AIR ENTHUSIAST MARCH/APRIL 2004 ISSUE 110
TOM COOPER AND FARZAD BISHOP
TARGET: SADDAM'S REACTOR
Building site of the Osirak complex. In the foreground the foundations of the deep 'pool' and the dome can be seen, where later the Osirak 1 reactor was to be installed.
LONG BEFORE there were concerns regarding the Iraqi nuclear weapons programmes in the West, Israel and Iran orchestrated their efforts to prevent Iraq from obtaining the capability to build the 'bomb'. While certain aspects of the Israeli operations were widely publicised, Iran's contribution has largely been overlooked, and even less light has been shed on how closely connected its efforts were to Israeli operations.
Iranian and Israeli efforts to destroy Iraqi nuclear facilities in Tuwaitha, near Baghdad, however, were not the only strikes undertaken during the 1980s. The Iraqis also tried their best to hinder Iranian projects, and so - even though no nuclear weapons were used - all three parties flew several remarkable long-range missions, and the Iran-Iraq War could be truly considered as the 'First Nuclear War'.
Iraq's nuclear ambitions
Iraq's nuclear programme dated back to 1956, when the 'Atoms for Peace' project was initiated with support from the US, which was leading the international community in establishing nuclear research programmes in various allied nations. Several years - and bloody coups - later, in 1962 the Iraqis initiated their independent nuclear programme by building their first research reactor, the 2 megawatt-strong IRT-5000, supplied by the USSR. This reactor, built at Tuwaitha, 10 miles (19km) southeast of Baghdad, went critical in 1967, and was reportedly upgraded to 5MG in 1978. In 1968, Iraq signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ratified in 1969, but within two years the Ba'th Party regime in Baghdad had implemented a secret programme to develop nuclear weapons. It was run by the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), a small branch of the Ministry of Higher Education, initially led by Dr Khidir Hamza, but primarily under the control of the then Iraqi Vice-President and Vice-Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti. It was an ambitious but carefully designed civilian programme aimed at obtaining the technologies, skills, and infrastructure required to create a nuclear arsenal.
In 1972 the Iraqis managed to get their Minister of Higher Education, Hisham al-Shawi onto the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Iraqis now had inside knowledge of IAEA operations, which they could use to ensure their own nuclear programme went undetected.
By 1974, some 200 people were working for the IAEC. One year later, Jafar Dhia Jafar, a talented Iraqi experimental nuclear physicist was brought back to Baghdad after spending several years abroad, working at different foreign research centres, including those at Harwell in the UK and Geneva in Switzerland. Jafar soon became the leading figure in the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme, initiating the first uranium enrichment project in 1978. Meanwhile, Iraq was looking for a large reactor that would enable it to produce substantial quantities of plutonium.
An Iraqi delegation, led by Saddam Hussein, asked the French for a 500MW gas-cooled reactor. While this particular type of reactor was, by now, obsolete as a power source, it was known to have served as the backbone of the British and French nuclear weapon projects, and indeed was comparable with the original reactor used by the US for its 'Manhattan Project' that brought about the atomic weapons that fell upon Japan. Indian had just detonated its first nuclear device and as a result international regulations concerning the export of such reactors were tightened. France turned down the request, and the Iraqis had to purchase two research reactors run on highly enriched uranium instead.
The largely Saudi-funded order for the two reactors - to be built alongside the existing IRT-5000 - was signed by Saddam Hussein and Jacques Chirac in September 1975. In France the project was named Osiris, but became known as 'Osirak'. In Iraq these two reactors became known as Tammuz-1 (after the month in the Islamic calendar that the Ba'th Party came to power, in 1968), and Tammuz-2 (called 'Isis' by the French). Tammuz-1 was a light-water open-core research/materials test reactor (MTR), a high power reactor used for intense irradiation of target materials, with a nominal output of up to 40MW, but actually capable up to 70MW, making Osiris one of the largest of its class in the world. Tammuz-2 was a low-power reactor for research and training purposes.
By the time project 'Osirak' was signed, Saddam was making no secret of the fact that Iraq was engaged in "the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming". It was also obvious that Iraqi had no interest in obtaining a commercial light-water power reactor. Despite this, the French seemed to have no problems with supplying an MTR to Iraq. They must have known that reactors of this type were mainly used by countries with advanced power reactor programmes. The Iraqis planned to use Tammuz-1 to irradiate a blanket of unsafeguarded uranium, in order to produce the special isotope Pu-239, ie weapons-grade Plutonium. The combination of the materials that was to be supplied for Tammuz-1 and -2, as well as for IRT-5000, would deliver enough weapons-grade uranium into Iraqi hands to produce at least two bombs. Only after the $300 million agreement had been signed and the French had started building Tammuz-1 and -2, did they begin to have second thoughts about the wisdom of helping the Iraqis. Under considerable Israeli pressure, the French tried to supply lower enriched fuel to Iraq. The Iraqis persisted to ensure they got what was originally ordered. Nevertheless, instead of building the reactor in an underground facility - as requested by Baghdad - the French put it under a highly conspicuous and vulnerable concrete dome. Construction of the infrastructure was completed between 1976 and 1979, and then the Iraqis and French began building the reactor itself. In the meantime, Iraq contracted the Italian company SNIA-
Techint to build a plutonium separation and handling facility, as well as a uranium refining and fuel-production plant, worth $200 million. Such facilities were not subject to any IAEA restrictions. In the meantime, Iraq had obtained large amounts of unsafeguarded uranium: over 100 tons were imported from Portugal, Brazil and Nigeria. In 1980 Iraq also attempted to obtain 11 tons of depleted uranium from West Germany: this material alone would have been enough to produce 241b (11kg) of plutonium - enough for two small bombs - after 150 days of radiation.
Israel and Iran spent years carefully monitoring Iraqi projects. Mohamad-Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, the Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Iranian Armed Services as well as all top military leaders, felt alarmed over the French and Italian bids to build the Osirak reactors and supply other equipment. (HAS; After the revolution HAS was renamed the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Services -IRIAS.) Iran's leaders were kept constantly informed about any related development, so much so, that Franco-Iranian relations have suffered from this development until recently. Iran didn't trust Iraq, despite protestations from Baghdad that any such weapons would be only be used against Israel.
Needless to say, the Israelis did not want the two French-supplied reactors to be completed either. Israeli intelligence had been working on the case from its inception, and shared information with Iranian intelligence. They knew that Iraq had deployed several divisions and half its air force to fight alongside the Syrians during the 1973 war and feared something similar might happen if Iraq developed nuclear weapons. Iraq was also one of the main supporters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the terrorist acts it perpetrated around the world.
SADDAM WAS MAKING NO SECRET OF THE FACT THAT IRAQ WAS ENCAGED IN 'THE FIRST ARAB ATTEMPT AT NUCLEAR ARMING'."
Diagram of the Iraqi Tuweitha complex, as in building between September 1980 and June 1981, when destroyed by the Iranian and then Israeli strikes
As additional reports - particularly from India, where several Iraqi researchers had been trained - about the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme continued to reach Tehran and Jerusalem, the concerns of both governments grew, especially when Saddam Hussein declared himself President early in 1979.
Iran put its concerns aside for a brief period - between October 1978 and April 1979 there an Islamic revolution and for several months afterwards the new regime was primarily concerned with establishing itself in power.
The chaos brought about by the revolution was still being felt when tensions between Iran and Iraq erupted into a series of fierce border clashes, provoked by Iraq. On September 17, 1980, Saddam Hussein annulled the Algiers-Treaty, a border-agreement signed with Iran in 1975, and claimed the whole Shatt al-Arab waterway for Iraq. Five days later, he deployed his military into an all-out invasion of Iran.
Diagram of the Iraqi Tuweitha complex, as in building between September 1980 and June 1981, when destroyed by the Iranian and then the Israeli air strikes.
Although usually believed to have received 'only' 16 RF-4Es, in two batches, during the 1970s, the Iranian Air Force actually received at least 24 examples, of which by 1980 at least 21 were still in service.
"...A TELEX FROM ISRAEL ARRIVED IN THE OFFICES OF THE IRANIAN GOVERNMENT, STARTING WITH: "HOW MAY WE HELP?"
Israel had tried to warn Tehran that Iraq was about to invade, but the Iranian authorities were in such a state of confusion that few officials and military leaders saw or fully read the message. Besides, many of the best Iranian military officers had been purged, imprisoned or executed; while other had fled the country. Years later, former Iranian President Bani-Sadr admitted in his memoirs that he had been warned about the Iraqi attack, and had ordered steps to be taken to mobilise the Islamic Republics of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), and increase its capabilities in the days before the outbreak of war. It's unclear how much truth there is in this, but the fact remains that the IRIAF was very active during the skirmishes in September 1980 - in fact it was the main weapon that impeded Iraqi penetration into southern Iran in October 1980.
While their warnings may have gone unheeded, the Israelis never stopped trying. Only few hours after Iraq initiated the invasion on September 22, a telex from Israel arrived in the offices of the Iranian government, starting with: "How may we help?"
The same message continued with a very detailed assessment of the Iraqi military, including unit dispositions and locations along the Iranian border, and a list of 124 suggested targets for the IRIAF, ranging from power stations to air bases, with the Osirak reactor site highlighted.
This information helped to formulate Iranian operations in the subsequent days. The targeting list was forwarded to IRIAF wing commanders, and - together with their own intelligence and strategy - they used it to embark on a highly intensive and effective operation. As a result, the Iraqi air force was largely suppressed and forced 'under ground', while considerable damage was inflicted on Iraq's oil production and export infrastructure. In addition to the supply of information, within a few days white-painted Israeli Boeing 707s started arriving at the military side of Mehrabad International Airport, delivering crates for the Iranian military.
It is important to stress that it was the Iranians whc planned, prepared, and executed every sortie flown b) IRIAF fighter-bombers, and the Iranians who stopped the Iraq invasion - not the Israelis. Also, the amount of spares anc other technical support supplied by Israel would not havt been sufficient to keep the Iranian military running without its already vast stocks of spares and the capabilities oi Iranian technicians and flight crew.
Nevertheless - and however 'strange' this may sound - certain elements of the regime in Tehran felt somewhat 'indebted' to Israel, and a decision was taken to 'repay' this debt by undertaking something that was of interest to the Israelis. Of course, taking action against Osirak was not only in Israel's interest, but Iran's as well. It was clear to the Israelis and Iranians that the Osirak reactors would enable the Iraqis to obtain enough weapons-grade uranium to build a bomb. And even though Iraq was cheating the IAEA, an attack against the facility could also lead to a clash with the French. Taking all this on board, the Iranians finally re-started their efforts to scupper Iraq's nuclear ambitions.
The Israelis were already very active on this front. In April 1979 seven Israeli operatives were smuggled into the compound of the French company Constructions Navales et Industrielles de la Mediterranee in La Seyne-Sur-Mer, near Toulon, where they placed explosive charges on the near-complete Osirak reactor housings, and detonated them. This operation alone postponed the Iraqi programme by at least six months, forcing the Iraqis and the French to build complete new cores.
Next, the Israelis are believed to have been the ones who assassinated Dr Yahya al-Meshad, an Egyptian nuclear engineer hired by Iraq to supervise the reactor deal. In August 1980 they planted a bomb in the office of SNIA-Techint, and there are rumours about Israeli involvement in the death of two Iraqi nuclear engineers who perished under suspicious circumstances. Now it was the turn of the Iranians to do something.
Operation Scorch Sword
As soon as Iraq invaded Iran, the Israelis exerted pressure on Iran to attack the building site at Tuwaitha. On September 27, 1980, General Yehoushua Seguy, the then Chief of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) intelligence, publicly urged the Iranians to attack by expressing surprise that "Iran had not yet attempted to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor in construction near Baghdad". The Iranians would not make the Israelis wait too long.
Iran had first considered bombing the site before the Islamic revolution, but in September 1980, the IRIAF High Command had to start devising a completely new operation, as the overall situation had changed dramatically with the outbreak of war.
The major problem was the lack of intelligence - due to the break-down in relations with the USA, the IRIAF had no new satellite photographs of the building site. Nor were there any new pictures taken from the ground. Israeli and Syrian intelligence agencies had both reported that the work on the reactors was advancing, but in the final days before the mission, some doubts surfaced over whether the reactor was already fuelled - the Iranians could not risk causing nuclear fall-out over Baghdad. Because of this, the first ever mission in the history of warfare to be undertaken against a nuclear reactor - even one still being built - was planned under the operation name of scorch sword. On an Israeli suggestion, this would not strike the reactor itself, but target the nuclear research laboratories, the reactor control building and training facilities.
It was known that the building site was defended by a single SA-6 battery just over a mile (2km) to the southeast, between 30 and 40 anti-aircraft artillery positions (AAA - mostly 23mm and 57mm radar-guided guns) and three French-supplied 'Shelter Roland 2' SAM sites mounted in a triangle some 1,600ft (500m) around the reactor. The IRIAF decided to deploy its faithful McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom Us for the mission.
These Roland SAMs were the first to become operational in Iraq - indeed, it was said that the French pulled rounds and equipment from their own stocks to reinforce the defences of the site where there were French people working. The IRIAF possessed no ECM pods capable of countering Rolands - its pods could only suppress SA-2s, SA-3s, and SA-6s - so the aircraft that were to be used for this strike had to be fast, and carry a considerable bombload. Their carefully-chosen crews had to depend on their skills, flying the aircraft at a very high speed at extremely low level, using the reactor complex as a shield against the Rolands - they would also need a fair amount of good luck.
As September 30 dawned four F-4E Phantoms of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Squadron took off from Nojeh TFB.3 at Kaboodar-Ahang, near Hamedan. Flying on a south westerly course, the formation first approached the Iraqi border to meet a Boeing 707-3J9C tanker - escorted by two AIM-54A Phoenix-armed Grumman F-14A Tomcats - so they could refuel in mid-air. Each Phantom was armed with six Mk.82 GP bombs, two AIM-7E-2 Sparrow air-to-air missiles, and a full load of 20mm ammunition for the M-61A-1 Vulcan cannon. After crossing into Iraq at very low level, the formation - led by a full Colonel - climbed so that the enemy early-warning radars would paint it just long enough for the Iraqis to think they had fixed the direction in which the Iranians were heading. Moments later, the flight dropped back down to a very low level, where the Iraqis were no longer able to track it. Then the Phantoms parted - the leading pair continued in the same direction as before, towards a powerplant just south of Baghdad, while the other two turned for Tuwaitha, further south.
The Iraqi Tuweitha complex, as in building between September 1980 and June 1981, when destroyed by the Iranian and then the Israeli air strikes.
As the last two F-4Es approached the Tammuz building site, they remained very low, pulling up at the last moment, barely 2.4 miles (4km) from the target, and then the aircraft remained high for a very brief period. To the surprise of the crews, the Iraqis did not fire even a single missile or shell at them. Approaching on a direct route and executing a perfect attack, the pilots swiftly acquired their targets east of the reactor buildings, rolled out and released the 12 Mk.82s, remaining in the air over the target for only six seconds!
Simultaneously, the two other Phantoms hit their target, taking out the power supply to Baghdad for most of the next two days.
There is considerable controversy over the results of Operation scorch sword. In the West the IRIAF strike was generally regarded as having missed the target completely, or causing only minor damage. The Iraqis and French declared it a "failure", and "ineffective". At best, it was reported that damage of 'only' several million dollars was caused, as well as a 'slight' delay in construction, with all the repairs finished by the end of November 1980. The Iraqis immediately attacked Iran for its "co-operation with Zionist enemy", suspecting - together with the French - that the aircraft did not come out of Iran, but from Israel.
The Iraqi Tuweitha complex, as in building between September 1980 and June 1981, when destroyed by the Iranian and then the Israeli air strikes.
It remains unknown exactly which RF-4E from the sizeable fleet of Iranian recce-phantoms flew the reconnaissance mission over Tuweitha, on November 30, 1980, which became so important for the Israelis. RF-4E 2-6507 is a good illustration for the look of the - officially - second batch of eight recce-Phantoms (US serials 74-1725 to 74-1736), supplied to Iran from 1975 onwards. (It remains relatively unknown that Iran started receiving RF-4Es in 1971.) These were - at $9.2 million apiece - the most expensive Phantoms ever built, containing much exotic equipment, some of which necessitated a slight redesign of the underside of the camera compartment. For most of their forays deep over Iraq, Iranian RF-4Es were equipped either with AN/ALQ-87(V)-4 or AN/ALQ-101 ECM-pods, usually carried under one of the underwing pylons.
Contrary to usual reports about being cannibalised and used for spares to support the F-4E fleet, Iranian F-4Ds participated intensively in the war against Iraq. This pair flying at yen low level over ii terrain similar to that surrounding the Tuweitha complex are carrying drop tanks as well as triple-ejector racks (TERs).
Saddam Hussein personally stated that Israeli aircraft had already flown over Iraq, including delivering a strike against Baghdad on July 27, 1980!
Even the French intelligence services later reported that the September 30 attack on Tuwaitha was carried out by "two unidentified Israeli Phantoms", or aircraft with Iranian markings, flown by Israeli pilots. Israel emphatically denied all such allegations, indirectly pointing at the fact that such an operation would be almost impossible to carry out with IDF/AF F-4Es. Needless to say, similar reports in the press caused a lot of confusion.
From what is known, however, the two strings of Mk.82 bombs - equipped with Mk.15 Snakeye retarding fins -fell where planned. French reporters who photographed the attack confirmed that several large fires had been started, causing considerable damage. According to an eyewitness, two bombs hit the dome that was to cover Tammuz-1, but bounced off it. Other bombs reportedly caused damage to the pumps and pipes in the water-cooling tower (west of the main facility, which is surprising, given that Iranian pilots deliberately dropped their weapons to the east of the reactors), and the installations for storing and treating liquid radioactive waste. Several labs and service facilities were hit, and heavy damage was caused to various piping systems and plumbing installations.
"...WE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE OUR PLANES DROP A SACK OF ROCKS ON THE IRAQIS..."
A former high-ranking IRIAF F-4 pilot, questioned about the success of this strike, was quoted in the Western media, as saying: I will tell you with some emotion, that if the damage caused by
In addition to the damage caused by the bombs, of equal importance was the sense of panic created among the French and Italian technicians, most of whom promptly left Iraq. A handful of French personnel did return in February 1981, but many of those who didn't, revealed some crucial details about the Iraqi nuclear programme to the Israeli secret services.
Frankly, the Iranian authorities didn't really capitalise on the operation, nor was much fuss made about the achievements of the IRIAF fliers. Despite the success of this well-planned mission, Dr Freidoon Sahabi, then head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, said during an interview with Radio Sweden on October 9 that: "the strike was delivered by mistake", and that the IRIAF hit the incomplete building site of Tammuz-2 in order to prevent any possible spread of radiation.
In fact, it seems that the Iranians simply didn't know what the strike had achieved. To ease their minds, they sent an RF-4E on a reconnaissance run over Tuwaitha. The Israelis wanted to see any recon photos of the building site, particularly close-up shots. Once again Israel and Iran shared their intelligence regarding the state of the Iraqi reactors. As a result, the}- went on to fly two strikes that took the Iraqis completely by surprise.
Message in the bottle
On November 30, 1980, a single IRIAF RF-4E - escorted by two F-4Es armed with air-to-air missiles - took off from Nojeh TFB.3 to take pictures of Tuwaitha. The F-4Es entered Iraqi airspace first, drawing the attention of the Iraqi defenders away from the sole RF-4E. The recon-Phantom approached to the south of the target at low level, then turned back towards the east and made a single pass over the Osirak reactors while being fired at by several Iraqi AAA and SAM sites. Once out of the target area, the two F-4Es joined up again and escorted the RF-4E safely out of Iraq.
Two days later, an unmarked Boeing 707 transport landed at TFB.l and under the cover of darkness several crates were unloaded onto guarded military trucks and driven to the nearby storage bunkers, on the western side of Mehrabad. This suggests that the crates were of a military nature and very valuable to Iran. The Boeing did not refuel at Mehrabad, but a member of the crew was handed a small metal briefcase, with the instructions 'Do Not X-Ray' painted in English on the outside. There can be little doubt that the case contained photos (perhaps even the negatives) of the Iraqi reactors, freshly shot by the IRIAF recon-Phantom.
Israel let the IRIAF know that they were pleased with the results of the strike and they never asked the Iranians to bomb Osirak again. On the contrary, they openly seemed to discourage an additional strike!
There were reports that the IRIAF flew another raid on October 2, but it would seem that - untypically - no follow-up attacks were undertaken. IRIAF officers and pilots could not understand why its own High Command had allowed this, especially as they knew what had been hit and what was at stake. The answer to their questions, however, finally became apparent on June 7, 1981.
The H-3 Blitz
The Israelis reserved for themselves the right to deliver 'the final blow', thus sending a strong message to all the Arab nations of what they could expect if they tried to establish a capability to build nuclear weapons. And they preferred
keeping Iran in their debt. It was therefore in Israeli interests to downplay the success of the Iranian raid, and cover up the full extent of its co-operation with Iran. The only 'official' Israeli source to confirm the co-operation between Iran and Israel, was Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence operative. He explained in his controversial book, Profits of War, that it was in late February 1981 that -during a meeting with the commander of the IRIAF, Colonel Fakouri - the Iranians asked Israel to neutralise the Iraqi reactors. 'Reinforcing' his version, Ben-Menashe said it was the Israelis who conducted the high-altitude photo-reconnaissance sorties over Tuwaitha and supplied photographs to Iran. It would seem, the former chief of the IDF intelligence was too proud to admit that by the time he met with Colonel Fakouri, three months had elapsed since the metal briefcase had been handed over to the Israeli Boeing 707 crew.
By autumn 1980, the IDF/AF was already planning its own mission against Tuwaitha - the basic procedures for an air strike had actually been finalised in late 1979. The arrival of reconnaissance photos from Iran and meetings with the IRIAF command, certainly proved influential enough for the Israelis to update their plans and better prepare their pilots for the operation to come. Right after Iran's apparent 'failure' to destroy the Tammuz reactors, the 'disappointed' Israeli leadership gave the final go-ahead for a similar operation (codenamed opera) against the same building site, albeit, this time the bombs were intended to hit the dome and destroy it.
A team of hand-picked IDF/AF Phantom and Douglas A-4 Skyhawk crews was already practising long-range flights over the Mediterranean, when the Israelis joyfully learned that because Iran had cancelled its order for 160 General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcons, they would get theirs much earlier than anticipated. Shortly after the F-16s started to arrive in Israel, two units were equipped with them - usually referred as the 110th or 'Knights of the North' Squadron, and the 117th or 'First Jet' Squadron - so that they could carry out test flights with various bombs loads and drop tanks.
In addition to the F-16 test flights, in October 1980, as well as in January and March 1981 the F-4E(S) Phantom Us of the IDF/AF's 119th 'Bat' Squadron flew four reconnaissance missions over western and southern Iraq, searching for a 'hole' in the Saudi and Iraqi early warning radar nets, which would enable the strikers to approach Baghdad undetected.
During one of these missions, on January 3, 1981, a lone Iraqi MiG-21MF Fishbed intercepted two F-4E(S)s, led by Lt Col Gideon Shefer, then CO of the 119th Squadron (his weapon systems operator on this mission was Capt Yuval Naveh). The highly experienced Israeli pilots managed to deny the Iraqi flier an opportunity to fire with their well-timed evasive manoeuvres, but he continued to pursue them.
For an attack that - supposedly - was not successful, and caused "no or only little damage", the Iranian strike against the building site of the Osirak projects flown on September 30, 1980, definitely caused a considerable blast and huge fire. This photograph was taken by one of three French reporters that cabled their reports and photographs to France before the Iraqi authorities could stop them.
Realising he was rapidly running out of fuel, the Iraqi turned away, but had to eject some 40km (27nm) west of H-3 air base due to fuel starvation. Ever since, one of the two remaining Israeli F-4E(S)s, '498,' has been wearing a 'kill marking' in the form of an Iraqi insignia on the nose.
These reconnaissance missions over Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, supplied the Israelis with precious information. As well as detailing the capabilities of Iraqi ground controllers and interceptor pilots, the Israelis learned (also from Iranian intelligence) that the Iraqi air defence system usually needed between two and three minutes to react after detecting low-flying and fast-moving targets. The Israelis passed on much of what they had learned about IrAF radar installations and air defence systems in western Iraq to the Iranians, in turn enabling them to deliver their next heavy blow - the 'H-3 Blitz'.
Both, the Israelis and Iranians, were carefully monitoring the development of co-operation between Jordan and Iraq. Among other things, the Iranians learned that at the H-3 airfield complex - consisting of three airfields, H-3/al-Walid ('Main'), H-3 Northwest, H-3 Southwest - only some 27 miles (50km) east of the Jordanian border, there was a large number of IrAF aircraft, including newly-delivered Mirage FlEQs, Tupolev Tu-16 Badger bombers and transports, all in the process of being serviced by Egyptian, East German and Soviet personnel.
For an attack that -supposedly -mis not successful, and caused "no or onh little damage", tin Iranian strike against the building site of the Osirak projects flown on September 30, 1980, definitely caused a considerable blast and huge fire. This photograph was taken by one of three French reporters that cabled their reports and photographs to France before the Iraqi authorities could stop them.
F-4E(S) 498 of the IDF/AF unit known as the 119th or 'Bat' Squadron was flown by Lt Col Gideon Shefer (former VSAF-pilot, that transferred to the IDF/AF in the late 1970s) and Capt Yuval Naveh during the mission into western Iraq, on January 3, 1981. It is shown here equipped with an AN/ALQ-119 ECM-pod, and displaying a kill-marking applied for the Iraqi MiG-21 that crashed due to fuel starvation while pursuing it on the same occasion. During their forays deep into western Iraq, in 1980 and 1981, Israeli recce-Phantoms were also armed with Shafrir Mk.2 air-to-air missiles, carried either on underwingpylons, or on special pylons developed by the Israelis and mounted in one of the front Sparrow bays. Interestingly, the Israeli-Iranian cooperation was further intensified and deepened after the joint operation against the Iraqi nuclear ambitions: by 1986 the Israelis were supplying whole ship-loads of weapons and spare-parts to Iran, including 20 AN/ALQ-119 ECM-pods!
The IRIAF had been looking for the Iraqi bomber fleet from day one of the war, and - noticing a brilliant opportunity - its top commanders, Col Fakouri and Maj Bahram Hushyar, delivered a plan for an ultra-long-range strike against the complex. For this operation, the 31st and 32nd Tactical Fighter Wings of the IRIAF pooled ten hand-picked F-4 crews. The mission would also require two F-14As, one Lockheed C-130H 'Khofaash' COMINT aircraft, a Boeing 747 airborne command post and tanker, plus two 7O7-2J9C tankers.
The plan was simple: using confusion created by a diversionary strike against targets in the Kirkuk region, a formation of eight Phantoms would penetrate deep into Iraq, meet two Boeing 707 tankers to refuel in the air, and then surprise the Iraqis at H-3 by attacking them from the north - a direction no one in the IrAF would expect an attack to come from.
This top-secret operation was initiated shortly before dawn on April 4, 1981: six F-4Es (two loaded with six Mk.82s each, and four carrying four BL.755s each), as well as two peace enforcer F-4Ds (both carrying six Mk.82s each) took off from Nojeh TFB, accompanied by two airborne reserves. Minutes later they met up with the tanker waiting over the border, and then crossed into Iraq in two four-ship formations, flying only 500ft (150m) apart and at very low altitude.
Each section was led by one F-4D, as they were equipped with highly-sophisticated radar homing and warning systems to find a way through the Iraqi early warning radars. The front formation was led by Maj Farajollah Baratpour, and the rear by Major Shafti. In addition to bombs, each aircraft also carried a single Sparrow missile in the front-right bay and an ECM pod in the front-left bay. Two Tomcats, a stand-by tanker aircraft, and the C-130 'Khofaash' COMINT remained near the border over northeastern Iran, waiting for their return.
Meanwhile, two Northrop F-5E Tiger Us from Tabriz's TFB.2 flew a diversionary raid against al-Hurriya AB, near Kirkuk, which distracted Iraqi attention away from the formation bound for H-3.
Several hours earlier, two Boeing 'KC-707' tankers had taken off from Istanbul International Airport in Turkey, and then secretly diverted from international commercial corridors, while on a return leg bound for Iran, maintaining total radio silence. They descended gallantly to a very low level over southern Turkey, penetrated airspace over eastern Syria, then crossed the mountainous region in northwest Iraq, finally joining the eight-ship Phantom formation over the western Iraqi desert. An extremely complicated refuelling operation was initiated, with each Iranian fighter-bomber filling up four times from the tankers while flying at barely 300ft (100m) -in order to remain below the horizon of the nearest Iraqi radars.
After refuelling, the Phantoms broke off for their next waypoint as the tankers took on an orbiting station, keeping very low near the Syrian border. Flying low over the Iraqi deserts, the crews used the onboard INS systems and the few apparent landmarks for navigation, moving westwards accompanying the sunrise. After a flight of nearly 540nm (1,000km), the Phantoms finally split into two three-ships and one two-ship, with each formation going after one of the main targets.
The appearance of the Iranian fighter-bombers so deep over Iraq came as a complete surprise. A large number of IrAF aircraft
were found parked at all three airfields and near the repair shops. The Phantoms dropped their bombs and came back for strafing passes, the Iraqis opening fire with AAA and SAMs. Gun-cameras in several of the Iranian fighters captured mechanics still working on aircraft they came in to strafe!
The formation tasked with striking the al-Walid Main, led by Major Baratpour, was the last to reach its target. The aircraft made a right turn around the target in order to attack from 'behind,' thus causing Iraqi gunners to panic while creating their 'wall of fire' over the opposite side of the airfield. Baratpour went for the ramp to drop his BL.755s on several aircraft parked there, while his wingman bombed both runways with iron bombs, closing them for any enemy interceptor that dared to take-off.
A series of volcanic explosions shattered al-Walid as three Tu-16s were hit, followed by several hangars, two radar stations and more aircraft parked on the ground. As the Iraqi defences were too disarrayed to react effectively, despite the many SAMs fired, the Phantoms had enough time - and of course fuel - to make two more passes each, and hit one enemy aircraft after the other. During the final strafing pass, the Iranians aimed their cannons against any bomber, fighter and helicopter that had somehow survived the initial foray. Even large trucks bringing goods from the Jordanian port of Aqaba on the international Baghdad-Amman highway were not spared shots from the returning Phantoms' left-over cannon rounds.
Iran later claimed no less than 48 aircraft and helicopters of different types, including several Mirages, had been destroyed or badly damaged. The actual results were somewhat different - US intelligence later confirmed destruction of three An-12BP transports, one Tu-16 bomber, four MiG-21s, five Su-20/-22s, eight MiG-23s, two Mirage FlEQs and four Mi-8 helicopters. Another eleven assorted Iraqi aircraft were badly damaged, including two Tu-16s, and it seems that all were beyond repair.
Numerous other aircraft - including at least three Tu-22B Blinders - were lightly damaged. In addition, according to French sources, two Iraqi pilots and 14 other Iraqi personnel were killed, along with three Egyptians and one East German, who were working with the IrAF. Up to 19 Iraqis, four Egyptians and two Jordanians were also injured.
Whatever damage was caused, during their return, the Iranian aircraft were again totally undisturbed by Iraqi Air Defence Force, although interceptors were hastily scrambled. The Iraqis later claimed that their radars tracked the Iranian formation during their flight into Syria and then - some 67 minutes later - back again, implying that the Iranians had refuelled somewhere in Syria. The Iranians never attempted a similar raid, but Baghdad also failed to ever explain why none of the MiG-21s and MiG-23s scrambled intercepted the Iranian formation, after all, the Iranians spent no less than 4 hours 40 minutes inside the Iraqi airspace during the 'H-3 Blitz'. This operation remained the longest-ranged and most brilliantly planned and executed of the whole Iran-Iraq War.
Although there was every reason to believe that that the Iranian H-3 strike would turn western Iraq into a hornet's nest, monitoring Iraqi reactions only made the Israelis even more confident. On the basis of data supplied by their reconnaissance Phantoms as well as the Iranians, the Israeli strike against Tuwaitha was finally given the go-ahead. The mission was set for May 10, 1981, to be carried out by eight F-16s, escorted by six McDonnell Douglas F-1S Eagles. A specially-selected group of F-16 pilots - dubbed the 'Baghdad Crew' - was led by the commanders of the 117th and 110th Squadrons, Lt Col Zev Raaz and Col Nahumi respectively, the formation of F-15s being led by the CO of the 133rd Squadron.
On the day the mission was cancelled at the last minute, due to an escalation in the situation in Lebanon and problems with some Israeli opposition politicians who had found out about it. This proved a blessing in disguise, as IDF/AF armourers later discovered that the fuses of most of the Mk.84s arming the F-16s had been incorrectly set.
After talks with Mossad (the Israeli foreign secret service), Sunday, June 7, 1981, was selected as the new date for the attack, as the Israelis believed the French technicians would not be working on the site, and also the reactor was due to be fuelled less than a couple of weeks afterwards. An attack under such circumstances would cause a nuclear fall-out over Baghdad, and would be politically unacceptable. For the mission, the IDF/AF deployed all 14 involved fighters, plus two spares, to Etzion air base, which was close to the Gulf of Aqaba and on occupied Egyptian Sinai: this airfield was already scheduled to be returned to Egypt.
This meant that support equipment and aircraft fuel had to be taken there, but from Etzion the Israeli aircraft would be able to take a direct route over Saudi Arabia and so conserve fuel. They could also use a 'blind spot' which
Diagram illustrating the formation in which the IDF/AF F-16s and F-15s flew over Saudi Arabia and into Iraq. Note that the four F-16As of the'Bunch' section flew a considerable distance ahead of the rest of formation, while F-15s were underway aside and behind the 'Giselle' section.
"THE IRAQIS HAD KNOWN ABOUT THIS WEAK SPOT IN THEIR RADAR NET FOR YEARS, BUT... DID NOT EXPECT ATTACKS TO COME FROM SAUDI ARABIA."
had been found in Saudi airspace, as well as in the Jordanian air defence umbrella and - most importantly - in Iraq's defences. The Iraqis had known about this weak spot in their radar net for years, but took no steps to close it as they did not expect attacks to come from Saudi Arabia. On June 7, 1981, at 14:00 hours, 14 Israeli pilots climbed into their cockpits and taxied to the runways - more than one had swapped aircraft at the last minute to try to avoid technical problems. The formation launched exactly on time, though because of strong winds blowing from the north, the fighters took off in that direction before turning back. Over the Gulf of Aqaba, they unintentionally flew into Jordanian airspace, a potentially dangerous mistake as it not only took them directly over thousands of tourists on the beaches but also over the yacht belonging to King Hussein. The king could hardly have missed seeing the Israeli aircraft flying just 2,100ft (730m) overhead and heading straight for Jordanian airspace.
Diagram illustrating the formation in itto'i the IDF/AF F-Us and F-15s flew our Saudi Arabia and into Iraq. Note that the four F-16Asofthe'Buiuh section flew a considerable distance ahead of the rest of formation, wlu'lt F-ISs were underway aside and behind the 'Giselle' section.
Nemesis of the Osirak 1 reactor became eight early F-l6As, including 107 and 243, probably the two best known, and shown in the configuration and markings as applicable to Operation opera. The 107 became the most decorated F-16A ever, scoring a total of 6.2 kills during the war in Lebanon, in 1982; 243 was also used for downing a Syrian MiG in the same year. Both aircraft are still in service with the IDF/AF. The eight F-16As that participated in the attack against Tuweitha complex were: 107, 113, 118, and 129 from the 117th or 'First Jet' Squadron (flying as 'Bunch' section, and flown by Lt Col Ze'ev Raz, Amos Yaldin, Dubi Yoffe, and Hagai Catz), and 239, 240, 243, and 249 from the 110th or 'Knights of the North' Squadron (flying as 'Giselle' section, and flown by Col Amir Nahumi, Col Yiftah Spector, Relik Shafir, and Capt Ilan Ramon).
Entering Saudi airspace, the Israelis flew at 200ft (60m), Lt Col Ra'az leading Bunch and Col Nahumi Chisel section. Behind them, six F-15s, each armed with full loads of four AIM-7Fs, AIM-9Ls, and three drop tanks, plus ALQ-119 ECM pods, took up their positions. For more than 80 minutes, the Israelis flew in tight formation over the an-Nafud Desert, at a speed of Mach 0.7, in total radio silence. Every aircraft dropped its empty fuel tanks only after they were empty, and over a specially chosen part of the desert to leave no trace and to alert nobody.
Crossing the border with Iraq, the formation accelerated to Mach 0.8, and 40km (21nm) from Baghdad the F-15s powered up their radars. Searching for potential Iraqi
interceptors, the formation of Eagles split into three pairs - one pair entering an orbit over each of the nearest IrAF airfields, over Habbaniyah (Tammuz) and al-Taqqadum bases, over Baghdad's al-Mossana and al-Rashid ABs, and near Salman Pak AB.
Meanwhile, the two F-16 sections accelerated again and climbed to 10,000ft (3,000m) to find their target. After a short visual search, they spotted the reactor's high dome, and the flight was divided to get more separation. The Iraqis had no chance, as the air defence of Tuwaitha depended for activation orders and target identification on the central Air Defence Force. First the attackers had to detected, tracked, headquarters in Baghdad called and asked for an order to fire! Even with no delays, this process usually took two or three minutes.
Meanwhile, Lt Col Ra'az made a 35 degree dive at the target at a speed of 600 knots and dropped two Mk.84 GP bombs from 3,500ft. The bombs smashed the dome and left the reactor exposed. Three more F-16s dropping flares followed at five-second intervals, and when it came to the turn of Chisel section, the last four pilots were forced to drop their bombs into clouds of smoke.
All the F-16s made hard pull-ups to the side as Iraqi antiaircraft artillery finally opened fire. It was too late - free of their heavy loads, the Israelis accelerated away towards the west. Of the 16 bombs they dropped, 12 scored direct hits and two penetrated the reactor's basement without exploding. The Tammuz-1 reactor at Tuwaitha had been completely destroyed in under 45 seconds.
Lt Col Ra'az transmitted the results of the attack in code to the control centre at Tel Nov before leading his formation into a climb to 40,000ft (12,000m) directly over Jordan, heading home to Israel. The formation would almost certainly have been detected by Iraqi, Jordanian, Syrian, and Saudi radar, but no missiles or interceptors intervened. The RJAF flight control centre was alarmed to see the Israeli aircraft on their way back from Iraq, but the Jordanians hesitated to get involved and called back two Mirage Fls from patrol nearby. A Grumman E-2C Hawkeye, a 707 jamming/command aircraft, at least one 707 tanker and two sections of four Eagles all waited over Israel in case the attackers ran into any problems on the flight back. Everything went according to plan and the Israeli aircraft landed safely.
As a result of the Iranian 'H-3 Blitz' and the Israeli Operation opera, the commander of the Western Air Defence Zone, IrAF Air Defence Command, Col Fakhri Hussein Jaber, and all the officers in his command over the rank of major, were executed for incompetence and failing in their duties. Twenty-three other IrAF officers and pilots were sent to prison.
"COL FAKHRI HUSSEIN JABER, AND ALL THE OFFICERS IN HIS COMMAND OVER THE RANK OF MAJOR, WERE EXECUTED FOR INCOMPETENCE AND FAILING IN THEIR DUTIES."
The successful destruction of Tuwaitha was the perfect example of a perfectly planned, prepared, and executed air strike. The destruction of the Tammuz reactors by Israeli aircraft, and of the research facilities by the Iranians, put Iraq's nuclear weapons programme back by almost ten years. .Although Brazil delivered the agreed shipment of uranium in July 1981, and the French - after many disagreements between Baghdad and Paris - began work on a new reactor, the Iraqi dictator failed to develop his bomb in time to use it against Iran, Israel or the Gulf Coalition.
Hitting Iran's nuclear capability
.Although the Israeli and Iranian strikes against Iraqi facilities are probably the best known such operations of recent times, the most numerous ones of the last 20 years were made by the Iraqi Air Force between 1983 and 1988. During this period, the IrAF flew no fewer than seven air strikes against the building site of the first Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr. These were carried out mostly at night, and ultimately destroyed or disabled large parts of the facility, making the First Persian Gulf War the first- and hopefully the last - conflict in which both the combatants attacked each other's nuclear facilities.
The first signs that 'something was brewing' in Iraq came in 1983, reappearing the following year when Syrian intelligence informed Tehran that Iraqi pilots had started practising Exocet attack patterns and had test-fired French-made Aerospatiale AM.39 Exocet anti-ship missiles against amulated land targets. The Iranians were not sure about the purpose of such exercises - the High Command of the IR1AF, for instance, believed they were 'only' the usual training for anti-ship strikes to be flown against Iranian tankers in the Persian Gulf.
On March 24, 1984, to Iran's considerable surprise, the reactor at Bushehr came under attack from two AM.39 Exocets, fired from two of the five Super Etendards that had been leased ID Baghdad by the French in 1983, in an operation code-named sloar. The missiles caused negligible damage and the affair was soon forgotten. On February 12, 1985, the Iraqis made a return visit, once again deploying two Super Etendards to fire one Exocet each from a distance of over 27nm (50km). One of the missiles hit the ground some 300ft (100m) away from the reactor, causing minimal damage to some support objects and killing one of the guards. The IRIAF claimed its air defences and fighter cover had responded swiftly to the threat, intercepting Iraqi strikers and causing them to fire their missiles prematurely.
On March 3, at around 18:00, two Super Etendards once again sneaked up on Bushehr at low level. This time they came within 22.5nm (42km) of the target before firing one Exocet each. One of the missiles hit the reactor building, penetrating the thick concrete walls and causing considerable damage - though none of any lasting variety - and killing several engineers and technicians. That Exocets had been used in the attack was confirmed when foreign reporters taken to the site spotted that fragments of the missile still bore the words 'Aerospatiale' and 'Exocet'.
Time after time, the Iraqis sent their MiG-25RB to reconnoitre the site at Bushehr, and at least one of these reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by IRIAF F-14As, using Hughes AIM-54A Phoenix air-to-air missiles. One of these Iraqi Foxbat recce-missions, which appears to have ended without incident, took place on July 11, 1986, and seems to have been a sortie intended to gather pre-strike intelligence for the next attack.
In the spring and summer of 1986, large quantities of arms, ammunition, spare parts, and equipment were supplied to Iran by Israel - usually arriving via 'neutral' merchant ships, which would unload at one of the Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf. As these shipments were of the utmost importance, these vessels were protected by the Iranian navy and air force. In one particular incident, the 101st TFS - a unit equipped with F-4Es and based at Chahbahar, TAB.10 airfield - was ordered to escort a small convoy, consisting of a ship carrying Israeli arms and two tankers, through the Hormuz Straits to Bandar Abbas. Once past this port, the merchant vessel had instructions to continue towards Bushehr, while the Phantoms were to be refuelled in the air from a 707-3J9C tanker and then - reinforced by two F-14As from TFB.8 - continue their escort mission.
Silence is golden
The flight of the two F-4Es went smoothly to begin with and the pair started to fly lazy circles high over the small convoy. Near the Hormuz Straits, however, one of the Iranian crews established radar contact with a pair of unidentified aircraft. The two pilots swiftly determined that these were not Iraqi aircraft - not only was Iraq too far away for this to be case but the 'bogies' were approaching from the south and were not emitting any signal that would identify them as belonging to the IrAF.
The Phantom crews could take no chances. They opened their formation into a 'combat spread'. The unidentified aircraft approached to a distance of 10 miles (16km) before the pilot of the lead IRIAF F-4E turned on its master arm switch, powered up the radar and prepared to fire an AIM-7E-2 Sparrow. His orders were clear - nobody was to approach the ship and its vital supplies. At this moment, he heard a radio call in which he was addressed by name and asked how he was doing.
Still from the HUD-rideo of one of Israeli F-16s taken during the final moments of the strike against the Osirak 1 reactor, as the aircraft h as dhinf to drop the bombs. Although it is usually stated that all the MI.&4 bombs were released from In H of 3,500ft. and much of this stilt was obscured fn the censor, it seem that the aircraft was actually lower (approximately 2,850ft) nhiU still manoeuvring to point at the large dome.
"...THE TOMCATS DETECTED A STRIKE PACKAGE OF 12 IRAQI FIGHTERS THUNDERING AT LOW LEVEL STRAIGHT TOWARDS THE BUSHEHR NUCLEAR PLANT."
Confused, the Iranian pilot again demanded that the unknown aircraft identify themselves, calling their relative heading and warning them that he was about to open fire. In response, he heard:
"This is the 'bogie' you're trying to shoot down! Relax - it's me, David... remember me from the flight school in Texas back in 1975?"
Quickly thinking back, the IR1AF pilot exclaimed: "What the hell are you doing here?"
"We are here to help! Your job is to watch over that cargo ship down there, and ours is to give you cover - and we should not talk any more." Minutes later, two F-14As in full US Navy markings pulled alongside the two IRIAF F-4Es, their crews waving before they climbed to higher altitude.
Several hours and in-flight refuelling operations later, the Phantoms were still flying above the merchant ship and were only 10 miles (16km) away from Bushehr when they were joined by two IRIAF F-14As. Having been refuelled by their own tanker aircraft, the USN fighters were still somewhere in the vicinity, though always keeping their distance.
Barely had the two Iranian formations established a new CAP station when one of the Tomcats detected a strike package of 12 Iraqi fighters thundering at low level straight towards the Bushehr nuclear plant. As the two Tomcats were not armed with AIM-54s, all four Iranian fighters instead swooped upon the Iraqis. Realising their attack had been foiled, the IrAF pilots immediately tried to get rid of their bombs, at the same time turning through 180 degrees and attempting to escape back north at top speed. In theory, their chances of outwitting their attackers were not too bad, as the Iranians were approaching from the south. But then two more Tomcats swooped on them from the north and, cornered, the Iraqis had no choice but to stay and fight. Instead of involving 'only' 16 Iraqi and Iranian fighters, the battle ended up by involving no fewer than 18 fighters, and resulted in two IrAF aircraft being 'splashed'. Even today, it remains unclear who scored the kills as neither the IRIAF nor the USN pilots have ever laid claim to them.
Despite this setback - and the involvement of a third party - the Iraqis at the time would have considered as 'being on their side' - the IrAF refused to give up. On November 17, 1987, knowing that the IRIAF was busy repelling an intensive Iraqi counter-air campaign against Iranian airfields in the Khuzestan Province, the IrAF dispatched a new strike package, consisting of six Su-22M-4Ks, equipped with
FAB.250 bombs and SPS-141 ECM pods. This time, the strikers broke through undisturbed, and delivered the most damaging blow ever against the nuclear site at Bushehr, causing more casualties than in any previous attack.
This strike was the last of the war to be flown against nuclear-related facilities. Despite claims that the Iraqis flew one more attack against Bushehr in 1988, they were by this time much less interested in it as their renewed efforts to develop nuclear weapons were already well underway, and they were concerned about the possibility of a new Israeli strike. Consequently, this 'First Nuclear War' ended in partial success for all three parties involved.
Although the Israelis destroyed the Osirak 1 reactor, the Iraqis continued their project for the development of nuclear weapons elsewhere, and would not have been stopped without the fierce reaction from the UN which followed Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
The Iranians destroyed the Iraqi research facilities and so played a part in denying Iraq the capability to 'go nuclear' in the early 1980s. However, they failed to prevent the Iraqis from continuing their projects elsewhere, while their own projects were - largely due to the Islamic revolution -postponed for many years.
The Iraqis managed to cause considerable damage to the first Iranian nuclear reactor, though at that time the religious regime in Tehran had no plans to continue work on this project in any event. They only re-surfaced in the 1990s when the Russians were contracted to complete the reactor and to build five additional ones, together with a large infrastructure for nuclear research developed and spread around the whole country.
The real victors in the conflict were the Israelis. Their nuclear resources remained undamaged, and they sent a clear signal to all their enemies in the Middle East. At the same time, they remained the only country in possession of nuclear weapons in the entire region.
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This article could not have been written without the kind help of 'The First of the Last', whom the authors would like to thank for their extensive support and patience, supplied on condition of anonymity. We would also like to thank several other sources who provided help and material, also on condition of anonymity. Interestingly, all the Israeli authorities and unofficial sources we contacted in connection with this article declared that any information about Iranian-Israeli co-operation was 'improbable' or 'inconceivable'. Several either stressed they had never heard of anything to this effect, or that it 'could not have happened' and that Iran and Israel had never worked together - or even helped each other - before, during, or after the war between Iraq and Iran.