The Israel Air Force/Defence Force transport fleet is undergoing rationalisation and re-organisation, as Shlomo Aloni explains.
AIR TRANSPORT and support operations have soared in importance over the last two decades as the shape of warfare has been transformed. Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) and power projection require considerably more support resources than a traditional conflict with a clear Forward Line Of Troops (FLOT). Despite a traditional approach to allocate considerably more resources to ‘frontline’ units, these developments have not gone unnoticed by the Israel Defence Force/Air Force (IDF/AF). In fact the two IDF/AF manned aircraft units that accumulate the highest number of flight hours during the ongoing LIC between Israel and the Palestinians are both Transport Force squadrons.
IDF/AF Transport Force
Traditionally in the shadow of the ‘shooting’ units, the IDF/AF Transport Force has considerably diversified its operational repertoire over the past 30 years. Transport no longer accounts for most of its missions. The IDF/AF Transport Force which currently operates from Lod air base some 10 miles (15km) east of Tel Aviv and Sde Dov air base at the northern outskirts of Tel Aviv, routinely flies communication relay, ELectronic INTelligence (ELINT), IMagery INTelligence (IMINT). In-Flight Refuelling (IFR) and maritime patrol missions. The Force consists of six squadrons, which by the end of 2005 will operate eight types of aircraft, ranging from small single piston-engined liaison airplanes to large four-engined jet transports.
Over the rest of the decade, the IDF/AF Transport Force will undergo its biggest transformation in more than 30 years — or the most significant change ever, according to senior IDF/AF officers. The changes will cover both aircraft and infrastructure. At the other end of the scale, an almost complete force modernisation will be completed this year, and at the same time modernisation process of the heavy transport fleet is set to gather momentum, via the introduction of a new type and the start of two upgrade projects.
The Transport Force’s infrastructure leap was launched on June 24, 2004, when the Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz laid the foundation of the new transport facility at Nevatim air base. The IDF/AF heavy transport aircraft are to be transferred from Lod to Nevatim in line with the Israeli Government decision to relocate military installations to the periphery and as part of the ongoing IDF/AF process to strengthen the Negev Desert air bases. Nevatim is currently the home of a fighter wing and the air base will more than double in capacity when the transport aircraft move in during 2008 and 2009. The cost of the project is estimated at $350 million and Lod air base will be handed over to the Israeli Treasury by December 31, 2009. Work at Nevatim began in January 2005 and will cover infrastructure (electricity, fuel, water and communication), construction of two runways, aprons, a maintenance centre, a terminal, operational buildings and administrative buildings. A new entrance from the south will complement the current one from the north and Nevatim will be linked to a railway line. When the move from Air Base (AB) 27 at Lod to the Negev is complete, Nevatim’s status will change from a Wing to an Air Base.
Re’em Heavy Transport
Lod air base at the northeast corner of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport (BGN) is home to the IDF/AF Transport Force heavy and medium airlifters. Three types of transport aircraft currently operate from Lod — down from five types at the beginning of the decade, though a fourth type is soon to be introduced. Known as the Heavy Transport Wing (HTW), there are four flying squadrons at Lod.
The International Transport Squadron (ITS) operates the Boeing 707 Re’em (Ram), which has dominated the IDF/AF heavy lift scene since 1973. The turbofan-engined 707-300 model succeeded the initial 707-100s, though a few turbojet 707-300s are still in service. In-Flight Refuelling (IFR) conversion is an ongoing process and the latest boom-equipped examples were re-delivered to IDF/AF service in January 2004 (Re’em 290) and in June 2004 (Re’em 264). The same year, the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MoD) Slyoah BITchoni (SIBAT) — Defence Support — agency offered for sale Re’em 140 Salat Yarok (Green Salad) 1, the first IDF/AF 707 tanker to enter IDF/AF service as a tanker in 1983 following conversion by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI). Though the IDF/AF has an ever-increasing demand for IFR services, economics prevailed as Re’em 140 was the only IDF/AF 707 tanker still powered by Pratt & Whitney (P&W) JT4A-11 turbojets. The IDF/AF launched an in-house Re’em re-engining project to replace the JT4A-11 turbojets with P&W JT3D-3B turbofans, which power most of the IDF/AF Re’em fleet, but the project was scrapped after the first conversion — to Re’em 128 — was accomplished.
The number of worldwide operational military 707s is shrinking and the IDF/AF would love to purchase a modern replacement. However, there is no doubt that the Re’em will continue to serve it well. In fact, the IDF/AF has embraced the Boeing phrase ‘aging aircraft can fly forever’: when it comes to aging aircraft, the main criterion is economy — operating costs increase with age. Upgrading cuts day-to-day spending but the investment must also be analysed to calculate if the overall impact is indeed positive. As part of this trade-off between modernity, functionality and affordability, the IDF/AF looked at — and rejected — the Re’em CFM56 re-engining, but will soon launch a Re’em avionics upgrade project.
Karnaf Medium Transport
Two HTW squadrons — the Elephants Squadron (ES) and the Yellow Bird Squadron (YBS) — operate a pool of Lockheed C-130 Karnaf (Rhinoceros) medium transport aircraft. Maintenance of the whole HTW fleet is contracted to IAI, conveniently located to the south of Lod air base. The IAI service support package ranges from A-Level line maintenance to D-Level overhauls plus IFR conversions and special mission modifications. However IAI’s contract expires this year and the IDF/AF is to build its own maintenance complex at Nevatim to outsource the actual A-Level and B-Level work to a commercial contractor, whether this be IAI or another supplier.
Karnaf deliveries began in 1971 and totalled 24 examples in three configurations (C-130E, C-130H and KC-130H) by 1976. Budget cuts impacted the Karnaf squadrons twice in the last two decades, but a senior IDF/AF Transport Force officer reassured AFM that the Karnaf force level has now stabilized and no further changes are planned.
The aircraft is becoming more and more expensive to operate but the C-130J is far too expensive to be affordable. As a result, a Karnaf upgrade is top priority and the key elements have already been defined — structural work to preserve safety, and an avionics upgrade to enhance operational capabilities. The latter is also viewed as having an impact on maintenance costs and safety. The IDF/AF noticed that the malfunction rate of C-130 flight instruments was alarmingly high. The consequent higher maintenance costs are only one side of the coin — the other is that faulty instruments can lead to accidents.
Former commander of the ES, Colonel Eden, told AFM: «The understanding that we will have to soldier on with the Re’em and Karnaf platforms has dawned on us. We realize that there is no dramatic IFR leap beyond the 707 tanker, and nor does the C-130J represent a new aircraft, only a new model. We therefore have to secure the structural integrity of the airframes and to support this work with adequate avionics upgrade.»
Karnaf upgrade will encompass structural work and an avionics update. The IDF/AF is closely watching the USAF Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) C-130 upgrade project, as well as local offers by Elbit Systems and IAI. Joining the USAF AMP will have the economy of scale as well as US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) funding, but the IDF/AF has always been keen to fully exploit the ingenuity of local industry that relies heavily upon the IDF/AF’s own operational experience. A decision is expected this year, with a prototype due to fly by 2007 or 2008 and upgrade project completion scheduled for early in the next decade.
In the third transport tier, the Raytheon Beechcraft B200 Tsofit (Sunbird) is now the dominant platform. The TsoM 1 entered IDF/AF service in 1990 but the bulk of the fleet is completely new: B200T Tsofit 2 deliveries began in 2000 and were followed by the first B200CT Tsofit 3 in 2002 and the first B200 Tsofit 5 in 2003. Deliveries of the first six Tsofit batches were completed in 2004, while batch seven will cover additional IMINT platforms to augment the Tsofit 3. The Flying Camel Squadron (FCS) and the King Air Squadron (KAS) fly the Tsofit fleet out of Sde Dov. This historic Israeli aviation site was opened in 1938. but has been under constant threat from urban development and an ongoing plan (though dating back to the 1970s) to build an alternative Tel Aviv City airport on Mediterranean Sea reclamation territory off the Tel Aviv coastline.
Colonel Eden told us: «Sde Dov is a Homeland Security Wing, and 60% of its flight hours are operational Homeland Security missions. The location within the urban environment of Tel Aviv creates friction between the operational base and the surrounding calm of the city. This does not adversely affect our operational readiness but adds to the complexity of day-to-day life at the base. The LIC between Israel and the Palestinians triggered the IDF/AF to evolve from a support ‘contractor’ into a ‘true partner’ in IDF combined operations.
Sde Dov’s annual utilization is measured in tens of thousands of flight hours to give the outsider a measure of the activity.» Sde Dov’s aircraft maintenance is not contracted as is the maintenance of the HTW aircraft, but from 2003 Sde Dov A-Level spare parts supply for the Beechcrafts has been contracted to a commercial supplier. The IDF/AF no longer has to stock spare parts, as the commercial contractor supplying required parts on demand and under pre-defined timeframes. A-Level and B-Level maintenance are in-house activities, while D-Level maintenance, that the Sde Dov aircraft average every seven or eight years, is contracted to Arkia, conveniently sited across the fence on the civil side of Sde Dov.
The FCS has traditionally been the IDF/AF observation squadron, or IMINT in today’s parlance. A round-the-clock presence in support of the IDF LIC effort is the domain of the Flying Camel Sqn (FCS): roughly 80% of its activities are operational IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) missions the remaining flight hours being devoted to training for warfare scenarios other than LIC. A remnant of the observation age is the Dornier Do 28 Aqur (Crane): the FCS still flies this veteran platform, which entered IDF/AF service in 1971. The Aqur was scheduled to retire a few years ago but the LIC between Israel and the Palestinians injected a new lease of life into the odd-looking, but extremely efficient, aircraft. Flying alongside the Aqur under the FCS banner are the Tsofit 1, Tsofit 2 and Tsofit 3, so it is reasonable to assume that the planned IMINT Tsofit Batch 7 purchase is actually a FCS Aqur replacement to standardize the IDF/AF twin-engine light transport fleet around the B200 platform, though the official view is that the Aqur will continue to fly for as long as possible without major investments such as D-Level maintenance. The IDF/AF ongoing purchase of IMINT aircraft is not in line with the more fashionable worldwide Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) IMINT trend.
Colonel Eden told AFM: «Tsofit IMINT purchase was originally aimed at warfare scenarios other than LIC. The UAV’s advantages are the ability to fly risky missions and high endurance. It is perhaps rather strange but the IMINT aircraft’s greatest advantage is human presence on board the platform, which adds flexibility to maximize the output and increase survivability. Technology may close the gap as reflected by IDF/AF UAV purchase plans but we will retain our IMINT aircraft capability.»
Also based at Sde Dov is the King Air Sqn (KAS), which enjoys brand new facilities — in the form of the apron and squadron building — to the north of the FCS compound. The KAS was activated in 1974 as a FCS offshoot to separate the FCS’ observation and transport tasks. Over the years, it has moved into the field of special missions to add ‘colour’ to the dull image of the transport task, with the result that nowadays it is promoted as the Sde Dov ELINT unit while the FCS is the IMINT unit, though there is a measure of overlap between the two sister squadrons.
Today the KAS operates three versions of the B200 platform, including the Tsofit 3 and the Tsofit 5. The latter is the IDF/AF B200’s utility version, which also doubles as a trainer for both undergraduate and postgraduate training. For the former, the KAS supplies Tsofit 5 flight hours to the IDF/AF Academy, while as a postgraduate training platform the Tsofit succeeded the IAI Arava in the Transport Force Operational Training Unit (OTU) mission from Fiscal Year (FY) 2004 Term 1 (the IDF/AF divides the FY into two Terms: Term 1 from January to June and Term 2 from July to December). KAS activity is generally divided into 50% intelligence gathering missions, 30% training (Academy flight hours and OTU courses) and 20% transport.
Although it does not fly transport aircraft in the strictest sense, the KAS flies a liaison fleet that traditionally is an integral element of the IDF/AF Transport Force. The Beech name has conquered this department, the A36 Bonanza having been introduced in December 2004. Dubbed Hofit (Stint), the Bonanza will shortly replace the SOCATA TB20 Pashosh (Warbler), which only entered IDF/AF service in 1995, with the bulk of deliveries following in 1996. To set the record straight, the Bonanza was selected in 1990 as the IDF/AF’s next liaison aircraft but the decision was reversed in 1994 when the Pashosh was preferred, it being a cheaper alternative!
A number of special missions are flown by the IDF/AF Transport Force’s assets described thus far, but there are also three dedicated special mission platforms — the RC-12D/K Kookiya (Cuckoo), the IAI 1124N Shahaf (Seagull) and the Gulfstream V Nachshon (Pioneer).
The Kookiya entered KAS service in November 1984 when delivery of RC-12Ds was initiated, with the RC-12Fs following in May 1991. The SIGnals INTelligence (SIGINT) Kookiya is one of the lowest-profile IDF/AF assets, like the ELINT Boeing 707s operated by the ITS. Three of the last four remaining IDF/AF JT4A-11 turbojet-powered 707s were special mission aircraft (Re’em 120, 128 and 137). The embarkation upon a re-engining project so late in the platform’s service career can only emphasize the operational importance of these ‘cheeky’ 707s but replacement is now imminent. The hand-over of the first ‘green’ Nachshon SIGINT platform was made on June 26 and it will be equipped in Israel with the Elta EL/l-3001 SIGINT system, the Nachshon introduction process is expected to span a few years so that by the time the operating unit — the Dakota Squadron (DS) which flew the C-47 until 2001 and the Arava until 2004 — is declared operational, the HTW will already be based at Nevatim. The IDF/AF plans to follow the Nachshon SIGINT with a Compact Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) Nachshon version, which will be eguipped with the Elta EL/W-2085 system, though no firm contract has yet been placed.
The Shahaf Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) is owned by the Israeli Navy, though it is operated by the IDF/AF Transport Force’s ITS. Although the IDF/AF promoted a Tsofit MPA version — presumably the Tsofit 4 — as a Shahaf replacement with the added benefit of fleet commonality, the Israeli Navy rejected this scheme. This rejection was based on the analysis that a higher number of Tsofit MPA would be required to cover the same maritime patrol area as three faster Shahafs. MPA speed is crucial in certain scenarios so the Tsofit’s lower speed was cited as a major operational drawback. Upgraded with the Elta EL/M-2022 Maritime Surveillance Radar (MSR), the Shahafs are expected to soldier on, even though the IDF/AF is evaluating the prospects of UAV MPA platforms. The current Israeli MPA issue is whether to relocate the Shahaf fleet to Nevatim together with the HTW. Logistics dictate that the Shahafs will join the Boeings, Lockheeds and Gulfstreams at Nevatim, but this desert base is much further inland than Lod. Operationally, the Israeli Navy may prefer to base the aircraft at Ramat David beside the Eurocopter AF 565MA Atalef (Bat) maritime helicopters and much closer to the Navy’s principal port at Haifa.
Transport Force Road Map
HTW relocation from Lod to Nevatim is the main process, which will occupy most of the IDF/AF Transport Force’s resources in the remaining years of this decade. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this move injected new life into the stalled Sde Dov relocation plans. Property value is much higher and profit prospects are much brighter there so shrewd commercial entrepreneurs are already promoting a new scheme — to reclaim land from the Mediterranean Sea to relocate Sde Dov’s commercial activity and move the IDF/AF air base into the vacuum created at Lod by the relocation of AB27 to Nevatim. Such a scheme will also put an end to the current debate about the Shahafs relocation, but it is bound to be opposed by the Israeli Airports Authority (IAA), the Israeli Civil Aviation Administration (ICAA), the airlines operating at BGN, and possibly even IAI. It is one thing to operate HTW aircraft beside narrow-body and wide-body airliners but a completely different ball-game to integrate airliners with General Aviation types such as those operated by the Sde Dov squadrons. Furthermore Sde Dov’s move to AB27 will significantly increase traffic at BGN, create severe safety hazards, and put paid to IAI’s aspirations to annex at least a portion of the vacated AB27 land. Overall, Sde Dov’s move to Lod sounds like a totally illogical plan, though entrepreneurs have proved in the past that it is possible to realize even the craziest schemes — even if they only produce ‘white elephants’, regretted by everyone except those who made a profit.
Running in parallel with the Nevatim relocation project are several programmes to upgrade the HTW assets, introduce new top-of-the-line special mission platforms and standardize the light transport fleet with Beech products. The IDF/AF Transport Force may have suffered setbacks in the past but under the current road map it has reached one of the most significant points in its history.