Israel's bombing of Syrian reactor proves it won't accept existential threats

The then-head of the IAF Operations Directorate said that destroying the reactor required "one of the most important decisions made in the last 70 years."

Israeli Air Force Commander Major General Norkin on 2007 Attack on Syrian Nuclear Reactor Site (Reuters)
Ten years after Israel destroyed Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin reflected on the operation that still affects the region.
“The message from the attack on the reactor in 2007 was that Israel would not accept the construction of a facility that would constitute an existential threat to the State of Israel,” said Eisenkot, who at the time was head of the Northern Command.
“That’s the message that we had in 1981 [when the air forced destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad], that was the message delivered in 2007, and this is the future message to our enemies,” he continued.
As part of the desire to maintain low exposure and out of a sense of national responsibility, the IAF hardly spoke about Operation Orchard over the last decade.
It was “the most significant attack in Syria since the Yom Kippur War,” Eisenkot said.
According to Norkin, who at the time of the strike was the head of the IAF Operations Directorate, destroying the reactor in al-Kibar required “one of the most important decisions made in the last 70 years.”
“When we look at the Middle East, we understand very well how much it changed what we see on the ground. Imagine that there was a nuclear reactor in Syria today,” he said.
To maintain secrecy, a very limited number of people were involved in the planning of the strike. Norkin said that the toughest challenge was to prepare the air force for a possible war just a year after the Second Lebanon War, especially when nearly the entire IAF was not told why it needed to do so.
According to Eisenkot, Israel is not in a neighborhood that allows the military to find itself unprepared. The effort by the entire intelligence community to provide the best information for the strike on al-Kibar was a prime example of intelligence cooperation, he said.
“Israel has been blessed with an outstanding intelligence community, and cooperation and integration of forces only multiplies the strength in our capabilities,” he said.
Norkin echoed Eisenkot, praising the deep cooperation between the General Staff, the IAF and the intelligence community, saying it was that which led to the success of the operation.
The planning was complex for the nighttime strike that involved planes which the IAF had received only a few years earlier, according to Norkin. It was an operation that “required courage and demanded creativity of the flight crews that we had not been accustomed to before,” he said.
While the air force prepared for the operation over a period of six months, most people involved only knew what was happening several hours before it was launched.
“Today, 10 years later, I think that the principles on which the air force was preparing for that attack have remained the same.
And on the basis of these principles, we continue to prepare ourselves and maintain our relevance vis-a-vis threats,” Norkin said.
In hindsight, the strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor was the beginning of the type of low-level offensive activity carried out by the IAF today.
“From the start of an operation that could have dragged Israel into war, we have reached a sort of action which is one of a relatively low-signature method that expresses the strength and precision of the air force,” he said.
According to Norkin, the IAF “leapfrogged” between the strikes in Iraq and Syria. “When you look at the first attack on the reactor in Iraq, and the attack on the reactor in Syria, you can see how it reflects the progress of the IDF.”
Operation Orchard, he continued, was a “springboard” for the IAF in the decade that followed.
In recent years, the air force has been seen as being “between wars,” allowing it to absorb new, more technologically advanced platforms and weapons, Norkin said. This this has allowed the IAF to stay relevant and continued to contribute to the security of the State of Israel.
The IAF has admitted to at least 100 strikes against Hezbollah targets and dozens more since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, including strikes on alleged Iranian sites.
“Our jets know how to penetrate deeper into enemy territory, they are more accurate, and our teams know how to perform more complex tasks,” Norkin said. While the platforms, munitions, technology and methods are different, “what has not changed is the courage, the determination, and the striving for success.”