Reflections on the Osirak Strike

Aug. 1, 1981
The Israeli raid on Osirak, Iraq’s nuclear reactor, an ingenious approach to nuclear nonproliferation, has left a good many of us with mixed feelings. The attack was superbly executed, but then so was Pearl Harbor. Preemption is arguably a most efficient way to deal with threatening situations, whether against a Wild Bill Hickok pondering his aces and eights in a Deadwood saloon or by an experienced brawler weighing the moment for the sucker punch. We ourselves had a certain amount of serious conversation in the sixties about a preemptive concern about Soviet preemption is what the MX is all about.

Israel has reason enough to worry about Iraq, with whom it has technically been at war since 1948. President Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime is both violent and unpredictable save in its unvarying hatred of Israel. Nonetheless, geography and Iraqi’s preoccupation with Iran have made the Iraqi threat a minor one in recent years. The very ineptitude of Hussein’s own preemptive attack on Iran—an attack that was presumably the safest of bets considering Iran’s state of chaos—should have been reassuring to Menachem Begin.

Clearly it was not, and the strike came off, a great victory for the Israeli budgeteers. Israel’s pilots fly thirty hours or so a month, and their F-15s and F-16s are well supported with spares despite Israel’s parlous economic situation. Our own tactical pilots have been struggling along on twelve hours, more or les, with short rations of spare parts, ammunition, and fuel. Whether our pilots, given their lack of training, could have pulled off the Osirak attack with the same precision is at least questionable. Happily, the new people in the Pentagon are promising better times out, if operating money ever becomes scarce again, a reminder to the budgeteers about Osirak might be in order.

That being said, the remaining question is the big one: Where does this leave us, the United States, in our pursuit of a Southwest Asian defense policy? Egypt’s President Sadat was plainly embarrassed by this Israeli air strike, an action that will isolate him even more thoroughly from his Arab neighbors in a case of guilt by association. And all at a time when Egypt is herself beset with troubles: an almost geometric birth rate, agricultural stagnation, and a restive youth educated beyond the available job opportunities. It is no time to put more pressure on Sadat. Yet, that is what the Israelis have done.

The Israeli strike was probably bad news for us as well in our struggle to gain influence and a military foothold in the Middle East. The United States is viewed as unalterably tied to Israel, that embattled little land’s only real supporter in an otherwise hostile or indifferent world, and so, fair or not, we will be widely suspected as silent partners in the Baghdad raid.

Meanwhile, the specter of a Soviet threat we have been trying to get all Mideast nations to see is replaced, for the moment at least, by the very real presence of an aggressive Israel. All of which may make the mission of the Rapid Deployment Force a little hard to sell. At least, the Israelis have simply bought some time, for there can be no permanent forestalling of the day when Arab nations have nuclear weapons just as Israel probably now has. As Iraq has shown, it is an easy deal to trade oil for nuclear technology. One of these days the threat of nuclear warfare is going to be a fact of life in the Middle East. What then?

Well, whatever comes, there are some military lessons here for the United States to digest as we set about rebuilding our defenses. The first one we have already touched on: sophisticated weapons like F-16s need highly trained people to exploit them. Misgivings about the wisdom of their Iraqi raid aside, we have the Israelis to thank for proof that we are building great airplanes. Now we must put the same effort into training and readiness that they have done.

The second lesson we can absorb from this Israeli adventure is that airpower will be the dominant factor in Southwest Asia. That once-backward part of the world is now becoming a showcase for modern weaponry—Soviet, American, French, and British. The emphasis in all these countries is on acquiring an air force, whether with MiG-23s, Mirage F-15, Mirage 2000s, or F-15s and F-16s. Deserts and distances will no longer serve to keep enemies apart: The Middle East is becoming, in the purest sense, an air warfare theater.

As time goes on, it will be steadily more difficult for Israel to maintain its edge. Given the plain fact that Saudi airspace was violated on the run-in to Baghdad, it will now be difficult to argue persuasively against Saudi Arabia’s purchase of AWACS. Viewed, then, simply as an area of confrontation between Arabs and Jews, the Mideast situation grows ever gloomier.

The only hope for making sense out of that situation, it would seem to me, lies in redirecting all this animus toward the real threat to the area. At the moment, the Israeli nuclear reactor bombing is too recent a memory for that idea. But if, in time, the United States could harness some, or most, of this considerable air weapons arsenal in a loose confederation designed for mutual warning and defense against Soviet penetration of the Gulf, these newly acquired modern air forces could serve a useful purpose, and the United States role in the Middle East would become decidedly more understandable.