Millions of viewers watching coverage of the space shuttle Columbia catastrophe heard mention of Israel’s 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor, in which Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, then a fighter pilot, took part.
But viewers may not know the obstacles of the operation.
In an interview with JTA, retired Israeli Col. Zeev Raz, who headed the Israeli mission, recounts a victory that carried risks and rewards worthy of a Hollywood movie.
Raz explains how Ramon, the youngest and lowest ranking pilot — who, flying the last of eight F-16s jets, had the most vulnerable spot in the squadron — helped map the mission.
As America gears up for an anticipated war against Iraq, Raz also offers his insight about pre-emptive attacks.
In the late 1970s, Israeli intelligence learned that Iraq was building a nuclear reactor known as Osirak, 12 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Israel also knew that the reactor would be “hot” — radioactive — by the fall of 1981, and bombing after that would release huge amounts of radiation.
Iraq, which had ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1972, claimed the facility was for scientific purposes only.
But the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave more credence to comments by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the facility would be used to produce weapons to attack Israel.
“If Saddam Hussein is going to have a nuclear bomb,” Raz says, it would be “very dangerous for Israel,” which Hussein considers “his No. 1 enemy.”
“Look what he tried to do to Kuwait and Iran,” Raz adds. “We had to strike first, and that’s what we did.”
Israel received its first batch of F-16s under Raz’s command in the summer of 1980. Due to their long range and precision, Israel planned to use them for the reactor attack.
Code-named Operation Opera, the mission originally was set for May 1981. But news of the attack leaked, prompting the army to postpone it to early June.
At the time, only 12 Israeli pilots — one of whom had been killed in an accident — had been trained in America to fly F-16s. Raz selected eight for the mission.
“Ilan was chosen because he was an excellent pilot,” Raz says. He was also the first pilot Raz told about the target.
“Ilan was a very, very nice guy,” the opposite of the prototypical “arrogant and aggressive fighter pilot,” Raz says. “He was a humble person, smiling all the time,” well-liked and cooperative.
Raz recalls the time when Ramon, 27, then a captain in charge of calculating navigation, approached him “with an embarrassed smile and said” the target “was slightly out of range” for the planes’ fuel capability.
It was not until 1982 that Israel had the ability to refuel F-16s in air.
To lessen resistance in flight and gain more mileage from the available fuel, the group employed “tricks” that the American military forbids its F-16 pilots to use, Raz says.
When the fuel in the planes’ wing tanks ran out — fuel is stored in other parts of the plane as well — the fleet decided to drop the tanks en route to the target.
The maneuver carried a high risk, because the wing tanks’ proximity to the bombs might have triggered their early release.
On June 7, the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, the eight pilots, each manning his own plane packed with two 2,000 pound bombs, took off.
Two F-15s escorted the group, and a handful of F-15s patrolled other parts of Iraq.
The group flew at a low altitude to avoid enemy radar, with a flight time of one and a half hours. It was Israel’s longest mission over hostile territory.
According to Raz, most Israeli air strikes take place within a half-hour radius, and the additional hour was laborious.
“To fly such a long time for a target is very strange, and you know that the target is so important,” Raz says. “It’s a lot of pressure.”
But “you don’t let yourself be afraid,” he says. And by handling one issue at a time, from the fuses to the maps, “suddenly you win the war.”
Just before sunset, the fleet dropped its bombs on Osirak.
As for the wing tank maneuver, “it worked perfectly,” Raz says.
On the way back, limited fuel forced the group to fly at a higher altitude of 40,000 feet.
“We were sure that at that altitude the Iraqis would try to intercept us,” he says, “but they didn’t for some reason.”
More than 20 years later, Iraq still lacks nuclear capability. Raz believes Israel’s attack set Iraq back about 12 years, though Israel only projected that it would gain six or seven years. Raz credits U.N. sanctions for further restricting Iraq’s capabilities.
The attack on Osirak was the first successful pre-emptive strike on a nuclear reactor, and it announced Israel’s willingness to attack pre-emptively to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The attack was condemned around the world, including by the United States, which withheld another shipment of F- 16s for several months.
With the benefit of hindsight, opinions have changed. In fact, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney thanked the Israelis for the strike — many years later.
Now, as the Bush administration prepares for an anticipated pre-emptive strike against Iraq, much of the world is criticizing the United States — but Raz believes the U.S. plans are justified.
“What Bush is doing now is inevitable. He has no choice,” Raz says.
“After Sept. 11, we all understand certain people are very, very dangerous, and you have to strike first,” he says. “We cannot afford” to let Iraq have nuclear capability.”
With its biological weapons and drive toward nuclear capability, Iraq is the greatest external threat to Israel, Raz says.
But he believes the chief problem for Israel is its internal demographics, with an Arab population that may soon outnumber the Jewish one.
As for Ramon, Raz can’t help but note the irony in his death.
“It’s very sad that he came back from such a dangerous mission” at Osirak, yet “lost his life in a research mission in space,” he says. “It was not supposed to be so dangerous in space.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.