was launched on Sept. 6 2007, at night.

At least a four F-16I Sufa (Storm) jets and another four F-15I Ra’am (Thunder) aircraft crossed the Syrian border, in bound to the nuclear plant located near the city of Dir A-Zur, in eastern Syria.

McCarthy points out the fact that Syria as well as other Arab countries were equipped with advanced Russian air defense systems, such as the Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound as reported by NATO designation), claimed to be immune to electronic jamming. At the time of Operation Orchard, Syria operated twenty nine of these advanced air defense systems, so it remains unclear how the IAF aircraft flew undetected into the night sky out over the Mediterranean Sea, across the Euphrates River and along their route to the nuclear facility.

As explained by McCarthy, according to the most widely accepted theory the strike force included one or more Gulfstream G550 aircraft, equipped with the IAI Elta EL/W-2085 radar system.

Indeed, the success of the operation was largely attributed to effectiveness of the Israeli Electronic Warfare platforms that supported the air strike and made the Syrian radars blind: some sources believe that Operation Orchard saw the baptism of fire of the Suter airborne network system against Syrian radar systems.

This system, combined with the F-15Is electronic warfare capabilities, shut down Syrian air defense systems, providing the other airplanes the cover they needed to hit and destroy the Dir A-Zur nuclear plant.

F-15I Orchard

After the attack, the initial reports stated that the IAF aircraft had almost entirely destroyed the nuclear site, claims that were also confirmed by the comparison of pre and post-attack satellite imagery.

Even if the incident was shrouded in secrecy, Turkish media outlets reported that external fuel tanks were found on the ground not far away from the Syrian border: as reported by Shlomo Aloni & Zvi Avidror in their book Hammers Israel’s Long-Range Heavy Bomber Arm: The Story of 69 Squadron, these external fuel tanks were identified by foreign press as belonging to F-15 aircraft.

Operation Orchard showed the capabilities of the Israeli Air Force, capabilities that were most probably used to carry out an air strike on a weapons convoy and military complex near Damascus, at the beginning of 2013. As done in 2007, on the night between Jan. 29 and 30, 2013, Israeli bombers entered and egressed the Syrian airspace almost completely undetected by the Syrian air defenses: a sign that Syrian radars can do nothing against Israel’s Electronic Warfare systems, most probably further improved to embed the capability to inject malware from F-16s into enemy networks.

Image credit: IAF

 

12 Comments

  1. That was with the relatively “primitive” equipment of yesteryear.
    Imagine what they can do with today’s state of the art tools of the job.

    Mickey Oberman

    • Well, this ‘primitive equipment’ was still several generations ahead of anyhting in service with the Syrian air force (and air defences).

      I’m rather wondering about this with ‘it remains unclear how the IAF aircraft flew undetected into the night sky’…

      Who said they were undetected?

      Contemporary Syrian reports didn’t indicate anything of that. On the contrary, there was a lots of talk (and even some photos) about the Syrian air defences opening fire and forcing Israelis to jettison much of their ordnance – some of which landed inside Syria, and some inside Turkey…

      • Undetected on the way in…
        Someone who claimed they where in charge of the air defense near the location gave an interview after he defected and arrived in Turkey, maybe 1-2 years ago.
        I read it somewhere on the web.
        He had a different version of events. Some of which are hard to believe.

        • Yes, no doubt about that. The problem I have with this ‘version’ of that story is of different nature.

          As of 2007, all Syrian Pantsyrs were operated by the Republican Guards Division and concentrated in Damascus area (essentially, this remains that way until today). As ‘praetorian guard’ of the regime, units of this division are almost exclusively deployed in Damascus area. Means: there were none in the area supposedly attacked by the Israelis (indeed, none for some 350 kilometres around that area).

          Furthermore, as somebody who has passed by the site of supposed attack (at least the site usually said to have been attacked by the Israelis) just a few months after the supposed attack, I cannot but observe that it was piss-poor protected (few AK-47-armed guards).

          Like anybody else who has travelled to Syria before the civil war there knows, ‘few AK-47-armed guards’ were usually protecting any building of any kind of public importance there (starting with municipal buildings, banks etc.). ‘But’, any ‘really important’ object was heavily protected – if necessary by flak and SAMs too.

          Yet, a ‘supposed reactor’ was as ‘well-protected’ as any bank in Syria…?

          (I.e. there were not only no Pantsyrs around the supposed construction site, but the only SAMs that should’ve engaged the Israelis were at least 100km away from the supposed scene of this attack).

          • Syria knew (and knows) its air forces and air defences are no match for
            the IAF since 1982, and seems to have given up on modernisation until recently. The only Syrian air defence worthy of even being an hindrance is a rather short range one (the Pantsyrs), and putting it in the area would have revealed there was something there to defend – while not actually protecting it against various types of air-based attacks (For example: long range standoff weapons shot from outside the range of the S1s). So it’s quite credible they decided to not bother with placing a poor defence which would have merely invited attack.

  2. Didn’t they pull the same feat on Iraq?

    Yet it is apparently ok for Israel to have nukes. It kind of makes you wonder who has the right to decide who may have nuclear capabilities, and who may not. The country with the most potent air force and army, perhaps?

    • And yet, Israel have never officially admitted to having nukes, despite their ownership being widely known.
      What I don’t understand is why Iran have never said “sure, we’ll let international observers into our nuclear sites was long as Israel do the same”. That would put the cat amongst the diplomatic pigeons.

    • Israel, unlike Syria or Iraq or Iran, never signed the NPT (the Non-Proliferation Treaty), so it is not under a commitment (unlike those countries) not to have nukes.

  3. In the most recent attacks on Syria the israeli’s didn’t even entered their airspace.

    So I guess they’re still afraid about Syria’s air defenses.

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