After the Israeli attack on Iraq’s under-construction French-built nuclear Osirak-type reactor, Pakistan felt that it would be the next target of an Israeli misadventure. The Israeli Air Force 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. These operational plans are still kept updated and pilots of some specially assigned Israeli 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 their 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 radars while the Israelis took out Kahuta – or at least attempted to do so.
To this effect, India had played its part 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 a fear of sparking 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. 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 directed PAF to make contingency plans for a possible Israeli attack on Kahuta. 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 F-16s from the US, 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.
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.
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.
PAF C-130 extended the necessary logistical support to the rest of the PAF squadrons that were being redeployed for air defence alert (ADA) duties.
PAF Mirage fighter jets were deployed at different air bases to assume the responsibility of day and night Air Defence Alert. PAF F-16 fighter jets were deployed throughout Balochistan on 27 May 1998 to provide night-time air defence cover to the nuclear test sites at Ras Koh and Kharan. Rest of the PAF fighter squadrons were deployed throughout the country to retaliate promptly in case of any misadventure from Israeli or Indian Air Force.
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.
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 nuclear devices were themselves flown in semi-knocked down (SKD) sub-assembly form on two flights of PAF C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft, 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 and the fissile material 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.