Operation Opera

Brandon Sutter
March 13, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: The side of an Israeli Fighter showing an icon of the destroyed Osirak reactor. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Operation Opera was an Israeli air strike which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. The reactor, called the Osirak Nuclear Reactor, was located southeast of Baghdad. The mission of destroying the reactor was successful, and 11 people were killed, including 10 Iraqi soldiers. The bombing of the reactor underscored the tensions between the two countries in the Middle East which continue to the present day.


In 1976, Iraq bought a reactor from France which was mutually agreed to be used for peaceful research. The construction of the reactor began in 1979. The French assisted the Iraqis with maintaining the facility, but the Israeli's were skeptical of the true motives of the reactor, assuming it would be used in unfriendly ways and claimed that it was made to build nuclear weapons. [1] Richard Wilson, a research professor in physics at Harvard, claims in 2005 that "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", detailing his visit to the reactor in 1982. [2] Nevertheless, the Israeli's felt it was a threat, and wanted to destroy the nuclear reactor.

The Attack

On June 7, 1981, the Israeli Air Force launched their attack on the Iraqi reactor. They manned eight F- 16 fighter pilots and six F-15A's for the mission, an example of which can be seen in Fig. 1. The F16's were heavily armed with two delay-reaction bombs each, consisting of lots of explosives. They flew from Israel threw Jordanian and Saudi airspace undetected until they reached Iraq. At 6:35 pm local time, the fighters ejected their explosives onto the reactor, with roughly half of the 16 total bombs hitting their target.


The United Nations Security Council quickly condemned the Israeli's of their attack, calling it a clear violation of international conduct and stating that Iraq had a right to establish nuclear development in their country. In addition, the United Nations Council demanded that the Israeli's compensate the Iraqis. The United States, an ally of Israel, was forced to sign the UN's resolution, but generally tried to dissuade the UN from punishing Israel after the fact. However, the majority of the world condemned the attacks, with a New York Times report calling it a "Sequel to Hiroshima". [3] While there were plans to rebuild the reactor, the plans eventually fell through, and the reactor was completely destroyed during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

© Brandon Sutter. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. E. Vargo, The Mossad: Six Landmark Missions of the Israeli Intelligence Agency, 1960-1990 (McFarland, 2014).

[2] R. Wilson, "State of the Union," Atlantic Monthly, March 2005.

[3] F. Lewis, "Foreign Affairs; Sequel to Hiroshima," New York Times, 12 Jun 81.