Editor's Notes: No repeat of Osirak

Iran may be braced for a replication of the IAF's raid on Saddam's nuclear facility. Israel knows this.

IAF jet 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
IAF jet 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
It was late afternoon, Sunday, June 7, 1981, and Zeev Raz was leading his squadron of F-16s across Iraq toward the Osirak nuclear reactor. Anxiously, he scanned the terrain ahead for the last checkpoint of their hair-raising mission, a little island in the middle of the Bahr al-Mihl Lake, about 100 kilometers west of the target, from which the pilots would calculate their final assault on Saddam Hussein's impending bomb factory. At 5.34 p.m., bang on schedule, Raz spotted the lake. Or at least he thought he did. Except that it looked rather larger than it had in the satellite photos they'd pored over. And that little island - the crucial last reference point - was nowhere to be seen. Flashing through Iraqi air space at 10 kilometers a minute, Raz was second-guessing himself. Had he miscalculated? Had he strayed from the meticulously planned route? Was he leading his colleagues to disaster? What had gone wrong? Too late, Raz realized what had happened. The previous winter's heavy rains had swollen the lake and submerged the island. The satellite image was out of date. He had been in the right place, and should have trusted himself. Quickly, he reset his computer, inputting his new position, obtaining the adjusted parameters for the bombing run. But minutes later, when Raz closed in on his target, it became appallingly clear that the miscalculation at the sunken island had profoundly distracted him. This expert airman, leading the pride of the Israel Air Force across vast swathes of hostile terrain on a mission deemed by prime minister Begin to be critical to Israel's very existence - a mission that the chief of the General Staff, Raful Eitan, had told them that day "must be successful, or we as a people are doomed" - found to his horror that he had, almost amateurishly, overflown the target. He had begun his bombing dive too late. Israel's legendary destruction of Osirak - a near-impossible operation, pushing the F-16s further than they had been built to fly, evading enemy radar for hundreds of miles, to precision bomb a heavily protected nuclear target - has entered the pantheon of acts of extraordinary Zionist daring as a clinical example of pre-emptive devastation, executed with breathtaking, ruthless accuracy. But as detailed in American journalist Rodger Claire's overlooked study of the mission, 2004's Raid on the Sun - in which he spoke, uniquely, to all the pilots, their commanders, and key players on the Iraqi side of the raid as well - the bombing of Osirak was far from error-free. It was an astonishing, envelope-pushing assault all right. It succeeded, utterly, in destroying Saddam's nuclear program - a blow from which he would never recover. It safeguarded Israel from the Iraqi dictator's genocidal ambitions. But Raz's mistake on the final approach was only one of several foul-ups that could so easily have doomed it. Recognizing that Raz, the lead bomber, was not going to be able to hit the target, the No. 2 pilot in the squadron, Amos Yadlin, streaking along behind him, made the incredibly risky split-second decision to depart from the bombing sequence, cut in beneath Raz's plane, and try to drop his two 2,000-pound bombs first. As he would later tell author Claire, Yadlin thought to himself: "I'm not going to end up being hanged in some square in Baghdad because of a screwup." Yadlin did indeed get his bombs away, and saw them pierce the Osirak dome and disappear inside as he peeled off. Simultaneously, Raz was executing an astoundingly ambitious "loop-de-loop" in the skies above the reactor, and was able to come back over Osirak, at the correct angle this time, and hit the target. The potential consequences of these radical departures from the intended bombing process - the potential for misunderstanding, for collision, for disaster - can hardly be overstated. And that wasn't all that went wrong. The sixth pilot of the eight, Yiftah Spector, had not been one of the original octet selected for the mission, but, as commander of the base where the F-16s were stationed, had forced his way into the team late in the day. On the morning of the raid, he had woken with the flu, not told a soul, and spent the entire flight fighting to stay level-headed and focused. Come the moment of truth, perhaps because he blacked out, he too lost track of the target but, unlike Raz, was unable to recover and fired too late. One of his unexploded bombs was subsequently found inside the destroyed reactor. The troubles had started even before takeoff. Lining up on the tarmac earlier, one of the planes, flown by Doobi Yaffe, had encountered a fueling malfunction, precluding the vital pre-takeoff final "top up" that was thought might be crucial for the pilots to cover the unprecedented distance to Osirak and back. Another of the planes, that of Amir Nachumi, suffered complete electrical failure on the tarmac. Ten minutes before takeoff, Nachumi was forced to abandon the F-16 in which he'd trained for months and requisition a backup plane, which would inevitably handle a little differently, from the nearby hangar. (The next day, safely returned from their mission, when IAF ground crews rolled out the eight F-16s for maintenance checks, all eight failed to start, sporting an array of mechanical failures. As Claire quotes Nachumi remarking wryly: "Who says planes do not have souls.") Potential disaster also struck when, as the eight F-16s violated Jordan's airspace en route to their target, flying low to evade radar, they were spotted by King Hussein, out sailing his royal yacht at Aqaba. The king phoned his defense headquarters in Amman to report the sighting of what, despite the camouflage paint, were all-too evidently Israeli F-16s streaking eastward on a bombing run. He was assured that his security apparatus had picked up nothing suspicious. If the king tried to alert the Iraqis, he evidently failed to do so. And over the target zone itself, the operation was immeasurably eased by the fact that not only had the Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery units taken a break for their evening meal just prior to the raid - as the Mossad had established they would - but they had also, inexplicably, shut down their radar systems. These systems were still only warming up when the Israeli pilots bombed the reactor; the Iraqi defense teams thus had no radar or computer guidance as they tried to fire back and the Israelis - right through to the last, most endangered of the pilots, Ilan Ramon - were able to bomb and escape the scene. The only people hit by the panicked defensive fire, indeed, were Iraqi soldiers on the far side of the Osirak complex, several of whom were killed in the chaos. AS ONE of his chapter headings, Claire cites the US Army maxim that "No plan, no matter how perfect, survives first contact with the enemy." The raid on Osirak, though perceived as peerlessly clinical and precise, was certainly no exception. And yet, compared to the challenge that Israel would face if it attempted something similar against Iran's nuclear facilities, Osirak was a walk in the park. The potential Iranian targets are, obviously, significantly further away. The very success of Osirak has ensured that there can be no element of surprise. And if the Iranians were inclined to any relaxedness, the reported Israeli strike in Syria last September will have put them all on the highest of alerts. It's a safe bet that the teams protecting key installations across Iran don't troop out en masse for dinner, switching off their radar systems as they go. The last few weeks have seen all kinds of warnings and counter-warnings, bluffing and counter-bluffing, playing out among Israelis, Americans, the rest of the international community and the Iranians: widely reported Israeli bombing drills as far out west over the Mediterranean as the IAF would have to fly east to target Iran; reports and denials about American coordination with Israel or, alternatively, American wariness about an Israeli attack; Iranian drills and missile tests and threats; new peaceful nuclear cooperation carrots being proffered by the West, and nibbled, then rejected, then nibbled again by Iran; new sanction sticks being wielded. The Israeli defense establishment's tight-lipped insistence remains that Israel does have "a military option" for Iran. The Israeli political establishment's rather looser lipped position remains that we hope we won't have to use it. But the key Osirak lesson to be internalized in the current face-off, the maxim that ultimately facilitated that operation's success, is to continue to expect the unexpected. Saddam may have recognized that Israel might attempt an audacious raid on his French-supplied reactor; he may even have realized that the series of sabotage operations that had already blighted his nuclear project foretold an Israeli refusal to countenance its completion. But he had evidently not fully internalized the extent of Osirak's vulnerability; he hadn't put in place sufficient defensive provisions to safeguard it. He didn't really believe it was going to be hit. Iran, for all of its leadership's derisive insistence that Israel would not dare attack, is clearly bracing for the possibility. Its entire nuclear project, indeed, has been constructed with paramount attention to defense and minimal vulnerability - constructed, that is, with Saddam's failure to adequately protect Osirak as a case study. It has placed sensitive installations deep underground. It has relentlessly sought to acquire the most advanced defensive missile systems. And it has worked to maintain the utmost secrecy around key elements of the project, to the extent that nobody can even be confident that all relevant Iranian nuclear facilities have even been located, much less that they can be put out of commission. In short, if the IAF attempts some kind of Osirak replication - against targets such as the Natanz facility, where the Iranian enrichment centrifuges are spinning to hotly debated effect - Iran will be waiting. Israel knows this. As Osirak squadron leader Raz told this newspaper in an interview two years ago, "The IAF can do damage to some of the [Iranian] facilities, but cannot stop them as a whole." And so, since Israel's position is that it cannot be reconciled to a nuclear Iran, one has to anticipate that Israel has other options in mind if international pressure fails to deter the ayatollahs. One has to hope that, however profound our concerns about the expertise of our political leadership and its ability to think outside the box, the glorious tradition of Israeli military innovation, creativity, dedication and daring that enabled operations such as Osirak, remains intact. INTERESTINGLY, 27 years later, Amos Yadlin, the pilot who cut in under his commander's slightly errant F-16 to drop the first pair of bombs on Osirak, is now Maj.-Gen. Yadlin, head of IDF Military Intelligence. Interestingly, too, David Ivri - the IAF commander who oversaw the Osirak raid, subsequently served as Israel's ambassador to the US and is now Boeing's Israel representative - is currently refusing to give interviews, as are many of the senior Israeli military figures who might have keen insights into the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear drive. Given the spate of frequently contradictory reports about US-Israeli coordination or tension over a strike on Iran, it might be worth noting that in the more garrulous past, Ivri would occasionally speak with a certain quiet satisfaction about a treasured picture he kept hanging on the wall facing his desk in Washington. It features an enlarged black-and-white US satellite photograph of Osirak, taken a few days after the IAF raid had smashed the facility to pieces. And it bears a handwritten inscription that reads: "For Gen. David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 - which made our job much easier in Desert Storm." It is signed: Dick Cheney. Such thanks, however profound, came belatedly. Although president Ronald Reagan reportedly responded to first news of Osirak's destruction with a lighthearted "boys will be boys" and later spoke admiringly of "a terrific piece of bombing," the US formally protested the raid and approved a condemnatory UN resolution which branded it a violation of international law. Israel, of course, had chosen not to breathe a word to the Americans ahead of that attack. (Raid on the Sun by Rodger W. Claire is published in paperback by Broadway books.)