Military History: Israel’s Operation Opera, 1981

Thirty-five years after Operation Opera – the Israeli air attack that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, retired IAF officers and Mossad agents revealed hitherto unknown details of the operation on Friday.

n an expose aired on Channel 10, Col. (Ret.) Ze’ev Raz, who led the June 7, 1981 raid, said that Air Force technicians “recognized that flying to Iraq and back” — some 2,000 miles in all — was slightly beyond the range of our jets, so we used all sorts of tricks to extend it.”

The Israeli Air Force could not rely on US flying tanker planes for mid-flight refueling at the time, and Israeli refueling capabilities, then in the making, would not be operational until 1982, by which point intelligence assessments were that the nuclear reactor would go online.

The strike could not be delayed, and therefore innovative methods for making the fuel last were introduced. All eight F-16As made it safely back; even 35 years later, however, the specifics of how they did so were kept secret.

The operation was initially called “Ammunition Hill,” but when prime minister Menachem Begin realized that opposition leader Shimon Peres had found out about the operation, he ordered its cancellation — and its continuation under a new name.

“We later wrote the exact same operational command, but this time with the name ‘Opera’, chosen randomly by the computer,” retired Maj. Gen. David Ivry, the IAF commander at the time, said in the Friday report.

Ivry said the first signs that the Iraqis were building a nuclear reactor had been spotted in 1976 or 1977.

Gad Shimron, a former Mossad agent, said Israel during those years had inside intelligence on the Iraqis’ efforts to buy equipment abroad and their plans to build a reactor. The initial intelligence goal was to delay the completion of the reactor, and to ascertain whether a completed, online Iraqi reactor would have the technology necessary for the production of plutonium.

Shimron said Mossad gathered large amounts of information on the progress of the Osirak reactor’s construction. “You don’t need to be an intelligence expert to understand that if you have a project in Iraq with several dozen foreign experts, then espionage agencies interested in finding out what is going on will try to recruit [them],” Shimron said. “It goes without saying that there was someone on the inside providing information.”

Ivry said the Mossad’s work delayed completion of the Iraqi reactor by up to two and a half years.

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Read the Remainder at Times of Israel

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