Operation Opera: Wikis


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Operation Opera
Date 7 June 1981
Location Baghdad, Iraq
Result Operational success
 Israel  Iraq
Zeev Raz Unknown
14 aircraft Numerous Anti Aircraft Guns
Casualties and losses
None 10 soldiers killed
1 French scientist killed
1 Nuclear reactor destroyed
Operation Opera
Map of the attack.
Objective Destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor
Date 7 June 1981
Executed by Israeli Air Force
Outcome Success; Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor destroyed
For the Yugoslav Wars operation see Operation Opera Orientalis.

Operation Opera (Hebrew: מבצע אופרה‎, Mivtza Opera, also known as Operation Babylon and Operation Ofra) was a 1981 surprise Israeli air strike that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor being constructed in Osirak (French: Osirak; Iraqi: Tammuz 1).

In the late 1970s, Iraq purchased an "Osiris class" nuclear reactor from France. Israeli military intelligence assumed this was for the purpose of plutonium production to further an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Israeli intelligence also believed that the summer of 1981 would be the last chance to destroy the reactor before it would be loaded with nuclear fuel.

On 7 June 1981, a flight of Israeli Air Force F-16A fighter aircraft, with an escort of F-15As, bombed and heavily damaged the Osirak reactor.


Iraq's nuclear program

Iraq had established a nuclear program sometime in the 1960s, and in the mid-1970s looked to expand it through the acquisition of a nuclear reactor. After failing to convince the French government to sell them a gas-graphite plutonium-producing reactor and reprocessing plant, and likewise failing to convince the Italian government to sell them a Cirene reactor, the Iraqi government convinced the French government to sell them an Osiris-class research reactor and accompanying laboratories.

Construction for the 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor began in 1979 at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad. The reactor was dubbed Osirak (Osiraq) by the French, blending the name of Iraq with that of the reactor class. Iraq named the reactor Tammuz 1 after the month in the Arabic calendar that the Baath Party came to power in 1968.[1]

It was claimed that the sole purpose of Iraq's reactors was scientific research. Agreements between France and Iraq excluded military use. Observers argued that Iraq did not have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA Director-General confirmed that inspections of the nuclear research reactors near Baghdad revealed no non-compliance with the safeguards agreement.[2] Many believed otherwise; the US private intelligence service Stratfor, for example, noted the widespread assessment that the reactor was on the verge of being able to produce weapons-grade plutonium.[3] However, Harvard University professor of physics Richard Wilson commented in The Atlantic:

the Osirak reactor that was bombed by Israel in June of 1981 was explicitly designed by the French engineer Yves Girard to be unsuitable for making bombs. That was obvious to me on my 1982 visit.[4]

Elsewhere Wilson has stated that

Many claim that the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor delayed Iraq's nuclear bomb program. But the Iraqi nuclear program before 1981 was peaceful, and the Osirak reactor was not only unsuited to making bombs but was under intensive safeguards[5].

Dan Reiter has estimated that the attack on Iraq's reactor may have accelerated Iraq's nuclear-weapons program, and similar views have been forwarded by Dr. Imad Khadduri, an Iraqi nuclear scientist.[4][6]

These claims are disputed as several feel that Saddam apparently refocused its nuclear weapons effort on producing highly enriched uranium for weapons after the raid. Its interest in acquiring plutonium as fissile material for weapons continued, but at a lower priority.[7]

Operational planning

The distance between Israeli military bases and the reactor site was significant—over 1600 km (1000 miles), which meant the military forces would be operating without easy resupply capability, and would have to arc across Jordanian and Saudi territory. Additionally, Israeli intelligence could not guarantee accurate intelligence on the state of Iraqi defences.

After much deliberation, the Israeli military finally concluded that a squadron of heavily fueled, and heavily armed F-16As, with a group of F-15As to provide air cover and fighter support, could perform a surgical strike to eliminate the reactor site, without having to refuel.

Israeli military also decided that it was essential to destroy the reactor before it was loaded with nuclear fuel, in order to minimize the effects of the reactor's destruction on the civilian population. Many European scientists were working on the reactor, and Israel decided to strike on Sunday, when most scientists would not be at work.

Having intelligence that the reactor's fuel rods were scheduled to be shipped to Iraq from France, the Israeli cabinet—then under the leadership of Menachem Begin—authorized the operation.

The attack

Israeli Air Force F-16A Netz 243, aircraft flown by Colonel Ilan Ramon in Operation Opera.
Nose of the F-16A flown by Ilan Ramon in Operation Opera, showing the triangular emblem of the attack.

Operation Opera was carefully planned for a Sunday to minimize the loss of lives of any foreign workers and the attack was timed for the late afternoon to provide the Israeli Combat Search and Rescue Team (CSAR) all night to search for any downed Israeli pilots.

An Israeli Air Force flight of 8 F-16As—aircraft 107, 113, 118, 129, from 117 Squadron and 239, 240, 243 and 249 from 110 Squadron, each with two unguided Mark-84 2,000-pound delay-action bombs, and external fuel tanks—was set up. A squadron of 6 F-15As was also assigned to the operation to provide fighter support for the F-16As. Ilan Ramon, an F-16A pilot who would become Israel's first astronaut and died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, was the youngest of the participants. He was two weeks away from his 27th birthday at the time of the attack.

On 7 June 1981 at 15:55 local time (12:55 GMT) the plan was set in motion. The task force left Etzion Airbase, flying unchallenged at 800 feet in Jordanian and Saudi airspace.[8]

At 1,000 km into their flight, the operation was complicated by the F-16As' external fuel tanks. The planes were so heavily loaded that the external tanks (two underwing 1,400 l and one belly 1,100 l) were exhausted while the task force was still en route to the Osirak facility. These tanks were jettisoned over the Saudi desert before reaching the target.

Upon reaching Iraqi airspace the squadron split up, with two of the F-15s forming close escort to the F-16 squadron, and the remaining F-15s dispersing into Iraqi airspace as a diversion and ready back-up. The attack squadron descended to 30 m over the Iraqi desert, attempting to fly under the radar of the Iraqi defences.

At 18:35 local time (14:35 GMT), 20 km from the Osirak reactor complex, the F-16 formation climbed to 2,100 m and went into a 35-degree dive at 1,100 km/h, aimed at the reactor complex. At 1,100 m, the F-16s began releasing the Mark 84 bombs in pairs, at 5-second intervals. According to the Israeli reports, all sixteen weapons struck the reactor complex, although two reportedly did not detonate. As the anti-aircraft defenses opened fire the squadron climbed to an altitude of 12,200 m and started their return to Israel.

According to Israeli reports the Iraqi defenses were caught off guard and were slow to react. Whatever the reason, the anti-aircraft defenses of the facility did not damage any of the attacking aircraft. Despite the fears of encountering Iraqi interceptors, the squadron remained unchallenged and returned to Israeli airspace.

International political reaction

Israel's action was condemned by the international community. The UN General Assembly passed Resolution No. 36/27 of 13 November 1981 characterizing the bombing as a premeditated and unprecedented act of aggression, and demanding that Israel pay prompt and adequate compensation for the damage and loss of life it had caused.[2] The resolution also sharply warned Israel to refrain from taking such measures in the future.

Debate prior to passage of the UN resolution reflected member states' differing positions on issues such as nuclear proliferation in the region and the appropriateness and justifiability of Israel's actions. Some countries expressed that they supported the right of countries to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but that they firmly opposed the secret development of nuclear weapons by Israel. Some countries such as Syria requested condemnation not only of Israel for terrorism against Arab peoples, but also of the United States for its alliance with Israel.[2]

The representative of France stated that the sole purpose of the reactor was scientific research. Agreements between France and Iraq excluded its use for military use. Britain explained that Iraq did not have capacity to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA Director-General confirmed that inspections of the nuclear research reactors near Baghdad revealed no non-compliance with the safeguards agreement.[2]

Most observers rejected Israel's justification that it acted in self-defense. It was explained that the UN Charter does not give any right to preventative action. Some interpreted the attack as an attack on the IAEA itself. It was argued the UN Charter limits the right of self-defence only to a case of armed attack. Some countries called for mandatory sanctions against Israel under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.[2]

In addition the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the attack as a clear violation of the Charter and held that Iraq was entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction caused. The resolution further called upon Israel to place its own nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.[9] The United States supported this resolution as it condemned the action, not the nation. Their response was to, temporarily, withhold a consignment of aircraft already promised to Israel.[citation needed] Some countries were not satisfied with the Security Council's resolution because it did not include sanctions. It was recommended that the Council should have taken punitive measures against Israel.[2]

Since that time, especially after the first Gulf War, several US politicians have retroactively supported the operation.[10] Those who believe that Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons in the 1980s view Operation Opera as necessary action, even if it was considered a clear violation of international law by the U.N. Security Council. Some legal scholars believe that the action did not violate international law since it followed the rule of anticipatory self-defense.[11] Additionally, at the time of the attack, Iraq was still in a declared state of war with Israel.[citation needed]


Diplomatic reactions

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel and in charge of the operation, disembarks from an aircraft upon his arrival in the United States, accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan.

Israel learned of the existence of the reactor program during Yitzhak Rabin's first term in office, and viewed Iraqi possession of a nuclear reactor, with the possibility that it would be used to produce nuclear weapons, as a direct threat.

Iraq protested that its interest in nuclear energy was peaceful, and at the time Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), placing its reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. However, the IAEA monitoring program was not universally regarded as sufficient to guarantee that weapon research was not being conducted.

Israel's foreign minister Moshe Dayan initiated diplomatic negotiations with France, Italy—Israel maintained that some Italian firms acted as suppliers and sub-contractors—and the United States over the matter, but failed to obtain assurances that the reactor program would be halted, and was not able to convince the French governments of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand to cease aiding the Iraqi nuclear program.

The Results

The operation accomplished Israeli objectives. The reactor complex was heavily damaged, according to plan. Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian researcher were killed in the attack. It has since been proposed by some commentators that French researcher Damien Chaussepied was a Mossad agent who was responsible for placing homing beacons on site for the aircraft to follow, although there is no evidence for this.[12]

Israel said that the casualties were mostly due to stray anti-aircraft fire from the Iraqi defences, and not from the bombardment itself. None of the Israeli planes were damaged by Iraqi defences. Although almost out of fuel, all fourteen jets returned to Israeli territory and landed safely.

Iraq said it would rebuild the facility, and France agreed, in principle, to aid in the reconstruction. However, in 1984, France withdrew from the project.[citation needed] According to professor Louis Rene Beres, the Israeli attack on the reactor prevented Iraq from using radioactive weaponry during the first Gulf war.[13]

Some Iraqi researchers have said that the Iraqi nuclear program simply went underground, diversified, and expanded.[14]

The Osirak facility remained in its damaged state until the end of the Gulf War, when a prolonged series of US air strikes destroyed the site completely. Politically, the operation yielded handsome results for the ruling Likud Party led by Begin as it was reelected with a strong mandate three weeks later.


  1. ^ FAS.
  2. ^ a b c d e f United Nations Yearbook, 1981
  3. ^ "Geopolitical Diary: Israeli Covert Operations in Iran". Stratfor. 2007-02-02. http://www.stratfor.com/products/premium/read_article.php?id=283793. Retrieved 2007-02-04.  (requires premium subscription)
  4. ^ a b http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200503/letters
  5. ^ http://www.accuracy.org/newsrelease.php?articleId=1242
  6. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5009212.stm
  7. ^ http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iraq/facility/osiraq.htm
  8. ^ Rafael Eitan, 2003. "The Raid on the Reactor from the Point of View of the Chief of Staff," Israel’s Strike Against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor 7 June 1981. Jerusalem: Menachem Begin Heritage Center. 32-33.
  9. ^ United Nations Security Council Resolution S-RES-487(1981) on 19 June 1981 (retrieved 2007-08-10)
  10. ^ Embassy of Israel in Washington DC, Ambassador Ivry
  11. ^ Anthony D'Amato "Israel's Air Strike against the Osiraq Reactor: A Retrospective" International and Comparative Law Journal 10 (December 1996) page 261.
  12. ^ Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy proposes that a French researcher was a paid Mossad agent and responsible for guiding in the aircraft, but does not name him. Derogy and Hesi Carmel, p. 86, identify him as Damien Chaussepied.
  13. ^ Louis Rene Beres and Tsiddon-Chatto, Col. (res.) Yoash, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal 9(2), 1995. Reprinted in Israel’s Strike Against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor 7 June 1981, Jerusalem: Menachem Begin Heritage Center: 2003, 60, quoted from [1]
  14. ^ MIIS.

See also

Further information



  • Timothy L. H. McCormack, Self-Defense in International Law: The Israeli Raid on the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor, ISBN 978-0-312-16279-5
  • Rodger Claire, Raid on the Sun : Inside Israel's Secret Campaign that Denied Saddam the Bomb, ISBN 978-0-7679-1400-0
  • Judy Ellen Sund, Amos Perlmutter Two Minutes Over Baghdad, ISBN 978-0-7146-8347-8
  • Clinton Dan McKinnon, Dan McKinnon, Bullseye One Reactor, ISBN 978-0-941437-07-3
  • Jacques Derogy and Hesi Carmel, Israel ultra-secret, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1989
  • Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy, Mossad, un agent des services secrets israeliens parle, 1990 (English original: By Way of Deception. The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer, St. Martin's Press, 1990.)

External links


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