Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter 4. The Pilot

Uri Oren was proud to be a Sabra, a native-born Israeli, son of Julia Tannenbaum and Abed Al-Haady. The parents had met in Aix-en Provence, France at UniversitĂ© Paul CĂ©zanne. Julia was a political science major, about to graduate, and Abed was in his third year of undergraduate law courses. Julia and her family lived in Northern France. Her grandparents, native Germans, had been hidden and their lives saved by righteous Christian Netherlanders during the Nazi occupation. Abed was the son of a wealthy Lebanese family. His father’s father had become a Christian in 1950, at Christmastime. Christians and Muslims got along well in Lebanon in those days.

Julia and Abed fell in love in a coffee shop, following a debate on the Israeli-Arab conflict near the end of the Egyptian-Israeli war in 1970. Oren, whose name was the Hebrew translation of his mother’s surname, grew up to believe in the Jewish State and had dedicated his two-and-a-half decades of life to that belief. Often such a commitment meant becoming observant. In Oren’s case, instead of enjoying a turkish coffee before sunup on the Tarmac at Teheran Airport, wearing his smart looking dusty-blue Pakistani commercial pilot’s uniform, he would be wearing a dull black suit, a felt fedora, a prayer shawl, tefilin and a white shirt with no tie. It wasn’t for him. Sometimes he resented the risk he was taking to provide a home for the Observant Jews. They wouldn’t fight, but without hesitation they’d tell you when to fight, who to fight and why. It didn’t seem equitable, especially in the tradition of the shared sacrifice of Zionists.

Uri Oren had taken another path. One that took him through the Mossad, the IAF and accelerated military courses based on the American Navy Seals model. He had studied Muslim culture and religious practices. He memorized the Koran and Surah. Thanks to his father, Uri had a decidedly arabesque look. He was handsome, resembling Omar Sharif as a young man - wavy jet black hair, a full mustache, strong jaw, deep piercing eyes. Thanks, to his mother, he could be Persian, Pakistani, Spanish, perhaps. But, for the past five years, Uri was Yusef Shirani, a Pakistani with Pashtun roots. He had become a pilot for Pakistan Cargo Services, and for the past few months had been flying a regular route from Amman to Teheran to Faisalabad, Pakistan, flying containers filled with who knows what. This week, he made a few additional stops at unmapped airfields that only existed in the minutes before his arrival and were made of steel mats that disappeared beneath the sand in hours. Oren marveled at the industriousness of his countrymen. Here they were experiencing the quintessential Jewish legacy, defying the desert once again. This, despite the fact that the sand erased everything - blood, bones, even the iron skeletons of tanks. Sand consumed anything that deigned to be permanent in the desert. At times, it consumed even the air, thought Uri. In one case the field was an asphalt road that appeared from the base of one sand dune and disappeared 3/4 of a mile later. A rail line followed parallel to the asphalt just a few yards to the south. Once a highway or rail line is neglected, the desert takes over.

Uri Oren had accumulated all the containers he retrieved on his covert missions and deposited them in the hangar at Teheran. Thus, the eight, fifteen-ton bunker buster bombs that would end Iran’s foray into the league of nuclear nations were already in Teheran, sitting on the ground, unassembled, in Pakistani cargo containers.

Inside Oren’s converted Airbus, some of the bunker buster bombs were being assembled. The A-330 could carry four fully-assembled bombs at once. That meant Uri would be making one run only. A second aircraft would be arriving soon with the same transponder settings and tail number. A man Uri had never met would be making the second bombing run. Both planes had been fitted with bomb bays, a lever would be pulled releasing a cam lock, and a single narrow panel of the belly of the plane would rise just inches into the body of the massive aircraft. Cables turned by a hand-winch would draw it away or return it. Briefly, the two bombardiers will wear pressurized and heated flight suits and an oxygen supply. As soon as the lever is cracked, everything inside the airplane changes. At 10,000 meters the air temperature will be a lethal minus 60 degrees fahrenheit. Moving, working, thinking - everything will become extraordinarily difficult. Uri will be driving. He didn’t envy the guys down below.

Thanks to GPS, no bomb sites will be required. The guidance systems housed in the wedge-shaped nose of each bomb will be able to direct the several massive pieces of ordnance to three different targets each a bit less than 100 miles apart using the streaming data supplied by a French satellite in geosynchronous orbit about 120 miles into space. The crew will have plenty of time between each drop, an optimal 10 minutes window for each of three packages, before they can and head back toward Teheran. The fourth bomb is saved for a special target there.

Uri’s plane had been converted in just eight hours. Mossad watched the weather for a month waiting for the autumn fog in Pakistan. The mechanical team was ready for a call on a moment’s notice and it came one day in late August. A delay in returning to home base, owing to fog and mechanical problems while in Amman, was not unusual. As luck would have it, Ramadan was underway and all the regulars left the hangar at sundown to go home and end the daily fast. Miles from the city, the air that night hung heavy with spices, charcoal and lamb. Once the regular crew went home, an Israeli maintenance crew arrived to perform the surgery. The new belly was fabricated in Israel using an El Al A-330 Airbus parked at Lod as a template, and it dropped into place with almost no additional finishing. Most of the evening was spent making the addition cosmetically perfect. Uri saw to it that the plane got its regular mechanical review during the overnight so that for a couple months, at least, no one would be crawling over it looking for anomalies. Most companies required taking equipment to zero-hours at home base. That’s the process where critical mechanical equipment is lubricated, machined, refurbished and restored to pristine condition - as though it had never been used. But Amman had a reputation for better mechanics and better equipment. That was probably because the late King Hussein bin Talal had been an accomplished pilot most of his adult life. He shaped the Jordanian aviation service into a highly respected industry.

The President, Vice President, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State, Director of the CIA, White House Chief of Staff and eight other people sat in the White House situation room, the closest thing to a bunker in the building. A markee, split in half left to right was brightly announcing, “Terror Threat Orange” on the left, And “DEFCON 3” on the right. There were only five defense condition levels. There was momentary silence.

Leon Panetta spoke up, “Here we go. Mr. President, this display shows the location of every war-capable vehicle heavier than a truck, winged, or over 10,000 tons displacement. The only odd thing our analysts see are eight missile frigates, six stationed northwest of the Straits of Hormuz and two, here and here, in the middle of the Persian Gulf.” Panetta used a Telestrator to circle the icons representing the frigates as all eyes stared at the 60-inch plasma screen.

Obama looked at Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and a man he trusted immensely. “Mike, what are they up to?”

“We can’t be sure, of course, but it looks like they’ve installed an additional radome. As you know, President Bush gave up some Aegis technology to Israel - to support the Patriot batteries we delivered. Israel subsequently developed the Arrow, they call it the Hetz Missile, for defense against incoming ballistics. The Gulf would be a logical place to station yourself to stop incoming warheads. These are all Hetz-class frigates and that radome might be a new level of Aegis technology.”


“I agree. We know there have been several technology initiatives in Israel associated with their pre-occupation with Iran’s nuclear program. There were three projects alone at Scailex.”

“What’d’ya know about them?”


“No. I know Scailex. What’d’ya know about the projects?”

“Well, not much, to be blunt. They’re a cell phone company so we’re looking at communications - FM, GPS, SMS, MMS, video - all the kinds of technology you might expect. Their lab’s in Tel Aviv, so we’ve been listening from offshore and, well, nothing. We had a single report of a hack attempt from an IP address at Scailex.”

Mullen interrupted, “Hacking you guys?”

“No. Probing the algorithm using the M-code on the our GPS system - our national system.”

“Leon. English.” The president was not amused by the acronyms and military shorthand. He’d complained about it before and it was doubly disturbing when critical matters arose and clarity and understanding were most important.

“I’m sorry. It means they were trying to,” Panetta was searching for a better word, “LOOK at the military side of our national GPS system. Our birds send out two signals, a civilian and a military which is designated the M-code. That way we can turn off the civilian if we need to. Specifically, they looked at the algorithm, the formula that we send to all our devices to tell them where they are.”

“Did Scailex tamper with it or do anything?’

“Nope. They went in and turned around, and came back out. Something like four seconds.”

Again, Mullen spoke up, “A calling card.”

“What’s that?” asked Obama.

“They wanted us to know they’d been there.”

“Any speculation on why?” asked the President.

“No,” said Panetta, “but I bet we’re gonna’ find out real soon.

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