Osirak raid leader's top fear: Running out of fuel

Then-Lt. Col. Ze'ev Raz knew the eight F-16s he lead would reach and destroy the nuclear facility.

pilots after osirak bomb (photo credit: Courtesy)
pilots after osirak bomb
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the eve of Shavuot 1981, despite misgivings by some Israeli cabinet ministers surrounding the need for and ultimate efficacy of the mission, then-Lt. Col. Ze'ev Raz "had no doubt" that the strike force of eight F-16s he lead would reach and destroy the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad. On the other hand, he seriously doubted that he and the seven other pilots would have enough fuel to get back to Israel. Only a brazen decision to throw the "book" on flying their planes out the window and jettison fuel tanks to extend the planes' range did they manage to get back home. Twenty-five years later, the former Air Force commander says he backed Prime Minister Menachem Begin 100 percent in the decision, saying it was the right move at the right time. However, despite perceived similarities, the threat posed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear ambitious regime is "completely different" says Raz, who advises against taking a similar gamble with Iran. "Begin wanted to wait until he had cabinet unity. Ministers Yosef Burg, Yigael Yadin and Ezer Weizman initially did not agree, they did not think it would do any good," Raz told The Jerusalem Post. 'Shimon Peres, to this day, still says it was a big mistake, but in the end, Chief of General Staff Rafael Eitan, Air Force general David Ivry, and Begin himself persuaded the other ministers to go along with the raid." Raz was a soldier, battle-hardened in the Yom Kippur War, and he left the bickering to the politicians. His only concern was completing the mission, and returning home the seven pilots he personally chose for the raid. "The first person I consulted was my Captain Ilan," Raz said, referring to Ilan Ramon, who became Israel's first astronaut and who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. "Ilan said it was slightly out of range, but we figured out that if we jettisoned the external fuel tanks the moment they were empty, we ridded ourselves of the drag and significantly increased our range." Dropping the external fuel tanks was dangerous in itself, with the wings of the jets crowded with 1,000 kg bombs. "Now it looks like we had no choice, but at the time it was crazy," Raz said. "There was war between Iran and Iraq at the time, and the Iranians tried to bomb Osirak, so we thought the Iraqis would be prepared. They had the SA-2 and SA-6 (air defense systems), and the MiG-23 and other Russian and French-made jets, and, on top of that, the place itself was flat and easy to defend. They could see our planes 20 minutes before we bombed the place." "None of the pilots could believe it, no jet fighters, no radar, no missile systems locking on to us. There was some anti-aircraft fire, but that was ineffective." Raz describes the bombing as picture-perfect. "All 16 bombs hit dead-on," he says with pride. Iraq's nuclear reactor was demolished. On the 90-minute flight back to Israel, no one tried to intercept them, he recalled. "Everything went as well as we could have planned. If I were religious, I would tell you it was the hand of god," he said. "A short time after the raid, the same instructors who taught us how to fly the F-16s when we received them the year before came to speak with us at the Ramat David air base. They asked us how we were able to fly the mission while lacking the refueling system technology at the time, and we explained to them how we jettisoned the tanks to extend the range, something that was forbidden 'according to the book.'" "For Americans, everything is by the book, forbidden really means forbidden. They are not Israelis," Raz laughed. Using Osirak as a case study, Teheran has spread out and buried its nuclear facilities, and with a defense consisting of Russian SA-2, SA-5, SA-6 as well as shoulder-launched SA-7 missiles, the challenge of crippling Iran's nuclear projects was beyond the reach of the Israeli air force, and or even a sustained air attack by Americans, says Raz. "I don't see anyone stopping the Iranian project. The IAF can do damage to some of the facilities, but cannot stop them as a whole. You would have to go there physically, with an army on the ground, and this should be done with coalitions and super-powers, like in [the Gulf War] in 1991," Raz said.