In an underground pen at Tel-Nof airbase we are introduced to "O'ach" (Eagle-Owl) – an upgraded, single-seat F-15 (IAF designation "Baz") fighter standing opposite us in the readiness pen, painted gray, bright and shiny as it has just received its monthly shower. "A war machine" is how Lt. R., a young F-15 pilot, refers to the aircraft, almost caressing it, pointing out the weaponry systems of this twin-engine fighter one by one: "This is the cannon and the drum, which holds 250 lethal rounds. You can suspend a bomb on the belly pylon. This is a Radar-guided missile and that is a station for a heat-seeking missile." There are other munitions that should remain nameless. Two CFT conformal fuel tanks are attached to the fuselage. These external conformal tanks provide a considerable extension to the operational range of the F-15, which even without those tanks has the longest range of all IAF fighters.
This characteristic, the extended operational range, provided the inspiration for the motto of the IAF's 106th ("Spearhead") Squadron, which flies upgraded F-15C/D "Baz" fighters: "No Place is Too Far." This motto is emblazoned even on the rear windows of the Squadron officers' cars. The 106th Squadron currently flies single-seat F-15C fighters and two-seat F-15D fighters. These are the latest variants in the IAF's fleet of F-15 "Baz" fighters – long-serving aircraft. The upgraded F-15 fighters came into the world in the 1990s, and today the Squadron flies the latest blocks. According to the Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. A., "The latest block is in no way inferior to the F-15I 'Ra'am' fighters. It comes very close to the F-15I. The platform is the same. Admittedly, the F-15I fighters are 25 years younger, but the equipment, the avionics and the armament of the upgraded F-15C/D fighters are new and modern. Many of the systems are the prime products of the Israeli defense industries."
The 106th Squadron has a long history that can easily fill a rich heritage room. It was established in its initial configuration in 1948, as a transport squadron flying Curtiss C-46 Commando and Douglas C-54 Skymaster aircraft. As an F-15 squadron, it was reestablished in 1982, immediately following the First Lebanon War. In fact, the opening day of the new squadron had been scheduled for June 6, 1982, but Operation Peace for Galilee started on that day, and the official inauguration of the 106th Squadron had to be delayed. During the First Lebanon War, the Squadron recorded a first victory – the shooting-down of a Syrian MiG-25 aircraft. It was the combined accomplishment of a couple of HAWK missiles launched from the ground and a pair of F-15 fighters that "closed the deal" and completed the mission. Later that month (June 1982), the Squadron's pilots shot down a Syrian MiG-23 fighter and in 1985 the 106th Squadron shot down two Syrian MiG-23 fighters. This is the kill record of the Squadron. On August 3, 1994, the Squadron was honored by being assigned a very special mission – three F-15 "Baz" fighters provided the official escort for the aircraft of King Hussein of Jordan when he arrived on his first visit to Israel following the signature of the peace agreement. The King flew his Royal Tristar jet himself with three "Baz" fighters leading him to the landing on Israeli soil.
The Israeli Air Force currently operates five fighter platform types: the F-16 "Barak" (various models), the upgraded F-15C/D "Baz," the F-15I "Ra'am," the F-16I "Sufa" and the F-35 "Adir." The upgraded F-15C/D "Baz" is an upgraded old platform, but it occupies pride of place among the other platforms as this fighter possesses some unique capabilities, enabling it to perform specialized missions.
The Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. A., lists the Squadron's missions: "During peacetime, we are hard at work training young pilots, maintaining the competence of established pilots in regular and reserve service and performing an extensive range of routine security and readiness missions. Our uniqueness, however, shines in specialized missions. This aircraft can reach the longest ranges with a carrying capacity like no other in the IAF and with the longest endurance in very long flights. I must stress that there are missions that only the F-15 can perform as far as the range and the delivery of air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance to the targets are concerned."
The Squadron Commander explains that originally, the F-15 had been designed for interception, air combat, air superiority and national airspace defense missions. However, during the past 15 years, the aircraft was also adapted to attack ground targets. It was fitted with air-to-ground capabilities and there are future plans for the assimilation of state-of-the-art air-to-ground weapon systems. "The range of the aircraft was extended, as was its ability to carry a substantial amount of ordnance to long ranges, flying at high altitudes. That is why the 'Baz' occupies a position at the forefront of the IAF's strike fighter fleet, and the IAF expects us to perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions." This includes attacks against targets along the borders in the north and the south, and the people of the 106th Squadron will remind you that the time it takes to fly from Tel-Nof to Gaza is only five minutes. The Squadron takes part in attacks against targets in the Gaza Strip in response to escalation or in the context of initiated operational strikes. For this purpose, the Squadron maintains a routine of readiness in anticipation of any confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
What about air combat? The IAF must have complete generations of pilots who never experienced an air combat encounter.
Lt. Col. A.: "We must not assume that air combat encounters between our fighters and enemy fighters will never take place again. We must not say that this cannot be expected. We should prepare for everything. The countries around us have state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, and they are acquiring more and more aircraft. It is always our duty to assume that we may be called upon to act. So this squadron, like other fighter squadrons, trains and practices air-to-air tactics and techniques just as we practice air-to-ground tactics and techniques. We practice long-range interception and intensive, crowded dog-fights.
"Air combat training contributes a lot to the pilot – it improves his flying skills, helps him make decisions very promptly, within split seconds, and teaches the pilot to operate his aircraft in an optimal manner. We must conduct ourselves in this way and never neglect the air combat competence, even if the chances of an air combat encounter taking place look slim."
The "Spearhead" Squadron has been an active participant in the IAF's international activity – cooperation with foreign air forces. Upgraded F-15 "Baz" fighters participated in the last major international exercise, Blue Flag 2017, and in training activities and exercises with other air forces, both near and far. The Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. A., tells us he had personally participated in training activities in Turkey, the USA, Canada, Italy, France and other countries. According to him, this activity provides important and effective practice that contributes to the strategic thinking of the aircrews, creates a common language with colleagues overseas and mainly teaches the Squadron's people to fly and operate in foreign countries and unfamiliar territories, to communicate and speak in a foreign language.
How do you fly an F-15 to the USA?
"The method is simple: you refuel in the air and stop along the way. The flight consists of three legs with two interim landings and airborne refueling by a Boeing-707 "Re'em" tanker that accompanies us. We adapt our speed to the slower speed of the tanker aircraft, so the flight from Tel-Nof to the USA takes between 13 and 14 hours."
Effective Intelligence Collection Capabilities
The 106th Squadron consists of an extensive range of personnel – from young pilots and navigators just out of the IAF Flying School to veteran reservists. A fighter pilot who had successfully graduated from the IAF Flying School spends a whole year of advanced training flying the "Lavi" advanced jet trainer at Hatzerim airbase, and only then comes to the 106th Squadron. Another year of conversion and specialized training – and only then will he/she qualify as an operational pilot. In all, five years pass since the day he/she had joined the IDF to the day he/she becomes an operational fighter pilot. Another group at the Squadron is known as the EP (Emergency Posting) group. This group consists of veteran senior officers, of different ages, who serve in staff or training positions and come to the Squadron once a week to fly and maintain their competence. The third group consists of the reservists – highly experienced pilots, some of which are formation leaders. "The Squadron cannot go to war without the reservists," says the Squadron Commander, and immediately goes on to elaborate about the ground crews, the female troopers (of whom there are many at the Squadron) and the blue-coverall clad men of the technical section: "The real heart and strength of the Squadron are the men of the technical squadron. In our Squadron, that section consists of more than a hundred men and women plus dozens of reservists. They include officers and NCO, some of whom have established themselves as high-grade professional knowledge sources. They are all top-notch professionals, youngsters who spend all of their time, morning till night, in the underground pens, maintaining and arming the aircraft. These people live and breathe the Squadron."
A major portion of the technical section's work is done by female troopers, who account for about 40% of the organizational level technicians of the section. The IAF was smart enough to make the necessary adaptations to make the physical chores in the underground pens easier. To help the female technicians avoid lifting missiles and bombs and carrying pipes and ladders, the Squadron has more electrical armament trollies, mechanical armament lifting devices and wheeled fuel pipes. The female technicians serving in the technical section include regular servicewomen who serve in the underground pens and supervise the departing sorties at the aircraft line. The female presence among the aircrews has increased, too. There are female combat navigators at the Squadron, and the first female deputy squadron commander in the Squadron's history has been appointed to that position just recently.
The role of the navigator (system operator) in the rear cockpit of an upgraded F-15 "Baz" fighter has changed radically since the days of the F-4 Phantom (IAF designation "Kurnas") fighters, when the navigator was actually using maps, and his primary role was to navigate and get the aircraft to the target. At most, the navigator was also charged with the operation of a basic Radar system. Today, the navigator is regarded as a co-pilot of sorts, a full partner in the execution of the mission, and he has the exclusive responsibility for one particular activity – operating the guided munitions carried by the aircraft. Lt. Col. A. says that "Optically guided smart bombs are steered to the target by the navigator. He is another brain and another pair of eyes and ears on board the aircraft. That includes intelligence collection and strike missions, too. The F-15 'Baz' aircraft possesses intelligence collection capabilities, possibly not on the same level as those of the F-35, but they are available and effective nevertheless."
One very special bunch within the Squadron is made up of the formation leaders – the air warriors found to be suitable, then selected and trained to command and lead fighter formations. Formation leaders are required to possess excellent flying skills – they should be good pilots rated within the upper median, they should want and be able to command and conduct briefing and debriefing sessions before and after sorties and operations. The character traits formation leaders should possess are charisma, personal acceptance among their peers at the squadron and a decision-making capability. Every fighter pilot must be able to make decisions promptly, but a formation leader is responsible not just for his own aircraft, but for a formation of four aircraft manned by pilots and navigators. He must know everything that takes place in every cockpit under his command.
This is the hierarchy in a formation of four aircraft: the formation leader is number one. Number 3 in the formation is a section leader and the deputy of the formation leader. Aircraft No.2 and aircraft No.4 are "led" – they complement the two leaders and replace them when necessary.
Connectivity and Interoperability with IDF
Network-based operation has been adopted by the 106th F-15 Squadron, too. A pilot in the cockpit, as well as the officers at the command cells in the "pit" (IAF command center), are currently exposed to massive amounts of information and data. The amount of data is substantial and there are many communication networks to handle. To effectively cope with this massive input, a high degree of cooperation is required. A veteran F-15 "Baz" pilot provided this first-person account: "In the past I used to fly, looking for targets, looking for an enemy aircraft. Today, everything is displayed on the screen in the cockpit. All of the pilots in the formation see and hear everything. We communicate with the ground control, we communicate with the ground batteries. All of the data undergo a process of fusion so that every pilot may receive whatever he needs in order to accomplish the mission, understand the mission and make the appropriate decisions. In this way, you also make fewer mistakes."
The Squadron Commander makes a point of stressing the cooperation with the ground forces: "It was implemented during Operation Protective Edge and other operations in the Gaza Strip. The idea is to be able to close loops within a short time and with a high level of accuracy. This coordination is no longer a theoretical matter – it enables us, the pilots, to attack a target while the ground forces may be located fairly close to it, and I will not hit them. This was not the case in the past, when the 'Green' forces had to be distanced from the targets so as not to be hit. Today we practice closing loops within short time intervals between the ground forces and aircraft, helicopters and UAS. Today, the battalion commander and the brigade commander can speak with us directly. This will no doubt produce substantial dividends during wartime."
An Aircraft with a Soul
The commander of the 106th Squadron, Lt. Col. A., is married to a biomedical engineer. They have four children and reside in the family compound at Tel-Nof airbase. In the past, A. had flown F-16 fighters briefly, but he is an adamant and enthusiastic patriot of the F-15 and has spent most of his professional career as a pilot and commander within this fleet. "I started out and will end my professional career with this aircraft," he proclaims, explaining his unreserved love for the massive, heavy and powerful twin-engine fighter: "This is the finest war machine the IAF has. Some of these aircraft are 40 years old but it is an aircraft with a soul. The F-15 'Baz' has a beautiful combination of tradition and heritage with the facelifts it will undergo that would make it an even more upgraded platform in anticipation of the year 2020. With this aircraft, the pilot plays a significant role in the actual execution of the mission, as the F-15 is less computerized and less digital than more advanced and younger aircraft, so flying it is real flying. You can ask this aircraft to reach the extremes, and it will actually comply, more than any other aircraft. The F-16 is computerized and will not allow you to reach the edge of the envelope. With the F-15 – it is possible. On the other hand, it is more dangerous, as with the F-16 the computer will not allow you to reach the edge of the envelope while with the F-15 'Baz' you must manage it personally."
A younger pilot, Lt. R. who has been with the Squadron for a year, refers to the above description of the characteristics of the F-15 "Baz," saying that the F-16 has Fly-by-Wire electronic flight control system that supervises the flight. In the F-15, the controls are less computerized, but provide the pilot with a sense of 'real' flying, 'just like in the old days.' Lt. R. and his fellow young officers at the Squadron are members of the computer and cellphone generation. The Squadron Commander had this to say about them: "Our younger pilots are excellent, especially when it comes to state-of-the-art, sophisticated systems, modern munitions, and avionics – all of these innovations are natural to them. While we, the older pilots, take a whole month to study a new system, the younger pilots will fully command it after two sorties. It is easy for them to cope with information systems, compared to some of the dinosaurs of the Squadron. The challenge facing the commander is to draw out the best from each one of them, as together they make up a fighting team with excellent analytical and operational capabilities."