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Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, part of the seven-member astronaut team on the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia which was lost this morning, was part of another daring team of aviators once credited with seriously setting back Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.
Ramon, a 48-year-old former fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, who first served his nation’s defense as a cadet in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was one of the fighter pilots who destroyed Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in a daring and controversial preemptive raid in 1981.
In the attack, eight F-16 warplanes flew almost 700 miles over Jordanian, Saudi and Iraqi air space for hours without detection. By flying in tight formation, they generated a radar signal resembling that of a commercial airliner.
During the 1970s, with French assistance, Iraq built the Osiraq 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad. Although it tried to expand its nuclear capability in the 1970s, Iraq’s efforts slowed down in the early ’80s due to its fierce and prolonged war with Iran.
When that war began in September 1980, Israeli Chief of Army Intelligence urged the Iranians to bomb Osiraq, and indeed on Sept. 20, 1980, two Iranian Phantom jets bombed the Osiraq reactor, but inflicting only minor damage.
When Israeli intelligence confirmed Iraq’s intention of producing nuclear weapons at Osiraq, the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to attack. While some estimates put Iraq’s ability in 1981 to deploy a nuclear weapon at five to ten years off, other estimates put the development time at a hair-raising one to two years.
Concerned that his Likud Party might lose the next election, Begin reportedly feared that the opposition party would not be willing to strike the plant preemptively, prior to Iraq’s successful production of a nuclear bomb.
In preparing for the daring raid, Israel built target mock-ups and flew full-scale dress-rehearsal missions, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
On June 7, 1981, the Israeli fighter jets left Etzion Air Force Base, flew in tight formation the 1,100 km distance over enemy territory, and upon identifying the Osiraq nuclear plant, and catching Iraqi defenses by surprise, managed to demolish the reactor in one minute and 20 seconds.
At the time, Israel’s strike was almost universally condemned, but later praised by many for helping thwart Iraq’s development of nuclear weapons.