Israel has finally confirmed what was an open secret for more than a decade: that in 2007, the country’s air force struck and destroyed a nuclear reactor under construction in Syria. The reactor, built with technical assistance by North Korea, was likely being built to produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. The country carried out a similar strike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
The Israeli Defense Forces admitted it conducted an air strike on the reactor while it was under construction in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. The strike, code-named Operation Outside the Box, involved eight fighter planes that took off from air bases across Israel, converging for a strike that delivered 20 tons of ordnance on the main reactor building. The building was totally destroyed, and Syria subsequently ended its nuclear weapons program.
, the strike was carried out by four F-15I “Raam” and four F-16I “Sufa” jets of the Israeli Air Force. The F-15I and F-16I are both advanced multi-role versions of their respective American designs, capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. has stated the Israelis used laser-guided and 500 pound bombs to destroy the facility. These reports also suggest that Israeli special forces teams were flown into the area ahead of the strike to provide on-the-ground intelligence and aim lasers for the Maverick missiles to home in on.
The reactor complex was under construction 450 kilometers northeast of Damascus, concealed in a valley approximately 900 yards from the Euphrates River—likely so the river could provide coolant water for the reactor itself. The facility bore a striking resemblance to North Korea’s which has provided the enriched uranium used in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. The similarity, and the secret nature of the reactor, lent credence to Israel’s suspicion that Syria’s goal was not to produce energy but nuclear weapons.
The strike was conducted entirely without loss to the Israeli Air Force, and all planes returned to their bases without receiving damage. This has led to several theories as to how the Israelis were able to evade Syrian air defenses. Most believe a combination of surprise and electronic jamming were responsible for the IAF’s safe return, but some believe Israel activated a secret kill switch that neutralized Syrian radars and air defense missile systems.
Israel conducted a similar air strike in 1981, when its air force destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction at Osirak. The strike, , set back Iraq’s nuclear weapons program for years.