Tag Archives: Operation Orchard

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


Air strike on Damascus military complex shows Syrian Air Defense can do nothing against Israeli Electronic Warfare

The Israeli air strike on a weapons convoy and military complex near Damascus, on the night between Jan. 29 and 30 has something in common with a similar air strike, the Israeli Air Force launched in 2007: the bombers entered and egressed the Syrian airspace almost completely undetected by the Syrian air defenses.

On Sept. 6, 2007, ten F-15I and F-16 jets attacked a nuclear facility being built in Syria. The success of that mission, dubbed “Operation Orchard“, 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 from some ELINT aircraft.

It is quite likely that Israel’s EW capabilities, most probably furtherly improved since 2007 (someone speculated Israel is capable to inject malware from its F-16s), have played a major role in the recent strike that hit a target located only 5 kilometers from Assad’s headquarters.

Although the current status of the SAM (Surface to Air Missile) coverage around Damascus is quite difficult to assess, since some of the batteries protecting the capital town may have been sabotaged or hit by the rebels activity, the area is still believed to be heavily defended by several Soviet-made anti-aircraft system (even if most of all not so up to date).

The following image comes from 2010’s survey of the Syrian SAM deployment, published on the interesting Sean O’Connor’s IMINT & Analysis blog.

Although probably outdated, it still gives an idea of how crowded of SAM systems the area surrounding Damascus is.

Damascus SAM coverage

In June 2012, a Syrian anti-aircraft artillery battery downed a Turkish Air Force RF-4E Phantom that had violated the Syrian airspace at low altitude over the Mediterranean Sea, thus proving that Damascus’s air defense are still somehow dreadful for enemy fighter jets.

Even though EW coverage (embedded in the strike package or supporting it from distance) has probably contributed to the successful outcome of the air strike making the bombers somehow “stealthy”, another key factor in last night’s attack was the relatively short distance of the target area from the border and the local orography, that has helped the Israeli jets flying at low altitude achieving some terrain masking.

The following image, drawn by The Aviationist’s contributor Giuliano Ranieri, shows a possible ingress route that exploits the terrain masking provided by the Mt. Heron and overflies a scarcely populated area.

It’s just a hypothesis, still, likely, not too far from the route actually flown by the Israeli fighters.

Possible route

Some videos have been uploaded to Liveleak allegedly showing the Israeli fighter over Damascus at dawn. The one you can watch here has nothing to do with the air strike though: the type of contrails, the type of formation and, above all, the altitude of the planes depicted in the footage are not consistent with the IAF raid.

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New details of Israel’s 2007 attack on the Syrian Nuclear reactor emerge

An article appeared in the ‘New Yorker’ (written by David Makovsky, a Jewish American who has lived in Israel for many years although now living back in the US) has revealed several previously unknown facts about the IDF strike code named “Operation Orchard”. The facts have allegedly come from conversations Makovsky has had with a dozen or so high ranking Israeli officials.

According to Makovsky Israel suspected that Syria had stepped up its nuclear program during 2006, and the intelligence they held at that time pointed towards a building in northeast Syria in the Deir al-Zour region.

What they needed was damning evidence that this was the case. According to Makovsky on Mar. 7, 2007 Mossad agents broke into the Vienna home of the head of the Syrian atomic agency Ibrahim Othman. It’s thought that the agents hacked into Othman’s computer and copied three dozen photos from the hard drive: among them, color photos taken from within the facility.

Image credit: IAF

The images are thought to have shown images of North Korean workers which corroborated Israel’s suspicion that Pyongyang was building a plutonium reactor for the Syrians.

The following day Mossad director Meir Dagan met with the then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. During their meeting, Dagan presented the findings to Olmert and explained the PM that they needed to act quickly as there would be a risk of radioactive contamination of the Euphrates river should the site go “hot”.

Olmert left the meeting and discretely sought advice from top officials all of whom signed secrecy agreements.

On Apr. 18 Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz met with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: the Americans launched their own investigation but did not really have an apatite for another pre-emptive strike on a Muslim country.

Although CIA director Micheal Haydon did confirm that “Al Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program” and that “we could conceive of no other alternative uses for the facility”  he said that there was no concrete evidence that the site was part of a weapons program.

President Bush had apparently called Olmert to say that there wasn’t enough evidence for an American pre-emptive attack based on Israeli intelligence.

Makovsky said that Israel couldn’t afford for the information to be leaked so the Syrians would place SAM sites near to the building, therefore Olmert asked Bush to keep the matter quiet. Olmert didn’t ask for a green light from Bush but didn’t get a red light therefore took it as a green light to go.

Sept. 1, 2007 saw the preparations complete. The White House was informed as well as British MI6 (whom it’s thought Mossad works very closely with) although timings were with held. Then, on Sept. 5, the Israeli cabinet voted on whether they should take action on the reactor: all voted yes other than one who abstained and it was then decided the attack would take place that night.

Just past midnight a four ship of F-16s and another four ship of F-15s (although other sources say it was more) took off from the Ramat David Airbase.

They flew along the Mediterranean coast before heading in land near to the Syrian Turkish border and at sometime between 12.40 and 12.53 the codeword ‘Arizona’ came across the secure channels indicating that the reactor had been destroyed.

Markovsky’s article has some convenient blanks but that can be forgiven due to the matter still being regarded as secret in Israel.

Some sources say that this attack was the first time the Suter airborne network system was used against Syrian radar systems from one of two ELINT aircraft.

A modified version would more than likely be used against Iran if an attack were to take place, along with much more advanced tech. Including malware injected by F-16s, as someone speculates.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

Image credit: IAF