One of the Israeli pilots who bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor 30 years ago in a dramatic military operation told The Daily Beast yesterday that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities today would not be significantly more challenging given advances in technology and intelligence.
Amir Nachumi, a retired brigadier general, said in both cases—Iraq in 1981 and Iran currently—that the hardest part of the operation is deciding whether to undertake it in the first place.
Nachumi spoke amid a flurry of speculation in the Israeli press about whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resolved to strike at Iran, whose leaders have repeatedly threatened to destroy the Jewish state. A report to be released today by the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to say Iran is at the threshold of nuclear capability. Iran denies the program is military in nature.
“The distance [to Iran] is farther, but the airplanes are better now, the ammunition is better, the intelligence is better, and we have more planes available,” Nachumi, 66, said in a telephone interview. “I wouldn’t say '81 was simple and this is complicated. It’s all a matter of what you have in your arsenal.”
The attack on Iraq is often held up as evidence of Israel’s determination to prevent any country in the region from obtaining nuclear weapons. At the time, eight planes struck a single Iraqi reactor about 600 miles from Israel’s border.
An assault on Iran’s program is certain to be more complicated. Its nuclear facilities are dispersed throughout the country, and some are buried deep underground. Analysts have speculated that Israel would have to attack dozens of sites, some more than 1,000 miles away, and still might end up impeding Iran’s progress by only a year or two.
Nachumi, regarded as one of Israel’s top flying aces, emphasized he has no access to current intelligence about Iran. He retired from the military in 1996 after more than 30 years of service and is now a private-sector businessman.
But he said it’s clear from open sources that Israeli pilots today would make use of technology that he and his fellow pilots lacked, including midair refueling and satellite images of their targets.
Nachumi said the planes that struck the Iraqi reactor carried just two bombs and two missiles each. With no aerial photos to work from, the pilots relied on sketches of the reactor. “We didn’t have any possibility to fly over with reconnaissance planes” at the time, he said. The planes were so low on gas on the return trip, they flew the last few miles home “on fumes.”
Nachumi said planners of the operation took into account that some of the pilots might end up getting stuck in enemy territory. “The most reasonable scenario was that maybe two pilots would have to bail out and they would have to be rescued by helicopters flying five and a half hours to their location. So the pilots would have had to survive half the night. But the planes were fine, there were no malfunctions.”
Still, pilots fought to take part in the mission and would likely do the same if Iran is targeted, he said.
"I can tell you that in '81 the most crucial and difficult part was the decision itself. It’s not the execution of the mission, it’s the decision to go there," said Amir Nachumi.
Nachumi would not say whether he supports an attack on Iran, an issue that divides Israelis, according to opinion polls. Netanyahu faces opposition to a strike both within the military and in his own ministerial cabinet. So did Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister 30 years ago.
“I can tell you that in ‘81 the most crucial and difficult part was the decision itself. It’s not the execution of the mission, it’s the decision to go there,” Nachumi said in the interview. “I guess today it’s the same. The decision is much more difficult than the operation.”