If the Israeli Air Force is ever sent to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, many of the commanders planning and leading the operation will have been students of Zeev Raz.
In the late 1980s, the former fighter pilot was commander of the Iraeli Air Force (IAF) Flight School and he has no doubt that “if they are sent, they will execute it perfectly”.
The man who in 1981 led the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak has doubts, however, regarding the wisdom of such a mission.
Colonel Raz (ret) took off at 4pm on June 7, 1981, leading eight F-16 fighter-bombers on a three-hour round trip over enemy territory. On the way they dropped 16 tons of explosives, obliterating Saddam Hussein’s reactor.
“There were much longer flights and operations,” said Mr Raz, “but at the time we had no in-flight refuelling capabilities for the F-16, so it was at the edge of our range.”
Any strike against Iran will be at least twice the 1,100km distance that Mr Raz’s force flew to Osirak and necessitates multiple aerial refuelling. The main similarity is that, as in 1981, the strike force will have no choice but to fly over hostile territory — Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — all the way.
“We were certain that we would have to fight Migs on the way there or back,” recalled Mr Raz, “that’s why we had cover from F-15s, and that they would fire anti-aircraft missiles at us. To this day it’s a mystery why their radar was shut off and no planes were launched against us. There was only some light anti-aircraft fire which I warned the other pilots about. Flying back at 10,000ft, we were sitting targets — but no-one tried to get at us.
“Some may see divine intervention here, but I think this was just a failure of their air-defence system. Such things happen, also to us.” After the attack, Saddam Hussein had the commander of the Iraqi air-defence battery executed.
Search-and-rescue helicopters were on standby and the pilots were equipped with survival kits, including wads of Iraqi currency, in case they were shot down or forced to eject.
“As a leader I was concentrating only on the navigation, making sure we identified the target at the right moment and looking out for threats. You don’t feel any fear in this situation. That was also my experience flying missions in the Yom Kippur War, the only time I was afraid was when I flew as number three. The mission leader just has too many things to think about.
“I’m not fully up-to-date on the condition of the Iranian air force,” said Mr Raz, “but at those ranges, it’s not just the opposition that is dangerous. An engine failure or a malfunction of the fuel system or control-computer has totally different implications.
“The Iranians have missile batteries and you can be certain that this time, if there is an operation — and I hope there won’t be — they will lock on.”
But Mr Raz’s misgivings are not based on the danger to the pilots. “They will all be raring to go, despite the dangers, just as we were,” he said of today’s pilots. “The two back-up F-16 pilots were praying that there would be some last-minute malfunction with one of the eight, so that they could take off instead.”
Their enthusiasm did not stop the gallows-humour jokes made at the expense of the youngest pilot on the mission, Ilan Ramon. He would become Israel’s first astronaut and die in the 2003 Columbia disaster. As
the last pilot to release its bombs, Ramon was at the greatest risk from anti-aircraft fire.
Ultimately, Mr Raz did not believe that Israel will attack Iran. “If Israel was really planning to bomb Iran, we would have done it years ago. Today the IAF is being used as a whip, to pressure the West and the United States to do what needs to be done. I think the way it is being done is quite impressive.”