A Story of Israel’s Threat to Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal— Special Report

After the Israeli attack on Iraq’s under-construction French-built
nuclear Osirak-type reactor, Tammuz-I, south of Baghdad on 7 June 1981,
Pakistan felt that it would be the next target of an Israeli
misadventure. The Israeli Air Force (IDF/AF) had, at first, explored the
possibility of such a plan and, later, put together operational plans
for a possible air strike against Kahuta in the 1980s using satellite
photo and intelligence information provided by the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA). These operational plans are still kept
updated in the Headquarters of the IDF/AF and pilots of some specially
assigned IDF/AF F-16 and F-15 squadrons are given special training
exercises to carry out mock attacks on Kahuta. So much so that a
full-scale mock-up of the Kahuta facility was built in the southern
Negev Desert for the IDF/AF pilots to train on.

The Kahuta plan
was made concurrently with the plan to attack Osirak using the same
pilots of the Iraq mission, if it went through successfully. The
Israelis planned to either use Indian airbases or fly non-stop from
Israel to Kahuta while refuelling their aircraft using airborne tankers.
Israeli Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft would jam
Pakistani air defence radar while the Israelis took out Kahuta – or at
least attempted to do so.

To this effect, India had played its
part in cajoling and trying to convince Israel to carry this ill-advised
plan through. However, Israel was insisting on using Indian air bases
but India was reluctant to allow them such a facility for fear of
sparking of another Indo-Pak war. According to a paper published by the
Australian Institute for National Strategic Studies, “Israeli interest
in destroying Pakistan’s Kahuta reactor to scuttle the “Islamic bomb”
was blocked by India’s refusal to grant landing and refueling rights to
Israeli warplanes in 1982.” India wanted to see Kahuta gone but did not
want to face the blame or the retaliation nor bear any responsibility.
Israel, on its part wanted it to be seen as a joint Indo-Israeli strike
so that responsibility could be shared. The Reagan Administration was
against this plan, not out of any love for Pakistan’s nuclear programme,
but because at that time it was busy fighting the Soviet Union in
Afghanistan and considered Pakistan a key ally in the conflict. It
informed Israel and India that it could not support such a plan. This
plan, therefore, never materialized and was indefinitely postponed, and
rightly so, after Pakistan reminded the Israelis that they were not the
Iraqis and the Pakistan Air Force was not the Iraqi Air Force. Through
indirect channels, Pakistan had also conveyed the message to Israel, if
Kahuta was attacked, Pakistan would lay waste to Dimona, Israel’s
nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.

Pakistan, however, was not
taking any chances. Soon after the Osirak raid in 1981, then President
Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan directed PAF Air Headquarters (AHQ) to make
contingency plans for a possible Israeli attack on Kahuta. In lieu
thereof, the PAF Chief of Air Staff issued an Air Tasking Order to the
Air Officer Commanding of the Air Defence Command to take suitable
measures for the air defence of Kahuta and prepare a contingency plan
for a retaliatory PAF strike on Dimona, in case Kahuta was attacked. As a
follow-up to this directive, a special Operations Room was established
at AHQ, Chaklala to oversee the task of defending Pakistan’s strategic
nuclear facilities at Kahuta and Karachi. A study of the air defence
ground environment of Kahuta was carried out and gaps and weaknesses in
the air defences were filled and strengthened. On 10 July 1982, a
special contingency plan was issued. In the event of an Israeli attack
on Pakistan’s strategic installations, plans were drawn up for a
retaliatory Pakistani strike on Dimona. The strike would be carried out
by Mirage III/Vs. When Pakistan received 40 General Dynamics Block
F-16A/Bs from the US from 15 January 1983 onwards, this new weapons
system too was incorporated in Pakistan’s contingency plan to carry out
retaliatory strikes on Dimona.

In the backdrop of the above
scenario, it was, therefore, not surprising that in the aftermath of the
Indian nuclear tests of 13 May 1998, Pakistan felt that there was a
strong possibility of a joint Indo-Israeli strike against Pakistan’s
nuclear installations. The PAF had an essential role to play in
defending Pakistan’s strategic installations and airspace to thwart any
such plan. The tensions were so high that a PAF F-16 flying low over the
Ras Koh test site in the Chagai District of Balochistan on the eve of
the Pakistani nuclear tests was, for a moment, mistaken by the personnel
on the ground, to be an Israeli warplane. The incident sparked off a
diplomatic squabble between Pakistan and Israel, with the Israeli
Ambassador in Washington D.C. denying the existence of any such plan.

Then
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ahmed Kamal told CNN that
Pakistan had reliable information about Indian intentions to launch air
strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear test facilities. Kamal told CNN that
if India strikes, Pakistan’s response would be “massive” and would “bode
ill for peace.”

“We’re involved in this threat and in making
sure that it does not arise because if it does, the world must
understand that Pakistan is ready, that it will react, that the reaction
will be massive and dissuasive, and that it would lead us into a
situation which would bode ill for peace and security, not only in the
region, but beyond,” Kamal said.

As soon as the decision to
conduct the nuclear tests had been taken, the PAF was ordered to assume
air defence duties over Chagai and the strategic nuclear installations
of Pakistan, including Kahuta, Nilore, Fatehjung, Chashma, Khushab and
Karachi.

Operation Bedaar ’98: PAF Squadron Roles during Chagai

The
PAF operations for the defence of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear
installations during the May 1998 nuclear tests were codenamed
“Operation Bedaar ’98” by the PAF.

This was a unique operation in which all four PAF command sector Headquarters (HQ) were involved, namely:

(a)
HQ NORSEC (Northern Sector) based at PAF Chaklala (Rawalpindi, Punjab)
and falling under the control of the Northern Air Command (NAC) at
Peshawar;

(b) HQ CENSEC (Central Sector) under the Central Air Command (CAC) and both based at PAF Sargodha (Punjab);

(c) HQ WESSEC (Western Sector) based at PAF Base Samungli (Quetta, Balochistan) also falling under the command of CAC; and

(d)
HQ SOUSEC (Southern Sector) based at PAF Faisal (Karachi, Sindh) and
falling under the control of the Southern Air Command (SAC), also based
at Karachi.

No. 6 Air Transport Squadron (ATS) Squadron, equipped
with C-130 “Hercules” medium-lift tactical transport aircraft and based
at PAF Base Chaklala, commanded by Group Captain Sarfraz Ahmad Khan,
extended the necessary logistical support to the rest of the PAF
squadrons that were being redeployed for air defence alert (ADA) duties.
The Squadron carried a total of 12,66,615 lbs. loads in 71 separate
sorties during the nuclear tests.

No. 7 Tactical Attack (TA)
Squadron, equipped with ex-Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Mirage III
EAs having recently undergone Retrofit of Strike Element (ROSE I)
upgrades at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra and based at
PAF Base Masroor (Karachi, Sindh), commanded by Wg. Cdr. Shahid Mahmood
were moved to PAF Base Shabaz (Jacobabad, Balochistan) for day-night ADA
duties. This squadron is now due to be transformed into a multi-role
squadron following the ROSE upgrades and after being equipped with new
radar.

The PAF’s elite No. 9 Multi-Role (MR) Squadron “Griffins”
(falling under No. 34 Wing led by Grp. Capt. Shahid Shigri), equipped
with F-16As, commanded by Wg. Cdr. Azher Hasan, was deployed at PAF
Samungli (Quetta, Balochistan) on 27 May 1998 to provide night-time air
defence cover to the nuclear test sites at Ras Koh and Kharan.

No.
11 MR Squadron “Arrows” (No. 34 Wing), equipped with F-16A/Bs commanded
by Gp. Capt. Akhtar H. Bukhari was moved to PAF Shabaz for day-night
ADA duties on 24 May 1998.

No. 14 MR Squadron “The Tail
Choppers”, equipped with F-7P aircraft and based at PAF Sargodha,
commanded by Wg. Cdr. M. Jamshaid Khan, was deployed at PAF Base
Chaklala for the point defence of KRL, Kahuta; PINSTECH, Nilore and NDC,
Fatehjung.

No. 17 Air Superiority (AS) Squadron “Tigers”
(falling under No. 31 Wing led by Grp. Capt. Rashid Hasan Bukhari), then
equipped with F-6 aircraft and commanded by Wg. Cdr. Muhammad Jamil
Memon carried out standing day-time Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions
from its parent base, PAF Base Samungli and its Forward Operational
Bases (FOBs), PAF Bases Shahbaz and Sukker (Sindh) respectively. No. 17
Squadron was re-quipped with F-7PG aircraft from China on 27 March 2002.

No.
23 Squadron “Talons” (No. 31 Wing), then equipped with F-6 aircraft and
based at PAF Base Samungli, commanded by Wg. Cdr. Ghulam Mustafa Abbasi
was deployed at PAF Base Sukker for about a week for day-time ADA
duties. Members of the Squadron who participated in the ADA duties
included Wg. Cdr. Irfan Idrees, Sqn. Ldr. Khan Maqbool, Flt. Lt. Anwer
Karim, Flt. Lt. S. Atta, Flt. Lt. Waqas Moshin, Flt. Lt. Zeeshan Saeed,
Flt. Lt. Aamir Shaukat, Flt. Lt. Ali Asher, Flt. Lt. Nadeem Afzal and
Flt. Lt. Nasir Jamal. No. 23 Squadron is also scheduled to be re-quipped
with F-7PG aircraft from China later this year.

At PAF Base
Samungli, F-6 aircraft belonging to the re-equipped No. 25 MR Squadron
(now a SAGEM-upgraded Mirage V EF (ROSE II) squadron) and which were
being kept in reduced flying status (hot storage) by the Field
Maintenance Unit (FMU) at the Base were also activated and made
operational in a day’s notice for emergency back-up if the need arose.

No.
314 Ground Combateers Wing of the PAF, located at PAF Samungli was
tasked with providing enhanced ground security cover to the F-16s of
Nos. 9 and 11 Squadrons deployed at the Base.

No. 481 Control
& Reporting Centre (CRC) based at PAF Base, Lahore, along with seven
Mobile Pulse-Doppler Radar (MPDR), was deployed at designated sites
till the exercise was called off on 1 June 1998. No. 482 CRC based at
PAF Base Malir (Karachi) deployed its MPDR-45 radar in the Sukker area
at short notice on 21 May 1998. The radar handled a number of CAP
missions that were launched to counter any aerial threat to the nuclear
installations. No. 484 CRC based at PAF Chaklala remained on usual alert
for the point defence of Kahuta. No. 486 CRC based at PAF Chaklala
since November 1985 has been exclusive assigned to the task of defending
Pakistan’s nuclear installations. It deployed its MPDR-90P radar at
Pasni, Balochistan at short notice to detect any attack approaching from
the sea. No. 403, a mobile Squadron based at PAF Base, Lahore and
equipped with TPS-43G high altitude surveillance radar also participated
in Bedaar’98. No. 408 Squadron based at PAF Malir, (near Karachi) and
equipped with FPS-20A high-altitude long range static radar and TPS-43G
high altitude radar successfully controlled a number of hot CAP mission
and intercepted US Navy aircraft flying close to Pakistan’s 12 nautical
mile wide territorial sea. Incidentally, this was the same squadron that
participated in the several joint PAF/USN exercises called “Inspired
Alert” between 1994 and 1997 in which the Squadron had experienced an
opportunity to intercept aircraft like the F-14s and F-18s. No. 410
Squadron equipped with TPS-43G radar provided round-the-clock operations
and controlled 26 high altitude CAPS during Operation Bedaar’98. No.
4091 Squadron based at Kirana Hills near Sargodha and equipped with
Siemens MPDR-90 low-level static radar located at a height of 1,600
feet, provided a surveillance capability for the point defence of
Sargodha Air Base and the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) with its
ability to detect aircraft flying at low level at extended ranges.

No.
541 Squadron, a mobile Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) squadron based at
PAF Chaklala, and equipped with Crotale 2000 performed its duties for
the point defence of Kahuta. No. 904 Squadron, based at Murree and
equipped with MPDR-90S radar provided both independent and hooked-up
mode operations with No. 486 CRC by providing early warning on low and
medium level ingressing aircraft towards the national vital points from
Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir. No. 451 Squadron, a mobile SAM
squadron based at PAF Chaklala, and equipped with the Crotale 2000 SAM
system provided air defence to the Kahuta and Nilore area. No. 454
Squadron, a mobile SAM squadron based PAF Chaklala, and equipped with
the Crotale 2000 SAM system provided air defence cover to the national
vital points. No. 455 Squadron, a mobile SAM squadron, deployed in the
Kilo area and equipped with the Crotale 4000 SAM system provided air
defence cover to the national vital points. No. 242 Squadron, a mobile
SAM squadron, based at PAF Base Rafiqui, and equipped with the French
Mistral SAM system provided air defence cover to PAF air bases. No.471
Squadron, a SAM squadron, based at PAF Chaklala and equipped with the
Black Arrow (Chinese Red Flag II) high-altitude SAM system provided
day-night air defence coverage upto 80,000 feet over the Kahuta, Nilore
and Fatehjung area.

It was felt that a joint Indo-Israeli attack
could target not only Pakistan’s nuclear installations but the nuclear
test sites at Ras Koh and Kharan as well. According to intelligence
reports, US and Indian intelligence did not know about the Kharan Desert
site, which came as a total surprise to them. To counter any high-level
threat emanating from the west or south-west, a TPS-43G high level
radar had been permanently deployed in the Quetta area since October
1982. The same radar was, therefore, used to provide surveillance on all
flying aircraft in the Chagai area.

Dalbandin Airfield had an
important role to play during Pakistan’s May 1998 nuclear tests. In
fact, two names gained prominence around the world during the tests: (i)
Chagai Hills and (ii) Dalbandin airfield. Dalbandin is located among
sand dunes some 30 km south-east of the Chagai Hills near the
Pakistan-Afghanistan Border. The Koh Khambaran Massif in the Ras Koh
Mountain Range, the site of Pakistan’s nuclear test, lies south of the
Chagai Hills and Dalbandin.

The airfield at Dalbandin was
constructed in 1935 to serve as a satellite for Samungli Air Base at
Quetta. During the Second World War, it was made operational by the
Royal Air Force in order to counter a possible Russian invasion through
Iran and Afghanistan. During the 1970s, Dalbandin remained a disused
airfield. Although the airstrip is visible from extremely high altitude,
pilots making landing approaches often find the airstrip disappearing
from view, with sand dunes and sand collected on the runway obscuring it
– like a natural camouflage. Dust storms are frequent and cause delays
in take-off and landing schedules. The airfield was taken over by the
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 1985, it received a major face-lift
and overhaul, which provided modern navigational aids, air traffic
control facilities, a passenger terminal and a paved runway. There are
regularly scheduled Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) services to
the airport. While not a military facility, this airfield is available
to the PAF for emergency landing and recovery of aircraft during
peacetime and wartime. During May 1998, Dalbandin air field became the
centre of activity for all personnel, military and civilian, flying to
and from the nuclear tests sites to the rest of the country.

The
nuclear devices were themselves flown in semi-knocked down (SKD)
sub-assembly form on two flights of PAF C-130 Hercules tactical
transport aircraft from PAF Chaklala in northern Punjab to Dalbandin
airfield, escorted even within Pakistani airspace by four PAF F-16As
armed with air-to-air missiles. At the same time, PAF F-7P air defence
fighters, also armed with air-to-air missiles, were on CAP guarding the
aerial frontiers of Pakistan against intruders. Both the nuclear devices
(the bomb mechanism, the HMX explosive shields and casing) and the
fissile material (the highly enriched uranium components) were divided
into separate consignments and flown on separate flights of the
Hercules. The PAEC did not want to put all its nuclear eggs in one
basket in case something adverse was to happen to the aircraft. The
security of the devices and the fissile material was so strict that that
PAF F-16 escort pilots had been secretly given standing orders that in
the unlikely event of the C-130 being hijacked or flown outside of
Pakistani airspace, they were to shoot down the aircraft before it left
Pakistan’s airspace. The F-16s were ordered to escort the C-130s to the
Dalbandin airfield in Balochistan with their radio communications
equipment turned off so that no orders, in the interim, could be
conveyed to them to act otherwise. They were also ordered to ignore any
orders to the contrary that got through to them during the duration of
the flight even if such orders seemingly originated from Air
Headquarters.

On 30 May 1998, when Pakistan sixth nuclear device
shook the ground in the Kharan Desert, Operation Bedaar ’98 had
accomplished its mission – that of deterring any misadventure by either
India or Israel to strike at Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure.

But
how real was the possibility of a joint or unilateral Israeli or Indian
raid on Pakistan’s nuclear installations during May 1998? The answer is
that we really don’t know. The threat is of such a nature that it can
neither be overestimated nor underestimated. Overestimation may lead to
minor diplomatic embarrassment, but underestimation will surely lead to
catastrophe for Pakistan. So Pakistan prefers to overestimate the threat
and pay the price of minor diplomatic embarrassment rather than
underestimate it and face the prospective annihilation. This is not to
say that the threat was never there during May 1998. Pakistan preferred
to be safe rather than sorry. Furthermore, there is concrete evidence
that India and Israeli have been planning exactly such an operation to
neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear capability. It is only the PAF and the
risk of nuclear retaliation that is holding them back.

According
to an Indian official, Subramaniam Swamy, a former member of the Hindu
fundamentalist and extremist Bharati Janata Party (BJP) that rules India
today, Israel in 1982 asked him to sound out other Indian leaders to
see if India would grant Israeli warplanes landing and refueling rights
were they to undertake an Osirak-type raid against the Kahuta nuclear
reactor in Pakistan. India refused, probably for a combination of
reasons. As one expert on South Asia speculated:

“First, the
Kahuta facility is well-protected and is thus a hard target to destroy.
Second and more important, India expects that any first strike by India
against Kahuta would be swiftly followed by a Pakistani attack against
India’s nuclear facilities. Such an exchange would leave India worse
off, since any potential deterrent capability against China would
thereby be eliminated. Finally, India would be wary of launching such an
attack against Pakistan as it would cause not only great death and
destruction to Pakistan, but could blow radioactive fall-out back over
India. Such an attack against Pakistan would also alienate the Muslim
Middle Eastern states whose amity India has assiduously cultivated.”

In
a meeting in Paris in July 1985, senior Israeli diplomats and a
personal envoy of the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reportedly
examined the option in detail. As an incentive, Israel held out an
offer to cooperate with India on military intelligence, defence
production and transfer or technology. Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli
Defence Minister, reportedly pinned a lot of hope on that meeting. But
India, which had not yet forged diplomatic ties with the Jewish state,
ultimately rejected the proposal, ostensibly because of the fear of
possible nuclear retaliation by Pakistan and for fear of a possible
backlash by Islamic states, including an oil embargo against it by the
Muslim member-states of OPEC.

In 1991, India and Pakistan signed a
treaty pledging that neither would preemptively attack the nuclear
facilities of the other. However, as India’s and Pakistan’s animosity
grows, this treaty has been rendered toothless and is unlikely to be
adhered to by either side.

In the early 1990s, reports surfaced
in London claiming Israel had repeatedly tried to pressure India into
launching a joint strike on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development plant
at Kahuta. The reports claimed Israeli and Indian pilots would be aided
by detailed satellite photographs of Kahuta provided by convicted spy
Jonathan Pollard.

According to a report in The Washington Times,
citing US officials, Pakistan’s then Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed
had notified the US government and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that
Israeli and Indian warplanes, equipped with long-range refueling gear
and operating out of India, had planned to attack Pakistani nuclear
facilities at dawn on Thursday, 28 May 1998.

It is possible that
for Kahuta, the Israelis will use F-15 Strike Eagles to carry out the
actual attack with F-16s providing air cover – a reversal of the roles
in the operation against Osirak. Furthermore, it is almost certain that
if Israel ever attempted to take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons
facilities, Kahuta will not be the only target and it is highly likely
that the Plutonium Reactor at Khushab and the National Development
Complex (NDC) at Fatehjung, among others, will be additional targets
high on the priority list of the Israelis.

Senior Israeli
military intelligence officials had, of course, dismissed the notion
that any kind of attack was being contemplated against Pakistan.
Pakistan and India “are coming out of the closet and they are trying to
drag us with them,” one senior intelligence official said. “We have
nothing to do with it. They are trying to force us into being a party in
this. “The official also maintained that Pakistan’s infamous espionage
and counter-espionage agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was
acting on “faulty intelligence.” The Israelis maintained that the
misinformation may have been propaganda fed to them from some other
body, the Iranians perhaps. “They took it seriously. They could have
believed it, but they did the responsible thing and checked it out with
the Americans,” the official said. Not that the Americans could be
trusted, given the fact that it was the United States which has supplied
all the information and satellite photos of Pakistan’s nuclear
installations to both Israel and India.

The assessment in Israel
is that it does not believe that Pakistan sees the Jewish State as its
enemy – not directly and at least not in the short-run. Israeli
intelligence officials also do not believe that Pakistan has transferred
nuclear or missile technology to nuclear-wannabe Iran. Moreover, they
have no proof that Pakistan is or intends to engage in any nuclear
cooperation with any other country. An Israeli defence analyst commented
to this effect, “Pakistan will not transfer nuclear know-how to any
other Muslim country, not out of fear of Israel, but because that would
diminish its own importance in the Islamic World. Today, Pakistan is the
Islamic world’s sole nuclear power, if there are two, Pakistan’s
position would be reduced. So it is using its nuclear prowess not only
as a deterrent against its enemies but also to bolster its relationship
with its strategic friends”.

Shai Feldman, Director of the Jaffee
Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University in Israel once
stated, “I am certain that the Pakistanis have enough trouble on their
hands and would refrain from doing something that would actually
increase Israel’s incentive to cooperate with India. Why would they buy
another enemy when the situation is as bad as it is?” Feldman said.
“They are not stupid, and they probably know that if we had any evidence
of transfer of technology to one of our adversaries then Israel would
react and it wouldn’t be very pleasant,” he added.

And vice versa, Mr. Feldman.

  • whatever is the case, we should try to maintain peace in the world.

  • World peace can only be achieved by a strong Pakistan, that can strick the Enemies of Islam in any part of the world. For that, she needs to acquire, very quickly, space technology, with its own satellite & ICBM. This would halt US domination of the Muslim world, at least, to a very large extent.