2015 came to a close with the decommissioning of the veteran "Ayit" (A-4 Skyhawk) aircraft after more than forty years in IAF service. Initially, the "Ayit" was a front-line fighter that played a major role in the Yom-Kippur War (1973) and other conflicts. Toward the end of its service, it was used primarily as an advanced trainer at the IAF Flying School. 2016 will come to a close with the delivery of the first "Adir" (F-35) fighters – the world's most advanced fighter aircraft which constitutes a war machine in its own right.
What happened in the IAF in the last year and what are the challenges facing IAF in the coming year? In order to answer these questions, we should take a quick look at the occurrences and developments that were relevant to IAF in the various theaters.
In the Gaza Strip there have been no significant changes. Apparently, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations continue to test their operational limits by "dripping" sporadic rocket launchers at Israeli settlements. In the Sinai Peninsula, ISIS presence is growing and the cooperation between ISIS and Hamas is intensifying. No one doubts the motivation of the Islamic State organization's affiliates in the Sinai and their willingness to try and attack Israel as well, but they concentrate on the fight against the Egyptian Army that employs ground troops, fighter aircraft and attack helicopters which all operate very close to the Israeli border. For this purpose, Israel allowed Egypt to digress from the military attachment of the peace agreement. The expansion of ISIS is not necessarily successive, and its affiliates or the organizations identified with it pop up in other sectors as well.
The northern theater has been drawing a lot of attention and interest in the course of the last year. In the territory formerly known as Syria, the forces of the Syrian Army and the various organizations and groups continued to deliver blows at one another without reaching overbalance. Hezbollah, taking an active part in the fighting and shedding a lot of blood in the process, has not abandoned its efforts to continue strengthening and improving its operational capabilities vis-à-vis Israel, in preparation for the next round of hostilities.
The air operation against the Islamic State, conducted by the forces of the western coalition led by the USA, continues at intermediate intensity. During the last quarter of the year, a dramatic change has taken place when the Russians entered the scene very aggressively. The Russian involvement, whose primary interest is keeping the Syrian President in power, has changed the balance of power and established a new system of restrictions and tensions. Justifiably, Prime Minister Netanyahu, accompanied by the IDF Chief of Staff and Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, promptly travelled to Russia for the purpose of establishing strategic and operative coordination.
In the more distant circle, Iran is currently reaping the fruits of the nuclear agreement. One of the obvious disadvantages of that agreement is the fact that it does not address the blatant intervention by Iran in various regions and its encouragement and support of terrorism. The recent trial of a ballistic missile by Iran, which violates the terms of the agreement, has taught us that it will continue to test its operational boundaries and expand them when it has found an opportunity to do so.
A review of notable events that occurred within the IAF in 2015 shows that the characteristics of the use of force have not changed in the last year. IAF constituted the preferred tool for the use of force owing to its unique capabilities, including the ability to accurately hit enemy targets while inflicting minimum collateral damage and the ability to respond promptly while generating a minimum amount of friction. The actual implementation of these capabilities is associated, quite naturally, with intelligence gathering capabilities.
At the beginning of last year, the cadets of the IAF Flying School flew the new "Lavi" (M-346) advanced trainer for the first time. These new trainers have gradually replaced the veteran "Ayit" (A-4) trainers. The capabilities and performance characteristics of the new trainer aircraft, which closely resemble those of the IAF's operational aircraft, will optimally prepare the cadets for their transition to the operational world.
The IDF Chief of Staff awarded IAF Unit 669 and the Iron Dome battalion with citations for their outstanding performance during Operation Protective Edge. This ceremonial event effectively reflected the broadest sense of the term "air power" as it is conceived by IAF.
Two specific events demonstrated the potential of the IAF's long arm and its capability to deploy and operate in remote regions. First – the airlifting of the Israeli humanitarian aid teams to Nepal pursuant to the earthquake last April (the new "Samson" C-130J Super Hercules transporters spearheaded this effort. Last year, the third "Samson" was assimilated by IAF.) Second – a joint training exercise with USAF was conducted in the USA, in the context of which IAF "Re'em" (Boeing 707) transporters broke two records: one – the longest flight and the other – the highest number of airborne refueling cycles.
The joint exercise with USAF, along with two similar events, effectively demonstrated the importance assigned by IAF to the development of strategic and operative cooperative alliances with other air forces. The first was a mutual signing by IAF and USAF of a strategic document that actually intensified and enhanced the cooperative alliance between the two air forces. The other event involved the deployment of IAF aircraft to Greece, where a joint exercise was conducted with the Hellenic Air Force. These events clarified once again how IAF is conceived by other air forces and the cooperation potential that stems from that. In a conference held last year at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel described the inflow of visitors coming to learn and gain a first-hand impression of the experience and know-how gained by IAF in its various fields of activity, which is another evidence of the importance of such cooperative alliances.
Last October, IAF completed the assimilation of the new state-of-the-art Unmanned Aerial Vehicle "Kochav" (Hermes 900). The "Kochav", possessing enhanced endurance and an improved carrying capacity, had its Baptism by Fire during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, even before its operational assimilation was completed. This demonstrated, once again, the close cooperation between the Israeli defense industry and IAF – which constitutes an additional and highly important tier in the strength of the air force.
The Next Generation is on the Way
In the coming year, the IAF will continue to conduct the on-going operations in the south and in the north while employing its offensive and defensive capabilities in order to provide the political echelon with maximum latitude. The defensive potential of the IAF will further improve following the assimilation of the David's Sling system.
The importance of the coordination opposite Russia can be appreciated against the background of the serious incident where the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter aircraft. Nevertheless, IAF will be required to exercise extreme caution in its future operations, owing to the enhanced sensitivity and the increased density of the relevant airspace.
The IAF will be required to continue developing its abilities to cooperate with the other arms, based on the understanding that in the complex operations where a more decisive overbalance is required, the required level of interoperability will be very high. All of the enemies and opponents of Israel understand the central role played by IAF and will do their best to disrupt its operation in diversified ways, like acquiring new air-defense systems, attacking IAF airbases and attempting to damage its command and control systems. Consequently, one of the primary challenges will be maintaining operational continuity.
The expected entrance into operational service of the new "Adir" fighters will have a strategic, operative and tactical significance. From a strategic perspective, the introduction of these fighters will open a significant gap between IAF and the opponent air forces and demonstrate even more clearly the solid alliance between Israel and the USA. The fact that the Turkish Air Force will also acquire these fighters will not diminish this strategic significance. The "Adir" fighter is a war machine capable of executing a complete offensive operation independently, without requiring any supporting elements. The first two "Adir" fighters will land in Israel in December 2016 and the OrBat would be complemented over the course of the two following years. This war machine will play a major role in providing solutions to the challenges the IAF is expected to face in the future.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ephraim Segoli is the Head of the A-Symmetrical Conflict Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies and the former Commandant of IAF Palmahim airbase