35 years ago Maj. Gen. (Res’) Amos Yadlin was one of the eight pilots that took part in Operation “Opera”, an airstrike which destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Today, after serving as Head of the Military Intelligence Directorate and currently heading the Institute for National Security Studies, he looks back on the operation that, according to him, changed the face of history
In an interview with the IAF Magazine in 2001, you said that the attack would have an impact for generations, how do you see the impact on Israel over the years until today?
“I believe that Operation ‘Opera’ is definite proof of the fact that there is a big difference between the investigators’ theoretical calculations and what happens in reality”, he stated. “In theory, after you bomb a reactor, it takes a few years for the country that was bombed to build a new reactor and to strengthen its aerial defense, or to manage an alternative nuclear program. There are people that claimed in discussions before the attack in 1981 that any attack in Iraq will advance the enemy’s nuclear program rather than stop it. Theoretically, five years after the attack, the Iraqis could have had a nuclear bomb. The important historical fact is that they didn’t have a nuke in the following years. Not for 10 years after the attack, not in the First or Second Gulf War. Maj. Gen. (Res’) David Ivry, IAF Commander during the First Gulf War, received an appreciation letter from the American Minister of Defense in which he wrote that he did not know if they would have been able to stop Saddam Hussein in Kuwait and on his way to Saudi Arabia, if the IAF had not attacked the Iraqi Nuclear Program. These are the same Americans that criticized us after the attack”.
Let’s go back 35 years, to a specific moment on June 7, 1981. You were the Deputy Commander of the F-16 Squadron, you sat in the cockpit on your way to attack the nuclear reactor in Iraq and tried to put aside any thoughts not related to the operation. How do you do it?
“When I left for Operation ‘Opera’, I left a young family behind, a wife and four month old baby, but I knew that if I didn’t put these thoughts about my family and other concerns aside, the likeliness of ‘something bad’ happening, an accident or an attack from enemy weapons, was higher. During this flight, the need to focus on the mission and avoid any thoughts and fears was even more critical than usual. This was a challenging flight, the dangers coincided and heightened one another: the reactor’s area was protected by multiple missile batteries that were brought there after the Iranians tried to attack it that same January, 1981. The IAF had never performed such a far-range attack and the last ‘leg’ was in a flat area, full of power lines in which we knew the Iraqi Aerial Defense Force would discover us. We thought there was a high chance that one or two of us would be hit. It’s important to remember that the sortie took place a year before the successful strike of Syrian Surface Air Missiles in the First Lebanon War – and we were all influenced by the unsuccessful battle with the missiles in 1973”.
What is the most memorable moment from the operation?
“There is no doubt that the most memorable moment in the operation was the moment I dove towards the target. I went low on navigation, disconnected my drop tanks in the presence of bombs – a dangerous disconnection – I flew very low and at a speed of 540 knots over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that I heard of only in the poems. I needed to pull up, find the target, which was very clear, aim and release two, ton bombs. Releasing it on the target is really what I remember the most, it was the peak of this special flight, it was the reason that we risked our lives for the ‘once in a lifetime’ sortie. It is also the most dangerous moment, because you are exposed to missile batteries, Anti-Aircraft fire and threat of MiGs”.
Do you think you can compare between the attack of the Iraqi nuclear reactor and a similar scenario in the future?
“I think that everyone has learned from nuclear reactor strikes that were executed in the Middle East and that the construction of a future reactor by enemy countries will be done in a different and protective manner. There is no change in the basic perception that Israel will not allow a country that calls for its destruction to possess nuclear weapons. The option of destructing an enemy’s nuclear program, with all the difficult meaning of the strike and the second option, allowing the enemy to develop a nuclear bomb are both dangerous and difficult alternatives, but the correct choice would be to stop the nuclear program”.