Security and Defense: Looking back to the future

Marking the 30th anniversary of the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor, the IAF commander at the time recalls the challenges they faced.

David Ivry (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
David Ivry
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
A few months after taking up his post as the IAF’s ninth commander in October 1977, Maj.-Gen. David Ivry was invited to a special meeting.
Sitting around the table were defense minister Ezer Weizman and representatives of the IDF Operations Directorate and the Mossad. The participants were sworn to secrecy as they began speaking about the country’s options in the face of Saddam Hussein’s continued construction of a 70-megawatt, uranium-powered French reactor near Baghdad.
At the time, Israeli efforts were focused on the diplomatic track, getting France to cut off its assistance to Iraq. Israel remained unconvinced by France’s promise that it would retain supervision over the rector and ensure that it was not used to develop a nuclear weapon.
For the IDF, it was a period of peacemaking.
Anwar Sadat had recently visited Israel, and the air force was beginning to plan the evacuation of its bases from the Sinai Peninsula – including Etzion, the one that would be used two years later to launch the attack in Iraq.
Nevertheless, it was time to prepare a military option.
But to do so, Ivry had to come up with a good excuse for why his staff needed to prepare a bombing mission in Iraq. Luckily for him, around the same time, there were intelligence reports that a Soviet Tupolev 22 supersonic bomber was going to land at Iraq’s Habinia Airfield.
He told his staff that the government was considering attacking the airfield, and to prepare a way to get there.
In the 30 years since Operation Opera – Israel’s bombing of the Osirak reactor on June 7, 1981 – Ivry has given few interviews. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the historic bombing last month, he agreed to sit down with The Jerusalem Post this week and retell the story.
Ivry, 77, is today president of Boeing Israel.
Since completing his term as IAF commander, he has served in some of the country’s most senior and sensitive defense-diplomatic positions. He was deputy IDF chief of General Staff, director-general of the Defense Ministry, chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries, head of the National Security Council and ambassador to the United States.
He remembers the operation like it was yesterday, and the interview with the former fighter pilot is a stark reminder of the many challenges Israel faces as it evaluates its options to stop Iran’s race for nuclear power.
The considerations, debates and military complications in the years leading up to the 1981 operation are similar to those the government and IAF of 2011 face as they consider military options to stop Iran. Throughout the interview, on more than one occasion, there is a sense that Iraq is Iran and Hussein is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A few weeks after being instructed to draw up the plans, Ivry’s staff – despite some members’ claims that it was impossible – presented him with a number of creative ideas how to get IAF Phantom and Skyhawk fighter jets to Iraq. 1979 was spent modifying the midair refueling systems on the IAF’s Hercules transport aircraft so they could service Phantoms, and technology was developed so Skyhawks could refuel one another.
“In general, the plans were not all that attractive because of the refueling problem,” Ivry says.
The real breakthrough came later that year, when US secretary of defense Harold Brown came to Israel. It was a few months after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the US had 75 F-16 fighter jets that were on order for the Iranian Air Force but could no longer be delivered. Israel was in negotiations for its own first order of 75 F-16s and was in the middle of ironing out questions about integrating Israeli technology into the planes.
“Weizman called and asked that I join him in the meeting,” Ivry recalls. “I came in, and he asked if the IAF would be interested in receiving the Iranian F-16s. I said yes.”
The answer was not simple, since it meant that Israel would receive planes that did not have its own ingenious technology, but in the back of his mind, Ivry was thinking about Osirak and how the F-16s could solve Israel’s refueling problems.
The first planes arrived in July 1980 – had Israel turned down the offer, it would have begun to receive its order in 1982 – and Ivry immediately ordered his pilots to begin testing the aircraft’s range, and to push them to the max.
In the beginning of 1981, Ivry got the green light from Prime Minister Menachem Begin to move ahead with the attack. The plan was to attack on a Sunday, when the facility would be mostly empty and the French scientists would not be at work. The attack would be at dusk so that if needed, Israel would have a long night to rescue downed pilots.
Ivry presented the plans to the cabinet on a number of occasions. He was aware that he needed to project confidence. As the commander of the IAF, all eyes were on him in the meetings. He had to believe in the plan, convince the chief of General Staff at the time, Raful Eitan, and then explain to the cabinet how it would work.
“If the IAF commander says it’s not possible, then there is no operation,” he explains.
But not all of the country’s defense chiefs were in favor of the strike. The Mossad chief at the time, Yitzhak Hofi – like Meir Dagan, who recently voiced opposition to attacking Iran – was against it, as was the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Yehoshua Sagi.
The major concern was the fallout of the strike – the effect it would have on the peace process with Egypt, how it would impact relations with France and the US, and the assessment that ultimately a strike would only set back Saddam’s nuclear program by two to three years.
Ivry did not spend much time thinking about the philosophy behind the need for the strike. While Begin spoke about preventing a second Holocaust and termed Osirak an existential threat for Israel, Ivry focused on the fine details of the plan, reviewing how the planes would get there, at what angle they would come in for the bombing, and how they would fly back home.
The possibility of nuclear weapons in Saddam’s hands, he explains, was simply a reality with which Israel could not live.
“If you decide that nuclear weapons in Iraq is an existential threat, then there are not a lot of questions that need to be asked,” he says.
The first date given for the bombing was May 10.
Ivry and the pilots flew down to Etzion Air Force Base. The planes were loaded with the bombs, and the pilots were beginning to ignite the engines when Ivry got a call to stop. The head of the opposition at the time, Shimon Peres, was against the bombing, and Begin needed more time.
The next date set was June 7. On Friday, June 4, the commander of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet was changing command, and Eitan wanted Ivry to fly with him to Naples. They left on Thursday night and returned Friday afternoon. With them on the plane was the US military attaché to Israel, who had caught a ride to the ceremony.
“On the way back, I radioed Tel Aviv and spoke with the head of operations, who gave me the code word that we had a green light for the operation for Sunday,” he says. “After we landed, the attaché went to his weekend, and I went to Jerusalem for one last meeting with Begin, Eitan and [Foreign Minister Yitzhak] Shamir.”
What also helped in preventing the world from realizing what was happening was the international crisis that had evolved following Syria’s deployment of sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems in Lebanon. Begin had promised that Israel would attack if they were not moved.
“Everyone thought we were busy with Lebanon, and this was to our advantage, even though it also insulted some of our allies since they were caught completely off guard,” Ivry says.
The day of the operation, Ivry and Eitan spoke with the pilots. Eitan spoke about the significance of the operation. Ivry focused on the details – the route, the altitude, the way to evade Iraqi air defense systems and what direction to come in and bomb the target.
“We knew that the planes would get there and succeed in bombing the reactor,” Ivry says. “Our biggest concern was about the return flight and whether a plane would be shot down. Since the planes did not have any fuel to spare, they would not have been able to use their thrusters to maneuver if they were intercepted.”
Just after 5:35 p.m., the leader of the eight F-16s that had flown 1,600 km. from the Etzion Air Force Base in the Sinai Peninsula broke radio silence and said the words “Everyone Charlie” – the call that meant all the planes had dropped their bombs and were heading back home.
For Ivry, the Osirak bombing was not the IAF’s greatest aerial achievement under his command.
That title would go to the 1982 bombing of the 17 surface-to-air missile systems that Syria had deployed in Lebanon, without losing a single aircraft – one of the most impressive operations carried out by a Western country to suppress Soviet air defense systems.
The bombing of the reactor resonated more for the deterrence it created for Israel.
“It was a few years after the Entebbe operation and helped show the world that Israel could really go anywhere it needed to,” Ivry explains.
Ten years later, US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney presented Ivry with a photo of the bombed-out reactor taken by a US satellite after the First Gulf War.
At the bottom of the photo, which hangs in Ivry’s Tel Aviv office as a constant reminder of the threats and challenges that Israel continues to face, Cheney wrote: “With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job you did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!” When it comes to Iran, one would expect the man who commanded the bombing of Osirak to be more forthcoming. But Ivry is careful with what he says.
He insists that the government needs to exhaust all available options before using military force, diplomacy and sanctions. Otherwise, he says, the people will never forgive their leaders.
But, he says, those who claim that delaying the program by only a couple of years is not worth the risk, could be wrong.
“The situation can evolve in between,” he explains. “The same was said about Saddam, and in the end he never got it.”