Operation Wrath of God: A hypothetical Israeli strike on Iran - short story

An Israeli F15 fighter jet takes off during a joint international aerial training exercise at Uvda military air base in southern Israel, dubbed ‘Blue Flag 2017.’
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

In the post-9/11 reality, security authorities worldwide now had to deal with a nuclear-armed terrorist state.

Now the Lord said unto Abram: And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed. – Genesis 12:3

If, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had a significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards. – Former US vice president Dick Cheney on MSNBC 

The decision had not come easily, nor quickly. For years, warnings had mounted of Iran’s determined preparations to become a nuclear power. Efforts by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to uncover the illegal production of fissionable material had been thwarted by the mullahs, who moved some production sites around and buried others deep underground. In desperation, the agency finally gave up the cat and mouse game Iran was forcing it to play and instead referred the issue to the United Nations Security Council. There, however, resolutions sponsored by the United States to impose economic and political sanctions were blocked by vetoes, first by Russia and then by China. The former was Iran’s nuclear godfather, supplying reactors and fuel, while China was Iran’s major client for cheap oil.

As the UN watched impotently, Iran tested a long-range version of its Shihab-3 ballistic missile, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead anywhere in Europe. More ominously, it followed this test by defying international law with the underground detonation of its first home-made nuclear bomb. The world was now facing the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and its Islamist allies in terrorism. In the post-9/11 reality, security authorities worldwide now had to deal with a nuclear-armed terrorist state, in addition to the threat of Islamist terrorists wielding weapons of mass destruction that could strike down entire cities, whether by some hideous plague or the detonation of a suitcase-size nuclear device.

When the Iranian regime goes nuclear

Israel was becoming even more worried about the Iranian situation than it had been 25 years before, when it was forced to take the drastic step of bombing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Baghdad. At the time, even though Iraq had not quite reached the same stage of nuclear threat as Iran had now attained, Israel saw an Iraqi nuclear bomb as a threat to its survival. 

Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003, is seen aboard an F-16 in this undated file photo. At 26, Ramon was the youngest pilot to take part in the June 7, 1981, Israeli air raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor core. (credit: REUTERS)

When Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, it spared itself and other countries the possible horrors of dealing with a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. At the time, the righteousness of this act of preemptive self-defense eluded much of the world. It took nearly a generation – and the proliferation of the deadly virus of Islamist terrorism for the world to acknowledge the worth of the first airstrike against a nuclear facility.

Despite the hopeless paralysis of the UN, no one in Israel, of whatever political or religious persuasion, failed to take Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously when he declared in Tehran on October 27, 2005: “Israel must be wiped off the map. The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world. The Islamic nation will not allow its historic enemy to live in its heartland.”

The time for diplomacy was running out, while Iran’s nuclear arms program approached critical mass. Israel could not risk its own survival by allowing its declared enemy the opportunity to carry out its threat of annihilation. Once again, Israel was called upon to defend itself – and by doing so, the entire world – against the threat of nuclear terrorism, this time by Iran. 

Operation Wrath of God: Israel strikes Iran's nuclear program

AT JUST before 4 p.m. on Friday, June 9, 2006, 34 Israel Air Force F-15I and F-16I fighters and ground-attack aircraft took off from Ramon Air Force Base in Israel’s Negev desert and headed east for Iran. Operation Wrath of God had begun.

The pilots had practiced for the mission for nearly a year. They had mastered the extremely low-level formation flying required for crossing two Arab countries and penetrating Iran’s air space and, more importantly, had flown countless bombing missions on scale mock-ups of the six Iranian nuclear targets constructed in the middle of the Negev wilderness. 

In doing so, they had followed much the same techniques of the Baghdad raiders of 1981. In both cases, the training was carried out in absolute secrecy, despite the small amount of room the pilots had to maneuver. The spectacular feats of Israel’s armed forces have created the understandable impression in much of the world that the country of Israel itself must be vast. The fact that it is about the size of the state of New Jersey – about 210 nautical miles from north to south and some 45 miles from east to west at its widest – means that combat pilots were seldom called upon to fly missions more than an hour long. The mission to Iran would require many more times the usual endurance.

The pilots were special – the best the Israel Air Force had to offer – and so were the planes. The “I” designation in their names signifies special versions of the two US combat planes that were developed specifically for Israel. Among the special modifications was greatly increased fuel capacity, giving both types of aircraft a significantly extended range. Israel’s F-15Is have the 2,225-kilometer combat radius to reach anywhere in Iran and return safely without mid-air refueling. Its F-16Is have a reported combat radius of 2,100 km. Iran’s main nuclear facilities at Bushehr and Esfahan are about 1,500 km. from Israel.

The 18 F-16Is were each carrying a specially modified GBU-28 Bunker Buster, a massive guided bomb designed to penetrate and destroy six of Iran’s crucial and deeply hidden nuclear sites; the 16 F-15Is were flying air cover to and from the targets. The timing and flight paths were planned to maximize the advantage of approaching from the direction of the setting sun, and at an hour when many Iranians would be at afternoon prayer. 

Once airborne, the planes quickly formed up in their attack groups of three F-16Is and two F-15Is per target and flew at a heading almost due east for Jordan and Iraq. Jordan, at peace with Israel for more than a decade, turned a blind eye to the strange formation at the request of the United States, which also assured the raiders unhindered passage through Iraqi air space, which it still controlled. It was necessary to provide insurance against Saudi Arabia detecting the surprise attack. This was done by American technicians presiding over the “malfunction” of the US-supplied and operated Saudi AWACS fleet. 

Despite this arrangement, to minimize the possibility of detection the IAF planes flew across the Jordanian and Iraqi deserts at an altitude of 150 feet and an air speed of some 400 knots, which gradually increased to 500 knots as the planes used up fuel and became lighter. 

The plan was for the aircraft to remain unnoticed until their final approaches some 20 kilometers from each of the six targets. At that point, the F-16Is would ignite their afterburners and climb at full power to 5,000 feet to arm their bombs, then roll over and dive at the targets, releasing their bombs at 3,500 feet and dropping flares to decoy ground fire. 

Each target was protected by its own defense system: Visible targets like the Bushehr reactor were surrounded by anti-aircraft gun and missile positions conspicuous by the earthen ramparts that surrounded them, while the hidden sites had similar emplacements concealed in the surroundings, like an anti-aircraft missile battery hidden inside a parked bus at Natanz.

Based on intelligence from the Mossad and the CIA, it was decided that Iran’s nuclear armament program could be wiped out by destroying six key atomic sites, all within the combat radius of Israel’s warplanes. The sites were the following: the heavy water production plant at Arak, some 200 km. southwest of Tehran; the two uranium fuel enrichment plants at Natanz, 200 km. south of Tehran; the nuclear power plant at Bushehr with its bomb-fuel-producing, 1,000 MW reactor in southwestern Iran; the missile program center and nuclear research reactor in the capital Tehran; the four reactors and nuclear fuel production complex at Estfahan, about 250 km. south of Tehran; and the yellowcake production facility at Ardekan, the Ardekan Nuclear Fuel Unit. The spent fuel from the Bushehr facility alone would be capable of producing 50 to 75 nuclear bombs.

As the attack formation streaked eastward, Mossad agents on the ground in Tehran and Natanz prepared to mark their underground nuclear facilities with laser beams directed from nearby buildings. They would illuminate the targets when the raiders signaled them from the 20-mile climbing point just before the attack. The other four targets were obvious enough to be marked by the weapons officers just before bomb release. 

The success of the mission depended on a combination of factors. The first was, of course, a stealthy approach to the target, involving the crossing of two Arab countries with the friendly assistance of the United States. The attack itself involved leaving the low-altitude approach about 20 miles from each target and rapidly climbing to what is known as the safe arming-altitude for the bunker busters. This altitude, 3,800 feet, had to be reached in order for the bombs to become armed and safely released. After several seconds of climb, the weapons officers sitting behind the pilots would lock the bombs onto the targets by laser beam as their planes flung the bunker busters to the ground, giving them a nearly supersonic boost by dive bombing. 

During the climbing-bombing phase, the planes would become exposed to ground fire and anti-aircraft missiles, which the F-15Is, climbing beyond the bombers, were meant to counter. Once the surprise of the attack was overtaken by events, all the planes could activate their defensive radars and employ countermeasures as they streaked for home.

Because Iran’s most important nuclear sites were buried deep underground in massive reinforced bunkers, the Israeli raiders used a modified version of a massive bomb developed by the US Air Force during the 1991 Gulf War: the bunker buster.

The casing of the conventional version of this bomb is an approximately five-meter-long section of an artillery cannon barrel, which is about 40 centimeters in diameter. It is thus an extremely strong tube of hardened steel – originally intended to withstand the repeated firing of artillery shells – that is extremely narrow for its very heavy weight.

This hollow steel arrow contains some 300 kilograms of tritonal explosive, an 80 percent mixture of TNT and 20 percent aluminum powder that is about 18 percent more powerful than TNT alone. 

At the tip of the bunker buster is a laser-guidance assembly that steers the bomb to the target by following its illumination by a laser beam cast by either a spotter on the ground or the attacking aircraft. 

The conventional bunker buster, known as the GBU-28, or the BLU-113, is nearly six meters long and weighs some 2,000 kilograms. Because of this combination of narrow profile and massive weight, this bomb penetrates its target like a huge nail shot from an enormous nail gun. It can penetrate 30 meters of earth or six meters of reinforced concrete. With its delay fuze, the bunker buster detonates after completing its penetration, in order to cause the most damage.

Not wanting to take a chance on the Iranian targets being buried deep beyond the reach of the conventional bunker busters supplied to it by the United States, Israel’s strategists ordered the government’s main armament maker, Rafael, to produce a “super bunker buster” that could penetrate even deeper.

Rafael took the basic design of the GBU-28 and both streamlined and hardened the laser tip to make it more pointed. More importantly, Israel’s weapons experts replaced the artillery-barrel casing with one made of an alloy of depleted uranium and titanium. This kept the bunker buster’s same narrow shape but made it nearly twice as heavy and much more dense, giving it the kinetic energy to penetrate much deeper targets. 

An added benefit of the depleted uranium – used also in armor-piercing tank shells for the same reasons – is its incendiary property: It burns fiercely after exploding deep inside the target, multiplying the bunker buster’s destructive power. Short of using tactical nuclear weapons, Israel’s “super bunker buster” was the solution to Iran’s nuclear threat.

The strike team flew east as the sun sank lower behind them, casting their shadows on startled Bedouin tending their flocks, which scattered as the thunder of 34 jet engines swept over them. The planes had been flying in close formation at over 400 knots and some 150 feet above the desert floor as they approached the Iranian border. The pilots maintained radio silence and kept their radars off, to avoid emissions that could tip off the Iranian defenders. 

The ingress to the target lasted one hour and 33 minutes. At the briefed locations, the F-15s split into two-ship formations, turned on their radars and climbed to cover the F-16s. Approaching the initial point, where the F-16s would make final preparations to strike the target, the final two F-15s climbed away from the strike formation and turned on their radars and external electronic counter-measure pods.

These aircraft served the dual purpose of protecting the F-16s from hostile aircraft, as well as hostile search radars. Shortly thereafter, the F-16s spread their formation out for proper target-spacing. Each pair arrived over the reactor as the explosion from the previous formation subsided. In less than two minutes, Israeli F-16s dropped more than 14 metric tons of ordnance around the center of the reactor. 

According to an unidentified expert, “In all, 16 Mk84 iron bombs were dropped on the reactor. The accuracy of the bombing, considering the IAF used no smart bombs, was astonishing. All but two were direct hits within 30 feet from the center of the target.” The strike on Bushehr unfolded precisely as Israeli tacticians planned. The return flight was without incident. ■

Creepy full disclosure: I wrote this in November 2005 but thought it was too far-fetched to publish. 

The writer is a former chief copy editor and editorial writer of The Jerusalem Post. His novel, The Flying Blue Meanies, is available on Amazon.

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