Thunderstruck: Israel’s Operation Orchard vs Syrian reactor

The IAF’s two-seat F-15I is Israel’s version of the F-15E Strike Eagle of the USAF. In Hebrew, it is called Ra’am (thunder).

OK, time for a more current topic…

Without a doubt, the Israeli Air Force is one of most capable, well-trained air services in the world. Since the very birth of their country, IAF leaders and aircrews have  written bold chapters in the annals of air power history.

One of the IAF’s most recent exploits was Operation Orchard, the multi-faceted attack on a secret nuclear reactor in Syria. The actual airstrike occurred on 6 Sep 2007, but the intelligence play leading up to it and the political intrigue in its aftermath make this  a highly complex and still murky story (see references below).

Here are the basics of the air portion of the operation: In the predawn hours of 6 September, seven Israeli F-15I aircraft  from the IAF’s vaunted 69 Squadron (aka Hammer Squadron) flew over the Mediterranean, then along the Turkish border, then penetrated Syrian airspace.  Using a salvo of precision-guided weapons, they throughly destroyed the Al-Kibar covert nuclear reactor, allegedly designed to produce plutonium.

Actually, almost everything about Al-Kibar is alleged. Syria denies it was nuclear related, and Israel doesn’t officially talk about it.  But its clear the structure was devastated by the strike.

The really fascinating part of the operation was Israel’s capability to neutralize Syria’s air defense system during the strike.

radarscreenAccording to several journalists and knowledgeable defense analysts, the Israelis used sophisticated cyber attack techniques to essentially take over the enemy air defense control nodes. This allowed them to feed false data to Syrian radar operators, showing an all-normal air picture while the strike took place.

Assuming the sources are correct, Operation Orchard shows how the combination of air, space and information superiority provides unprecedented capabilities. And studying how the operation was planned, prepared and conducted gives a rare glimpse into what 21st century air power is all about.

Here’s a two part article by Richard Gasparre, contributor to, detailing what he calls the Israeli “E-tack”. I’m not sure how much he really knows here, and how much is informed speculation, but he provides an excellent perspective on how information warfare and air operations fit together.  See part 1, and part 2.

Also, there are a slew of online references about Operation Orchard and the (alleged) Syrian reactor.  Here are some of the key ones:

Syria Never Stood a Chance Against Israel’s EW, Business Insider
The Silent Strike, New Yorker magazine
The Story of Operation Orchard, Spiegel magazine
Mossad Hack, Wired magazine
Air Power’s Visual Legacy, Critical Military Studies
Postulates that the whole operation was a ruse. Interesting… 

Also, see these videos, released by the US government (not sure why, exactly, still looking into this…)




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