Tag Archives: Operation Orchard

36 Years Ago today, “Operation Opera”: The Israeli Air Strike on an Iraqi Nuclear Reactor.

Israelis Shock The World With Audacious First Ever F-16 Strike.

1735 HRs Local, Sunday, June 7, 1981. Al-Tuwaythah Nuclear Research Facility, outside Baghdad, Iraq.

Iraqi Colonel Fakhri Hussein Jaber is in shock. His jaw drops, mouth gaping open as a strained moan leaves his throat. Despite the hot desert temperature his limbs feel cold. He cannot believe what he is seeing.

Eight F-16s painted sand-colored desert camouflage flying in a single-file attack formation at rooftop level hurtles over the outskirts of Baghdad from the southwest. They bank hard left, slicing white tendrils of vapor from their missile-clad wingtips in the evening air. One at a time they light their afterburners over the southern edge of the city. The crack of jet thunder makes people all over Baghdad glance upward to the sky. As the attacking pilots pull their side-sticks back the jets instantly vault upward into the clear evening blue on tails of orange fire.

Their wings wear the white roundel and blue Star of David. The Israelis are here.

The single file procession of ear-splitting jets reaches 5,000 feet, their tails to the sun and invisible from the ground in the blinding light for the moment. They roll heavily onto their backs, wings bloated with huge one-ton bombs. They pitch downward into a shallow dive and lazily tumble back to wings level. Then they each drop two Mark-84 delayed fuse 2,000-pound general purpose bombs on Iraq’s new industrial pride, the French-designed nuclear reactor at Osirak. The large round reactor dome is completely destroyed in only two minutes. Nothing else is touched.

And then they are gone.

Iraq’s own air defense gunners do the only collateral damage. They accidentally shoot one of their own anti-aircraft gun positions on the ground when they try to hit the last Israeli jet fleeing at low level as erupting explosions from the delayed fuses on the bombs shatter the nuclear dome. One French contractor from Air Liquide dies tragically in the air raid. Ten Iraqi soldiers are killed as well, although it is not known if their death was a result of the Israeli bombs.

This Google Earth image shows the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center with the arrow indicating the former location of the reactor destroyed during Operation Opera (Google Earth via Rick Herter)

Having recovered from his shocked surprise and weighed down by dread, the next day Colonel Fakhri Hussein Jaber is hanged in a public execution along with his fellow officers. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has them executed for incompetence while failing to defend the most important strategic target in the country. It was the big Iraqi hope for building a nuclear weapons program.

In a script that has played out before, and would repeat itself again and again, a foreign nation has attacked Iraq to destroy its Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) program. This time it is Israel, and this is Operation Opera, one of the most audacious airstrikes in the history of airpower on June 7, 1981. It compares in significance to the air attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid, the RAF’s dam buster attack and in an unusual way the nuclear strikes on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

It is not the first time an audacious airstrike has been launched to destroy Iraq’s nuclear development program. The Iranians launched a similar strike only a few months earlier in September of 1980 but failed to achieve a tangible result, using two older McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantoms. The Iranian Phantoms missed the reactor dome with their bombs. Work on the Iraqi reactor supported by the French continued, this time with enhanced air defenses ringing the facility. It would not stop Israel from trying.

Operation Opera, sometimes also called Operation Babylon, holds a significant place in aerial combat history for many reasons. A few regard it as perhaps the most daring and significant air attack in history.

The aircrews who flew Operation Opera (Ze’ev Raz)

This was a spectacular combat debut for one of the most successful tactical aircraft ever built and still serving in front line service with many nations today. The early General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons used in the raid were called the “F-16A Netz” or “Hawk” in Israeli service. These very same F-16As went on to build an illustrious legacy for Israel, downing an amazing 40 enemy aircraft in the first war with Lebanon the year after Operation Opera in 1982. The original F-16A Netz aircraft were only recently retired from Israeli service on Dec. 26, 2016. They are being sold to a private contract “red air” company to provide simulation of enemy forces for training of new combat aircrews, probably over the U.S. southwest. During the following decades U.S. Air Force F-16s would go on to drop thousands of tons of munitions in the region.

In the latest chapter the free Iraqi Air Force acquired the first of thirty-six F-16s in June of 2014. That same year a U.S. F-16 instructor pilot told us on condition of anonymity that the program to train Iraqi pilots to fly the F-16 at Tucson International Airport in Arizona was, “Going dismally, most of them [the Iraqi F-16 students] can barely fly.” But the free Iraqis went on to develop enough proficiency to use their F-16’s successfully in combat over Iraq beginning in September of 2015. Just recently the Iraqi Air Force received its fifth batch of four F-16IQ’s on March 24th of 2017 completing the full Iraqi 9th Fighter Squadron with all of its F-16s.

Operation Opera has its roots in traditional aerial bombing before the introduction of stealth and precision guided weapons. It also reached into the future because of its mission of ending the proliferation of WMDs in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. That same agenda would haunt every U.S. President since then and eventually compel George W. Bush to invade Iraq in March 2003. Operation Opera foreshadows U.S. doctrine with North Korea today, supporting a rising argument that the U.S. should follow Israel’s example with Iraq and destroy North Korea’s looming nuclear threat before it becomes too dangerous to challenge.

While Operation Opera earns its place in the lore of combat aviation it was, for the most part, a relatively conventional low-level interdiction air strike. One of several things that made Opera sensational was the audacity of Israel for launching the strike, an aggressive act that Israel would defend with vigor, the United Nations would condemn and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan would shrug off in surprised but quiet admiration of Israel’s aggressiveness, daring and initiative.

Another thing that surprised observers including U.S. intelligence analysts was how the Israelis managed to complete the raid without aerial refueling and how they were able to infiltrate one of Iraq’s most heavily defended airspaces completely undetected in broad daylight. The answers to these questions are exceptional planning, vigorous espionage, incredible work on the part of the maintenance crews, support personnel and incredible airmanship for the strike pilots along with no small measure of good fortune for the Israelis.

The Israeli F-16A’s take on fuel up to the last moment before take-off (Ze’ev Raz via Rick Herter)

It is interesting that the Israelis chose to use eight lightweight, single-engine F-16As as the bomb-carrying strike aircraft and assigned six of the heavier, twin engine F-15 “Baz” aircraft to fly combat air patrol over the mission. The F-15 would later be adapted into a dedicated strike fighter configuration that would have been better suited to a raid like Operation Opera.

Remarkably, 26 years later Israel would use this mission template again.

On Sept. 6, 2007 Israel would reverse the role of the same aircraft during Operation Orchard, an airstrike on a secret Syrian nuclear installation in the Deir ez-Zor area. In this later strike on a similar target, Israel would employ new F-15I Ra’am strike aircraft as bombers and use the latest precision guided air-to-ground weapons including Maverick missiles and laser-guided bombs. An Israeli special operations team infiltrated the area to provide initial reconnaissance, including radiological survey, and later provide target designation for the precision-guided weapons during the strike. The Syrian nuclear site was built with significant support and cooperation from the North Koreans, and ten North Korean workers were killed at Deir ez-Zor, Syria during the 2007 strike.

Aviation artist and historian Rick Herter of the U.S. traveled to Israel some time ago with a U.S. Air Force Major General. Herter was given unique access to the secretive Israeli Air Force, interfacing with the Israeli Air Force Chief of Staff to gain a detailed historical understanding of Israeli operations including Operation Opera. Following Herter’s trip to Israel he began to work closely with retired Israeli Air Force Colonel Ze’ev Raz who planned and commanded Operation Opera himself, flying one of the strike aircraft. Herter’s unique relationship with the man who planned and flew the mission gave him insights that lead to his painting of the mission, the only in flight image with historical and technical accuracy. Rick Herter’s painting, “Dropping The Hammer, Operation Opera” is used at the top of this article.

Retired Israeli Air Force Colonel and pilot Ze’ev Raz collaborates with aviation historian and artist Rick Herter. (Rick Herter)

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