Operation Opera: Flying smarts and pure good luck

32 years ago, Saddam Hussein threatened to use nuclear output from an unfinished reactor against Israel; IAF fighter planes were sent to take the reactor down

Date: 06/07/2013, 10:30 AM     Author: Malka Grossman

On June 7, 1981, a squadron of IAF fighter planes took off on their way to Iraq to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor and put a halt to the Iraqi nuclear program, which President Suddam Hussein had used to openly threaten Israel.

The operation was not simple. To neutralize the threat, Israeli fighter planes would have to fly all the way to Iraq. The  operation had many obstacles, which the Air Force overcame with a combination of great planning and pure good luck. The main problem was flying such a huge distance –almost 1,000 miles— undetected while in enemy airspace.

For this they prepared eight heavily-fueled F-16 fighter planes and six F-15s just for backup. Among the F-16 pilots was a young Ilan Ramon, who would later go on to be the first Israeli astronaut.

The squad left Israel’s Etzion Airbase on June 7 at 3:55 PM. While flying in Jordanian airspace, the team spoke to ground control in Saudi-accented Arabic, pretending to be flying aircraft that simply went off course. They successfully passed through unchallenged.

The plan was almost thwarted by King Hussein of Jordan, who was on vacation in Aqaba at the time, and noticed the planes flying overhead. He ordered an alert to warn Iraqi forces, but the message was never received because of a communication error.

Another bit of luck came at the hands of the Iraqi military itself. The soldiers in charge of Iraq’s anti-aircraft defenses left for lunch 30 minutes before the attack and turned off their radars. Though some of the Israeli aircraft were eventually detected, they avoided any anti-aircraft fire.

In all, the strike itself took less than two minutes and accomplished its objective of neutralizing the Iraqi nuclear threat.