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.