Operation Orchard/Outside the Box (2007)

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Date 6 September 2007.[1]
Suspected actor The operation was conducted by the Israeli Air Force.[2] On 21 March 2018, the Israeli Minister of Defense officially claimed responsibility of the operation.[3]
Target The cyber part of the operation targeted the Syrian air defence radar system networks to facilitate for the kinetic attack against the main target.[4] The ultimate target of the kinetic operation was the Al-Kibar facility near the city of Deir Alzour in Syria.[5] The target was suspected to be a secret nuclear reactor that was believed to be capable of producing nuclear weapons.[6]
Method The Israeli intelligence (Mossad) reportedly managed to extract highly sensitive and classified information from a senior Syrian official’s laptop by secretly installing a “trojan horse” program on it, while he was abroad.[7] The obtained data included photographs and construction planes of what was later identified as the Al-Kibar nuclear facility.[7]

The newly identified reactor was characterised as an existential threat to the State of Israel, and accordingly a confidential decision was made at the highest Israeli military and political level to eliminate the threat.[8]

Before executing the main attack on the suspected nuclear reactor, the Israeli fighters engaged a Syrian radar site near the Turkish border at Tal Abyad with an electronic attack, then targeted it with a precision guided missile.[9] This hybrid attack temporarily disrupted the entire Syrian radar system allowing for a safe and undetected intrusion of the Israeli forces into the Syrian airspace throughout the operation.[9]

As Israel did not claim responsibility of the attack initially and due to the secrecy around the operation, there were different accounts about the exact details of the operation including speculations about the use of sophisticated jamming technology.[10] Other sources suggested the involvement of an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft that used the Suter airborne network system.[11]

As for the information warfare techniques, two technologies were believed to have been employed in this operation: The first one, known as network-centric collaborative targeting (NCCT), identifies and locates the targets; the other one is part of the Big Safari programme, which is known as the Senior Suter.[12]

The Suter exploits the vulnerabilities and disrupts the work of the attacked air defence system (ADS) by beaming electronic pulses into the target’s antennas and inserting customised signals.[12] After invading the network and reaching the communications loop, the operators corrupt the ADS by inserting misleading data, such as fabricated messages or phantom targets, with the purpose of causing deception.[12]

Purpose The network attack aimed at blinding and disabling the Syrian air defence radar system to facilitate and secure the kinetic operation.[13] The aim of the kinetic attack was to destroy the suspected Syrian nuclear facility with the overall purposes of preventing Syria from developing nuclear weapons as well as dissuading other countries in the region, like Iran, from pursuing their own nuclear programs.[1]
Result The strike damaged and disabled the Syrian air defence facility of Tal Abyad, as well as temporarily crashed the entire Syrian air defence radar network for the duration of the operation.[4] Ultimately, the Israeli fighter jets entered the Syrian airspace undetected and dropped some 17 tons of bombs on Al-Kibar facility resulting in the total destruction of the site, before safely returning to their base.[14]
Aftermath This operation drew international attention to Syria’s nuclear aspirations and triggered an investigation into the suspected site. In spite of acknowledging the occurrence of attack, the Syrian President denied any interest in developing a military nuclear program, claiming that the targeted building was nothing but an unused conventional military installation.[15] Upon the request of the US, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) initiated an investigation into the Syrian activities in suspected nuclear reactor as well as the claims of North Korean involvement in such a project.[5] The IAEA Report concluded that all the evidence found in the site indicated the existence of nuclear activities, and suggested that Al-Kibar was “very likely” a nuclear reactor.[5]

This operation sent a clear message that Israel would not tolerate the threat of any attempts of developing nuclear weapons in the region.[16] It also raised concerns in the US, upon the realization that its intelligence agencies were unable to track and detect the activities of North Korea and involvement in developing Syria's reactor.16 Another important consequence of the operation was that it revealed critical vulnerabilities in the Russian-made ADSs, which failed to detect and prevent the Israeli intrusion, raising serious concerns about the system’s capabilities and utility.[17]

Although much of the international attention after the attack focused on the Syrian nuclear ambitions, Operation Orchard has also been highlighted as “the first implementation in a live hostile environment of ‘information warfare’”.[4] Overall, the success of the operation has been described as one of historic significance,[16] and such success was largely attributed to the electronic deception element, which was an integrated part of the operation that played an essential role in achieving its aims.[13]

Analysed in Scenario 15: Cyber deception during armed conflict

Collected by: Alan Haji

  1. 1.0 1.1 David Makovsky, ‘The Silent Strike: How Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear installation and kept it secret’ The New Yorker (10 September 2012)
  2. Judah Ari Gross, ‘Ending a decade of silence, Israel confirms it blew up Assad’s nuclear reactor’ The Times of Israel (21 March 2018)
  3. Anna Ahronheim, ‘Liberman: Squabbling over credit for strike on Syrian reactor an 'embarrassment'’ The Jerusalem Post (21 March 2018)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Richard B Gasparre, ‘The Israeli ‘E-tack’ on Syria – Part I’ Air Force Technology (9 March 2008)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 ‘IAEA: Syria site bombed by Israel 'was likely nuclear'’ BBC News (24 May 2011)
  6. Glenn Kessler, ‘N. Korea, Syria May Be at Work on Nuclear Facility’ Washington Post (13 September 2007)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Von Erich Follath and Holger Stark, ‘The Story of 'Operation Orchard': How Israel Destroyed Syria's Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor’ Spiegel International (2 November 2009)
  8. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and Interviews/20080424_interview.pdf ‘Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea's Involvement’ (24 April 2008).
  9. 9.0 9.1 David A. Fulghum and Robert Wall, ‘U.S. Electronic Surveillance Monitored Israeli Attack On Syria’ World Security Network (23 November 2007)
  10. John Markoff, ‘A Silent Attack, but Not a Subtle One’ The New York Times (26 September 2010)
  11. Richard Clements, ‘New details of Israel’s 2007 attack on the Syrian Nuclear reactor emerge’ The Aviationist (10 September 2012)
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Richard B Gasparre, ‘The Israeli ‘E-tack’ on Syria – Part II’ Air Force Technology (10 March 2008)
  13. 13.0 13.1 David Cenciotti, ‘Syria Never Stood A Chance Against Israel's Electronic Warfare’ Business Insider (3 February 2013); David Cenciotti, ‘Air strike on Damascus military complex shows Syrian Air Defense can do nothing against Israeli Electronic Warfare’ The Aviationist (1 February 2013)
  14. Anna Ahronheim, ‘After a decade Israel admits: We bombed Syria nuclear reactor in 2007’ The Jerusalem Post (21 March 2018)
  15. ‘Peace without Syria Is Unthinkable’ Spiegel International (19 January 2009). See also: Jonathan Marcus, ‘When silence speaks volumes’ BBC News (10 October 2007)
  16. 16.0 16.1 Yossi Melman, ‘OUTSIDE THE BOX: Israel's strike on Syria's nuclear plant’ The Jerusalem Post (6 April 2018)
  17. David A. Fulghum, ‘Why Syria's Air Defenses Failed to Detect Israelis’ Aviation Week Blog (3 October 2007). See also Sharon Weinberger, ‘How Israel Spoofed Syria's Air Defense System’ Wired (4 October 2007)