Bill Norton looks at the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force, one of the most sophisticated and battle-experienced Air Forces in the world.
FEW NATIONAL air arms attract the attention of those interested in military aviation in the same way as does the Israel Defense Force/Air Force (IDF/AF) or Heyl Ha’Avir. The Israel Air Force plays a pivotal role in the defence of this small nation, and its contribution to air power world-wide. Yet Israel’s notoriously strict security measures mean that the release of current information on the service and its equipment is carefully controlled, and most of its citizens are characteristically reticent on military subjects. However, the determined journalist can piece together a reasonable picture of the service — one of the ten largest and most potent air forces in the world — without resorting to the Israel MoD.
The shock of the surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria on October 6,1973, in which the IAF suffered heavy losses and its operations were severely hamstrung, compelled the service to ensure this would never happen again. It grew in size, and began to employ the latest weapons, most effective tactics, and quality personnel. The success of its work in these fields was demonstrated during the war in Lebanon in the 1980s and in the few long-range operations beyond the immediate confrontation region.
The past ten years have resulted in modernisation, despite hard fiscal realities, in an effort to reap operational and economic rewards. This campaign has been largely successful, and there are more current and efficient aircraft in the combat squadrons than ever before. The non-combat missions still need more efficient equipment, but should be forthcoming by the end of the decade.
The withdrawal from southern Lebanon on May 24, 2000, substantially lessened the burden of operations across that border, although as recently as June there was an Israeli air strike on terrorist camps near the capital, Beirut. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, plus the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and the dismantling of Libya’s weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities, have markedly eased the perceived threats to the state. Syria is the only country with a truly hostile axe to grind over Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Yet the Syrian military look upon a war with Israel as impractical. Other Arab states, despite voicing belligerence, show no inclination to take up arms against the Zionist state.
The greatest current threat to Israel’s security comes from terrorism — both from international terrorists and those operating from the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River. Violence increased with the Second Intifadah of civil disobedience and suicide bombing attacks inside Israel which began in September 2000.
The gravest potential threat to the IDF is the crisis affecting its budget, made worse by the cost of operations against Palestinian threats. What was simply a chronic monetary squeeze has turned into wholesale cuts which are now forcing unprecedented reductions in the military as it evolves into a more efficient organisation. Between now and 2008 the IDF is scheduled to absorb a staggering 20% cut in its funds. Although the effect on the IAF is less than on the Army, its need to upgrade or replace uneconomical equipment means that it is feeling the pinch. Its fleet is already at a historically low number, yet more capable through its ‘smarter’ capabilities than any earlier force structure. Many of its programmes are in jeopardy, and it struggles to retain its edge in Electronic Warfare, precision navigation, targeting and strike, and high quality training in an environment of fleet reductions, scaled-back modernisation, and a cut-back in exercises.
The Israel Air Force is a branch of the IDF, and its commander answers directly to the IDF Chief of General Staff. In April 2004, the Air Force underwent changes at the top as Brigadier General Eliezer Shakedy took over as Air Force Commander from Major General Dan Halutz, who had served in that position for four years. Shakedy (46) entered service in 1975, gaining his pilot wings early and flying A-4s, Mirage/Neshers, and F-16s. He had most recently been Chief of Air Staff (effectively head of Air Force headquarters), and was previously commander of the Ramat David AB. Earlier still, he was commander of 109 Squadron, flying F-16s.
The Chief of Air Staff, heading up the Chief of Staff Directorate, is the Commander’s right-hand officer, supervising the staff work between headquarters’ directorates. Overseeing IAF plans and programmes, the Chief is responsible for ensuring that funds and resources are employed most efficiently. He defines the order of battle to meet operational requirements or presents development and acquisition requirements to answer unmet capabilities: hence, he formulates the annual budget in collaboration with other IDF and MoD functions.
Under the Commander and Chief of Air Staff are five directorates and the commander of the Air Defense Corps. The Air Directorate oversees the IAF’s routine training and operations, revises and communicates doctrine and policy, and sets readiness goals. This directorate also co-ordinates IAF activities with other IDF bodies. The Air Directorate for Helicopters deals with policies affecting the IAF’s helicopter assets and their continuing growth and capabilities, and also serves as the IAF’s principal interface with the Army for developing and improving joint operations theory and exercises. The Intelligence Directorate employs Air Force assets for intelligence collection and uses raw intelligence from other agencies to develop information required by IAF operations. The largest directorate is the Material Directorate, which oversees the extensive activities for sustaining the IAF’s weapon systems, including acquisition, upgrades, maintenance, and logistics functions. The Personnel Directorate is responsible for the care, training, and professional growth of service members.
The IAF’s peacetime manpower is roughly 27,000, including 18,000 conscripts. Unlike the Army which relies upon many reservists when mobilised, the Air Force’s mobilised strength is only another 13,000 personnel more, with the Air Defense Corps accounting for 70% of this number. It operates from nine principal air bases, several auxiliary fields, and numerous other smaller facilities, like telecommunication sites all over Israel. In recent years, aviation units have been moved away from bases close to densely-populated areas, to make the desert area of the Negev in southern Israel, the heart of its air operations.
Tactics and Weapons
The IAF has all the capabilities of a modern Western air force, tailored to cope with regional threats. This means they do a little bit of every kind of mission but on a smaller and narrower scale. Likewise, their tactics closely resemble those practised in the West, though modified according to their own experiences and political realities. The IAF has a clear qualitative edge over its neighbours in terms of manpower and equipment, and numerical superiority in all reasonable combat scenarios.
Consequently, it has weapons mixes on hand to fight a classical air campaign, gaining air superiority over the battle area through counter-air operations and suppression of enemy air defences by means of ‘cutting edge’ fighters, air base attack assets, and anti-radiation ordnance. These tactics are supported by intelligence collection and EW systems, some on airborne platforms, which are frequently improved to meet shifting adversary capabilities. Many of the electronic systems and precision-guided munitions are built by Israel’s world class aerospace industry partly to ensure that some capabilities remain known to Israel alone.
The IAF also has capable tactical reconnaissance systems for target location and post-strike damage assessment, and these support a formidable interdiction and close air support force of fighter-bombers and attack helicopters, which is co-ordinated by forward air controllers and command-and-control centres. This force has been particularly designed to foil a massed armour attack by neighbouring states. All its preparations are made on the assumption that although it might be anticipated, any war would last only a short time before international pressure separated the combatants.
As the threat from bordering states has eased, Israel has directed more of its resources to increased effectiveness in meeting strategic threats farther abroad, and in supporting actions by small units. As manned reconnaissance has become less practical, increased emphasis has been put on long-range reconnaissance and surveillance with satellites and UAVs, and on a growing fleet of long-range heavy strike aircraft supported by airborne tankers. Most often employed is the quick-response transport and attack assets used in support of special forces operations beyond its border as well as counter-terrorist operations within its territories. This has resulted in a specialised mix of optimised UAVs, light aircraft, attack helicopters, and some fighter-bomber sorties, augmented by a myriad of surveillance, airborne early warning, Electronic Warfare, intelligence collection, and command, control, and communication (C3) means. Again, much of this equipment is produced or modified at home and operated by well-trained personnel whose skills have been honed via realistic exercises.
The IAF continues to carry out combat missions due to continuing tensions with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and terrorist groups throughout the region. Occasionally, there are air strikes in southern Lebanon, either pre-empting — or in retaliation for — terrorist acts inside Israel, rockets fired across the border, or Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) fired at routine Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace. However, over the past four years most activity has been focused in the Palestinian areas.
Although airpower has a role to play in meeting this kind of urban warfare challenge, it is considerably limited in comparison to past confrontations with surrounding countries. In 2001, for example, the service carried out 92 attack missions — 85 in the Palestinian territories and the rest in Lebanon. There are, no doubt, commando raids into Lebanon which go unreported.
The largest recent combined arms operation to which the IAF contributed was the excursion into the PA areas of the West Bank which was launched on January 23, 2002. Operation DEFENDING WALL followed two suicide bombing attacks that left scores of Israelis dead and the impression that the PA either could not or would not control the terrorist cells. The IDF moved to eliminate arms caches and weapons workshops, training areas, administration offices, target terrorist leaders, and to isolate the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. In the process Israel reoccupied much of the area which had earlier been turned over to the Palestinians. The subsequent low-intensity conflict gained the IAF considerable, if hard-won, experience in urban combat.
Israel retains the ability to reach beyond its frontiers to deal with enemies and protect its citizens. On January 3, 2003. the IDF seized the freighter Karine A while sailing in the Red Sea heading for Egypt from Iran, laden with weapons. The speed and covertness required for such a mission meant that only the Air Force was suitable, and CH-53 and UH-60 helicopters flew the Navy’s Flotilla 13 commandos out to sea. They deployed onto the deck and took control of the vessel 270nm (500km) from Israeli shores. As Israeli intelligence had suggested, the vessel — carrying 50 tons of arms — was ultimately bound for Gaza and for Palestinian fighters.
When the IAF flew an air strike against an Islamic Jihad training camp at Ein-Tzahab, Syria, on October 5, 2003, a brace of F-16s overflew a presidential palace on egress. The strike was carried out in response to a terrorist bombing in Haifa and was meant to send a message to the Syrian leadership to restrain client terrorist organisations. The action was memorable both as having been conducted at night and as the first bombing of a target deep inside Syria — just miles northwest of Damascus – since the months which followed the 1973 War.
Once a pariah among nations, Israel is now openly engaged because of its expertise. This communication extends to joint weapons development programmes, arms purchases and sales, professional military contacts, and joint training. An extensive programme of collaboration with Turkey has included exercises at sea and with IAF attack aircraft training on Turkey’s vast ranges relieving pressure on Israel’s own congested airspace, although Israel is equipped with excellent combat training resources. There have also been reciprocal visits involving Italy, and last year the Italian Air Force and German fighters took part in mock battles with Israelis while training over Sardinia. Participation in the annual RED FLAG exercises in the US, however, has been sporadic. All this serves to emphasise the importance Israel puts on high-quality training and the difficulty of carrying this out with such a large force in such a tiny country.
Personnel in the heavy transport squadrons are envied by others as they make more frequent flights abroad — delivering aircraft for modifications, transporting senior government officials, or carrying sensitive freight, such as weapon system purchases. However, natural disasters or massive terrorist bombings have prompted the Israeli Government to offer humanitarian aid in the form of supplies and rescue teams in recent years, and this has included flights by IAF C-130s and Boeing 707s to Armenia, India, and Africa. The 707s feature airframes fitted out with emergency medical facilities while the IAF has also sent CH-53s, fitted with underslung water dumps, to help fight fires in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus in recent years.
The IAF’s main bulk of air-to-air and offensive strike assets comprises a large number of F-15s and F-16s. There are nearly 100 F-15s formed into three squadrons made up of about 38 F-15As, six F-15Bs. 16 F-15CS, nine F-15DS. 25 F-15ls. While the world’s second largest fleet of F-16s equips nine squadrons of about 88 F-16As, 16 F-16Bs. 78 F-16Cs, 50 F-16Ds and 102 F-16ls (which are now being delivered). These numbers are likely to be whittled down by the retirement of older machines to cut operating costs. All have been modified to some extent, including the addition or substitution of indigenous equipment, to enhance their attack and self-defence capabilities. Both Phantom ( Kurnass) units have now retired their aircraft in favour of F-161s, with No.119 (The Bat Sqn) losing its F-4Es in late-2003 and 201 Sqn (The One Sqn) following it on May 12, 2004. Ageing A-4s (perhaps 50) also continue to serve in one squadron with a primary training mission. In the secondary attack mission, these elderly jets seem to serve principally as back-up weapons delivery and escort jamming platforms. A second squadron of Skyhawks, 116 ‘Flying Wing’, was retired when the unit transitioned to F-16A/BS. Some 300 or so F-4s. A-4s and Kfirs are in viable storage, mostly at Ovda in the south near Eilat as a war reserve, though with the passing of the years it becomes increasingly unrealistic that they could ever be reactivated. The skill shown in aerial engagements by IAF fighter pilots is held in high regard all over the world. As its pilots are not required to have spent four years in college gaining a degree, its cadre is fairly youthful. The older reserve pilots fly with active units so that they may pass on their knowledge and experience directly. These men — and a few women — are highly regarded and are issued with the best available as regards equipment, training and accommodation. They use excellent simulators, and fly well-maintained aircraft for a comparatively high number of hours each month.
The IAF aircraft’s self-defence systems are more frequently updated or adjusted for current threats than is usual in other air arms. They also use outstanding air-to-air missiles in the radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM and indigenous missiles like the Rafael IR-guided Python IV high off-boresight weapon, and the new Rafael Derby beyond visual range, semi-active homing missile. In some aircraft, these missiles are augmented by helmet-mounted displays. An evolution of the Python IV — the Python 5 — was recently unveiled and is expected to be acquired by the IAF in 2005. It has an imaging infra-red seeker for enhanced countermeasures discrimination and lock-on-after-launch capability for ‘full sphere’ interceptions.
In some squadrons, attack missions are enhanced by navigation/targeting pods such as the LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night), Sharpshooter, and Litening, while others employ night vision goggles (NVGs) and NVG/Head Up Displays (HUDs). Some F-16s carry the Pave Penny pod for ‘buddy lasing’ targets for other aircraft to hit with laser-guided weapons. The IAF also frequently fits its own Israeli-made radios, some with datalink capabilities.
Most recently, the fighter/bomber force has received 25 F-151s, which constitute the principal assets for long-range heavy strike. The F-151s are being augmented by the 102 F-161s (Advanced Block 52), with first deliveries taking place on February 19, 2004, and will be delivered to at least four squadrons by 2008.
Both types contain a considerable amount of Israeli EW gear — the capabilities of which are a closely-guarded secret — and can be altered without consultation with any foreign companies. Even without using their 707-based aerial tankers, F-151s can reach distant targets with substantial air-to-ground ordnance. These acquisitions are believed to have been aimed specifically at meeting such strategic threats as medium-range ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction developments in Iran and Iraq. The elimination of Iraq as a threat has not eased Israel’s perceived need to deliver decisive quantities of precision weapons on distant targets.
Israel has progressively moved from an emphasis on air-to-air combat to spending more time and money on increasing its air-to-ground proficiency in answer to the changing threat environment. This is evident not only in the latest combat aircraft acquisitions, but also in the increasing emphasis on night attack and precision strike, which has resulted in more low-level navigation with infra-red and radar pods, automatic terrain following on the F-151s and F-161s, and laser ranging and targeting assets. The IAF has bought the Americans’ Joint Attack Direct Munition (JDAM) bombs, although it has many other American and locally-produced precision-guided missiles (PGMs) to choose from with inertial, Global Positioning System (GPS), electro-optical, scene matching, and laser guidance.
The F-161s and F-151s also carry Israeli-produced decoys, stand-off glide and powered weapons, cluster munitions, penetrators, and airfield denial ordnance. It is not clear whether Israel has bought the High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and no other current radar homing missile has come to light in the Israeli inventory following the retirement of the old Standard and Shrike missiles. The ground-launched Harpy UAV is employed for loitering and for attacking radar threats. The IAF is only lacking in skill and experience when it comes to operations in adverse weather as they do not operate too regularly in such conditions.
Israel retains a manned image reconnaissance capability by means of its recce pods for F-16s and F-15s. These American and Israeli pods include state-of-the-art electronic imaging in all necessary spectra and with datalink capabilities.
Israel has a small role in the F-35 programme and it will be many years before she seriously considers a purchase. Israel is the only country to have shown interest in a two-seat variant. In reality, the IAF is equipped to meet any probable coalition of adversaries for the foreseeable future or until there are fundamental changes in the region.
In recent years, the bulk of Israel’s combat missions have been carried out by two squadrons of 55 AH-1 Cobra (equivalent to the F model) and two squadrons of 39 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Of the 85 attack missions carried out in the West Bank and Gaza in 2001, the helicopters flew 66. Most of these missions consist of missile strikes on suspected arms caches or production shops, and extra-judicial killing of individuals identified as leading terrorists. These attacks appear to have been met only by fire from light arms and perhaps a few older MANPADS (MAN Portable Air Defence Systems). No helicopters or aircrew have been reported lost in such missions for several years.
The squadron of light Hughes 500MDs was retired in the late 1990s, but the IAF has bought 15 additional AH-IFs from US Army surplus. Some will probably be used as spares sources, and the rest will probably replace attrition losses, indicating that the Bells are likely to serve for many more years yet. The ‘high end/low end’ mix with Apaches ensures that an entire fleet will not be grounded by any newly-discovered deficiency. Like the fighter aircraft, the combat ‘choppers’ are fairly frequently provided with EW and countermeasure systems upgrades with much Israeli content. As a result, the Israeli rotorcraft are probably the best equipped in this regard, though further improvements are planned.
Israel should start to receive the first of 12 AH-64D Apache Longbow aircraft in 2005 (with an option for six more which the service is struggling to exercise), and these will bring enhanced navigation and targeting capabilities.
Fixed and Rotary Wing Transport
The pull-out from southern Lebanon has lessened Israel’s large-capacity, long-range tactical transport needs, already much reduced by the final 1982 pull-out from the Sinai. Around a third of Israel’s 21 C-130 Hercules fleet has been mothballed for many years, and although now combined into a single squadron, this team is greatly respected for its depth of experience and breadth of skills. It still practises rocket-assisted short take-offs, low-altitude parachute extraction and cargo airdrops, paratroop deployments, and low-altitude ingress and egress. A few of the aircraft now have an aerial refuelling probe and a sensor ball under the nose to support special operations. The three KC-130 drogue tankers are important force-multipliers, extending the range of Sea Stallions and Blackhawks equipped with probes as well as the remaining Skyhawks.
The 14 or so Boeing 707-300s fly missions such as VIP and freight transport, airborne command and control, EW, and aerial tanking. All are commercial aircraft which have either been converted locally or with the help of American firms. The six tankers feature a mix of boom and drogue systems, and there are plans to extend the number by two airframes in 2005.
In the past, the IAF has fielded medium transports and light planes, some with Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) performance for off-field ops at forward command posts or at Israel’s many remote Army posts. Demand for these capabilities has been reduced by the development of the country and by a large fleet of helicopters. As a result, many of the older aircraft, such as the C-47s, Do 28s, Cessna U206s, and Oueen Airs, have been retired. The two Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Arava 101 and 201 still carry out some of this work, in addition to paratroop training. Some of the 25 Beech 200 King Airs are being fitted with a day/night television camera ‘ball’ under the fuselage to support surveillance over the territories, continuing the IAF’s practice of making all aircraft as ‘multi-role’ as possible. Liaison duties have been taken over by the new Beech 200s and the 21 remaining Trinidad light aircraft: this area of the service is expected to be stable for many years to come.
Transport helicopters have been updated by the addition of 49 UH-60As and S-70As over the past few years — displacing the last of the Bell 212s — and the service would like to acquire more. Economic pressures have forced the IAF to offer ten of its newer Bell 206 JetRangers and four Bell 206L Long Rangers for sale. All the remaining aircraft (about seven Bell 206/0H-58 and four Bell 206L) now support helicopter primary training, and their original operator, 125 Squadron (‘Light Helicopter Sqn’) based at Sde Dov has disbanded.
There are no current plans to replace the two squadrons of CH-53s and S-65s (about 41, some stored), which have been overhauled and upgraded to the Yas’ur 2000 standard. Further upgrades to mechanical systems are expected in the next few years to help keep them in service until 2025. The fact that a local firm was allowed to offer Brazil upgraded CH-53s drawn from the Air Force suggests that some are considered to be surplus to requirements. The aircraft are of vital importance for inserting and extracting special forces teams close to an objective not close to immediate border or coastal areas. This mission is aided by low-light television and NVG/HUD systems on some of the machines, enabling night nap-of-the-earth flight. A few of the big Sikorskys also possess a strike capability with the long-range, laser-guided Nimrod air-to-surface missiles for covert ingress to a point target.
As regards transport helicopters, the IAF has reached a state of stability, with economical and capable aircraft unlikely to see much change in coming years. Some of the Blackhawks have received external fuel tanks and aerial refuelling probes to augment their clandestine mission capabilities. The Aeromedical Evacuation Unit 669 made its first air-sea rescue from the Blackhawk on September 7, 2003, evacuating a sick passenger from a cruise ship.
Some transports serve as essential EW platforms. Some six 707s are devoted to the electronic warfare mission, with powerful signals intercept (SIGINT), electronic order-of-battle, and jamming capabilities. Two Hercules are also reported to be EW assets, although this has never been verified, either officially or via observation: a pair of CH-53s is apparently used in this capacity. Seven Arava 202s are equipped with various aerials for EW work, complementing seven RC-12s. The MoD is marketing surplus Trinidads, Aravas and 707s.
In recent years, the IAF has sought to make the work of its Flying School more efficient and economical. Pilot candidate selection has been revamped to reduce the number of students taken in and subsequently ‘washed out’. Once a hallmark of the tough IAF standards, this was proven costly and wasteful. Earlier testing in the syllabus is now performed to identify the most promising applicants and determine the role they would be best suited to. As a result, those destined for helicopters and transports now spend less time in fast jets and more in aircraft suited to their training stream. Students now spend more time doing academic work culminating in a degree, with the result that the training course has lengthened from two to three years. This is intended to compensate foran extension of compulsory pilot service from six to nine years. These fundamental changes prompted a change of name, and on July 28, 2002, the school became a Flight Academy. The IAF has long been working towards replacing old and operationally costly training aircraft. Progress was being made in late 2002 when the first of 17 Grob 120A-1s arrived to supplant the Piper Cub ab initio trainers. In a notable change to procedure, the Grobs are owned and operated by Elbit Systems under a contract that also provides instructors and all training materials. Similarly, the Oueen Airs were replaced with new King Airs in September 2002 for twin-engine and advanced transport instruction, these being seconded from 100 Squadron.
Some 40 IAF Tzukits (remanufactured Fouga Magisters) primary trainers soldier on despite the many years spent evaluating alternatives from around the world. The Grob role is to be expanded to allow a reduction in hours during the ageing Magister syllabus. Likewise, the A-4 advanced and lead-in fighter trainer, are seconded from 102 Squadron and are the last examples of the type that the service is anxious to replace.
The IAF has been considerng an aircraft that could suitably replace both Skyhawk and Magister. The short list of candidates includes the Czech L-159 while South Korea has recently offered its T-50. This is one of the few remaining major aircraft acquisitions, and a decision is not expected before 2007. If the A-4s have to go before then, F-16A/BS are likely to replace them. Other training machines are JetRangers, Blackhawks (seconded), and 14 AH-1Es. Conversion and operational training is conducted by front-line squadrons.
Now that ab initio training and other non-combat activities like the Academy, TA-4 training and helicopter primary training have been outsourced to commercial ventures, the IDF/AF is likely to adopt the same approach for other parts of the fleet.
Unmanned aircraft have undergone considerable development in recent years, and more is on the horizon. Israel has frequently led the way in UAVs and continues to be a notable innovator, supported by a considerable indigenous industry and extensive operational history. The vehicles have become indispensable for continuous low-profile surveillance and reconnaissance of sensitive areas where a manned platform would be unsuitable, too risky, or too overt. They are also used for last-minute checks for threats in advance of a strike by combat aircraft. The Air Force became the sole IDF operator of UAVs after the Intelligence Corps gave up this aspect of their operations in 2000. The IAF also operates aerostats (balloons) for border surveillance and is researching ultra-long endurance, high-altitude models.
The cornerstone of the UAV fleet is the IAI Searcher Mk 2, however the growth of these vehicles in weight, complexity and price compared to the present model has made them less cost-effective as a tactical support platform. Consequently, the ground forces began looking for a more inexpensive system for such missions as recon by frontline units. Early this year they chose Elbit’s electric-powered Skylark which can be carried and launched by a single soldier, possesses a 6.2 mile (10km) range and 1.5 hour endurance, — it also carries day-night observation systems.
The last of the old Firebees have finally gone to museums, eliminating the fast, jet-powered reconnaissance drones. Replacing them for long-range reconnaissance is the first of a larger, long-endurance species of UAV. The single-engine Silver Arrow Hermes 450S was still in development testing at the time it began operating with the IAF in 2002, and nothing on its deployment has been made public. This vehicle carries a 331lb (150kg) payload, and cruises at 20,000ft (6,100m) and 70kts for up to 20hrs.
The IAF has been seeking a true high-altitude, long-endurance UAV to allow surveillance of far-off foreign threats. The IAI programme goes by the name of Eitan and several local firms have been competing for what is expected to be a turboprop aircraft. The service is also considering armed UAVs to reduce the exposure of manned aircraft and to hit time sensitive targets. Such aircraft would be able to destroy enemy ballistic missiles, either before launch or during the boost phase.
Most of the maintenance on the transport and light aircraft fleets has been carried out by contractors for many years, and now the Israel MoD has cut costs by out-sourcing some UAV operations. In 2002 and 2003, Aerostar UAVs were maintained, launched, and recovered by their manufacturer, Aeronautics. Between launch and recovery, the vehicle was handed off to IDF operators to monitor the Gaza Strip for potential terrorist activities, logging 600 hours a month per aircraft. This approach appeared to be cost effective as such operational needs are often required at short notice and not that often. The IDF contract has since passed to IAI and its Searcher Mk 2 UAVs.
The Navy Arm
Because the Israel Air Force is responsible for all air missions and air defense, there is no Army aviation branch. The naval air mission has always been conducted by the air force with Israel Navy funding and some IN non-rated aircrew. The three IAI Sea Scan (a somewhat modified IAI 1123 Westwind) aircraft have been carrying out sea patrols since the late 1970s, but their age has made them increasingly costly to sustain. A re-engining and avionics upgrade of the Sea Scans was suggested, but fiscal realities forced this to be reduced to the avionics portion only, including a new Elta ocean surveillance radar. This should see the first revised aircraft on the apron by 2006 and service through to 2020.
Seven AS.565MA Panther maritime helicopters serve aboard three Eilat-class Sa’ar 5 guided missile corvettes with single-rotorcraft flight decks; the INS 501 Eilat, 502 Lahav, and 503 Hanit. The helos are equipped with Israeli-manufactured radar and electro-optical sensors.
The Space Dimension
The IAF is the manager and user of Israel’s reconnaissance satellite, sent in to space by its Shavit launch vehicle from Palmachim AB. The Offeq 5 spacecraft was put into orbit on May 28, 2002, to replace Offeq 3 that had served well beyond its anticipated life, and Offeq 4 whose launch vehicle exploded during boost. Offeq 5 is a 300kg (660lb) surveillance satellite with good image resolution and it is placed in a low earth orbit that periodically takes it over Syria and Iran. There are now very few deep-penetration manned aircraft photo missions — owing to formidable air defences and international reaction, but the information gathered via Offeq 5 largely makes up for this. Strategic imagery is also gathered from Israel’s commercial Eros earth resources satellite. Israel has Ofeq 6 and 7 in development along with a synthetic aperture radar spacecraft and a military communications satellite, all planned for launch within the next four years. However, these plans may be threatened by budget cuts.
The Shavit is derived from Israel’s Jericho intermediate range ballistic missile with nuclear warheads. Although still shrouded in secrecy and denial, it appears that the IAF operates some 150 Jericho I and Jericho II missiles in buried shelters near Tel Nof AB. These complement aircraft-delivered unconventional weapons.
The Green Team
IAF personnel share the same uniform and rank structure as the rest of the IDF, and all are simply referred to as ‘soldiers’. However, the missions of air defence and in support of ground operations beyond the boundary fence is the responsibility of the Air Defence Corps (ADC). Equipped with anti-aircraft guns, radar and missiles, the ADC is completely subordinate to the air force.
On October 16, 2000, the first of two new Arrow anti-ballistic missile system batteries were brought into operation, and a third is planned. It has been developed and manufactured in Israel, and is the only such capability active anywhere aside from Russian systems. It is intended to deal with Syrian Scud-D and Iranian Shahab-3 IRBMs.
Upgrades and Replacements
The IAF has afforded the purchase of its latest weapon systems partly by spending American aid funds several years in advance. Naturally, US aid money must usually be spent on American products, which rather limits the choice. Deficit spending and the present budget constraints have made additional acquisitions difficult to achieve. Only a settlement with Syria and the expected billions in US grants as compensation offers any hope of overcoming this problem. However, there appears little likelihood of a rapprochement with Syria in the present political climate. As a consequence, the aim to improve air force equipment has tended to be problematic and protracted. All of the C-130s are decades old. Although the IAF looked at buying new C-130Js along with C-27s, or participating in the USAF’s C-130 Avionics Modernization Program, it appears that money was too tight to support either option. Instead, a more modest, locally-developed avionics upgrade will be carried out by IAI over the next few years. This may apply only to the H models, while the Es are stored and sold off. The aircraft are also being fitted with NVG/HUD systems. The 707s are also quite old and Israel has been hoping to replace them. Many of the missions of this fleet are being moved to other platforms, leaving mainly the tanker and VIP tasks for which Boeing 767 and Airbus 320 airframes have been considered. The cost of replacing all of these airframes means that the task could take 20 years to achieve. Consequently, it was economical to re-engine those Boeings still operating turbojets with the turbofans seen on the other examples. Surplus KC-135 flying booms are being bought to replace the local product: the first one appears on a sixth tanker, which was recently converted from a freighter.
Over the next year or two, the 707’s SIGINT role will be taken over by a few Gulfstream Vs (renamed G550) Special Electronic Mission Aircraft with Israeli systems. The airborne early warning mission, presumably assumed by some 707-based system after the four E-2Cs were withdrawn in 1994, will be taken up by G550s platforms. These will be extensively modified with Phalcon phased-array radar for delivery later in the decade. Under development by IAI and Gulfstream, this has been dubbed the Compact Airborne Early Warning aircraft (see Israel News). It will feature a tail radome, enlarged nose radome, and extensive fuselage fairings, plus a ‘forest’ of other antennae. Four G550s are on order with an option for another pair. Some of these aircraft are expected to be configured for ELINT and COMINT missions.
One or more aircraft with synthetic aperture/moving target indicator radar, akin to the American E-8C, is also being considered to track low-flying cruise missiles in addition to cross-border surveillance. This programme may not come to fruition until the end of the decade. The tanker mission, along with the airborne C3 function, should be met by the baseline 707 replacement. However, this may not happen until early in the next decade by which time the new American and European tanker developments should be reaching maturity. All these missions will be enhanced by increasing the speed and volume of tactical data transfer between users in network-centric operations. An important consequence would be a reduction in the sensor-to-shooter loop time.
The F-15 Aircraft Upgrade Program will be completed this year. It encompasses the integration of an AIM-120 AMRAAM capability on all F-15s as well as a means for employing PGMs. The IAF may consider a similar undertaking for its F-16 fleet, if the money can be found. For the time being, it is still expected that the Skyhawks will serve through to 2010. Consequently, another avionics upgrade programme is underway to ensure these old mounts can continue as lead-in fighter platforms, enhancing their effectiveness and cutting operational costs. The upgrade will also improve all-weather fighter training. The IAF has announced its intention to install locally-developed airbags in the Sea Stallions and Blackhawks to reduce casualties in the event of a crash.
Keeping Its Edge
Meeting the realities of its second half-century, the Israel Air Force remains one of the best-equipped and trained air forces in the world. However, the United States and other NATO forces have surpassed the IAF’s claim that it is the most combat experienced. The Israelis have not fought against an opposing air force, engaged an integrated air defense system, or supported large-scale combined arms operations against an opposing military in over 20 years. (The last known air-to-air kill occurred in 1985, save for rumoured twin Syrian MiG-29 downings on September 14, 2001.) Yet the proficiency of its personnel, the potency of its arsenal, and the efficacy of its tactics in its comparatively limited theatre are held in the highest regard worldwide.