The IAF has quietly retired one of its oldest and most venerable weapon systems recently. The AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter OrBat, which entered service in 1975, was demobilized pursuant to a decision (in the context of the recent cuts in the defense budget) to discontinue using the outdated helicopters. The demobilization process was executed in three stages: on July 29, 2013 the attack helicopter flight of the Red (Aggressor) Squadron was demobilized. A week later, on August 2, 2013, the First Attack Helicopter Squadron stationed at Palmachim AFB was demobilized, and on March 20, 2014, the Tzefa flights of the advanced training - attack helicopter squadron of the IAF flying school were discontinued.
The AH-1 Cobra helicopter, designated Tzefa in the IAF, entered service pursuant to the implementation of one of the primary lessons derived from the Yom-Kippur War of 1973 - the need for a weapon system capable of stopping or at least delaying an enemy armored attack, to provide the IDF with the response interval required in order to mobilize the reservist brigades and deploy them to the front line.
Accordingly, six AH-1G Cobra attack helicopters were purchased in 1975 from the US Army and a Cobra flight was established as part of the IAF Rolling Sword Squadron. The objective of the new flight was to thoroughly examine the new weapon system – the attack helicopter, designed to combat armored elements - and develop a suitable combat doctrine so that this weapon system may be employed effectively. Studies and trials conducted in the USA had shown that on average, an attack helicopter can destroy about 20 armored vehicles before it is hit, and at that rate of destruction, one squadron of 20 helicopters is the equivalent of two complete armored brigades.
On December 1, 1977, the first flight became the First Attack Helicopter Squadron and the Cobra helicopters were given the Hebrew name Tzefa (vipera palaestinae - Palestinian Viper). Over the course of 1979, the Squadron relocated to its permanent base at Palmachim AFB, out of which it had operated until it was demobilized. During the relocation process, the G-type helicopters were returned to the USA and the Squadron took delivery of twelve new AH-1S helicopters, capable of firing TOW missiles (designated Orev in the IDF) – electro-optically guided missiles that can be steered during flight all the way to impact.
On May 9, 1979, the Tzefa helicopters of the IAF executed their first attack. The target was a house where terrorists were hiding, north of Tyre in Lebanon. A pair of Tzefa attack helicopters launched 4 Orev missiles that hit the house accurately, thereby successfully opening the era of attack helicopter strikes in the IAF.
When the combat doctrine developed by IAF reached maturity, a decision was made to expand the attack helicopter OrBat. As the USA objected to the selling of additional Tzefa helicopters to Israel, IAF was compelled to purchase MD-500 Defender helicopters, designated Lahatoot (Trick/Stunt) in the IAF. Some 20 Lahatoot helicopters were purchased and deliveries began in November 1979. The new helicopters were delivered to a new squadron established in March 1980 – the Magic Touch Squadron. Both squadrons now operated simultaneously, implementing a similar combat doctrine, with both helicopter types fitted with Orev (TOW) missiles. The Lahatoot helicopter was smaller in size and less noisy, owing to the benefit of a 5-blade rotor, while the Tzefa helicopter had a more powerful engine and a triple-barrel 20mm cannon - which was not installed on the Lahatoot helicopters.
The First Lebanon War, which broke out in June 1982, constituted a baptism of fire for the IAF attack helicopter OrBat and provided it with an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of the combat doctrine developed in the years prior to the war. Following a hesitant and troubled start, on June 9, 1982 – the fourth day of the war – a pair of helicopters from the Tzefa Squadron departed for an operation involving the hunting of Syrian tanks in cooperation with the IDF 162nd division. In that operation, the helicopters destroyed an enemy truck and three T-62 tanks. During the battles, the Squadron’s combat doctrine was improved and perfected. A decision was made to remove the rocket pods and reduce the number of 20mm shells the helicopters carried in order to improve the efficiency of their engines. Additionally, the interfaces with the ground combat elements were improved in order to prevent “friendly fire” situations after a Tzefa helicopter had been hit by an Israeli tank on the last day of the war. During the war, the Squadron dispatched 62 sorties and hit 51 targets. The Squadron’s helicopters launched 72 missiles scoring 71% hits.
Between 1983 and 1985, the Squadron received 24 new Tzefa helicopters, after the US embargo on the sales of these helicopters to Israel had been lifted (and at the same time as the selling of 24 Cobra helicopters to the Jordanian Army). The increase in the number of helicopters led to the establishment of a second Tzefa squadron – the Fighting Family Squadron, on June 1, 1985. Both squadrons continued to operate out of Palmachim AFB with a permanent forward deployment flight operating out of northern landing strips close to the Lebanon border.
Throughout the presence of the IDF in Southern Lebanon, between 1985 and 2000, the Tzefa squadrons operated in that area. Their missions included providing close air support to the ground forces and attacks against various targets, from the houses of terrorists to standard and armored vehicles used by the terrorist organizations. On December 8, 1988, a detachment of Tzefa helicopters participated in Operation Blue & Brown – the attack against various objectives associated with Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). This operation involved numerous ground forces from the Golani infantry brigade and from the IDF Navy’s 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos). The operation went into trouble owing to a timetable delay and premature exposure of some of the forces, and a four-trooper detachment remained in Lebanese territory, surrounded by enemy forces. In a high-risk rescue operation, a pair of Tzefa helicopters entered the enemy territory, and while another pair provided top cover with continuous fire, the four troopers held on to the helicopter skids and were extricated successfully.
During the month of July 1993, the Tzefa OrBat participated in Operation Accountability in Southern Lebanon. Both squadrons dispatched more than 150 sorties, in which they attacked terrorist houses, vehicles and Katyusha rocket launchers, scoring good hits.
In April 1996, IDF launched Operation Grapes of Wrath, intended to stop the launching of Katyusha rockets from Lebanon into Israel. As the terrorists were using vehicles to mobilize and even launch their rockets, the Tzefa OrBat was assigned to enforce an air blockade on expansive parts of Southern Lebanon and engage vehicles travelling in those areas.
In August 1996, a shipment of fourteen US Army surplus AH-1F Cobra helicopters arrived in Israel. These helicopters replaced the Lahatoot helicopters that had operated with the Tzefa squadrons, and some of them were assimilated in the attack helicopter program of the IAF flying school. The flying school helicopters retained the original dark green color scheme of the US Army.
On May 23, 2000, Tzefa helicopters provided top cover for the pullout of the IDF from Southern Lebanon and in fact, the Lebanese chapter in the history of the squadrons’ activity came to an end. During the next decade, the Tzefa OrBat performed the familiar missions of assisting the ground forces and engaging pin-point targets in the Judea & Samaria district and the Gaza Strip. The Tzefa squadrons developed the combat doctrine for the targeted kill strikes – the precise hitting of pin-point targets while keeping collateral damage to a minimum. During this period, the squadrons assimilated a new weapon system – the Rafael SPIKE missile, designated Machtzelet in the IAF. SPIKE is a fire-and-forget missile with a longer range compared to the Orev (TOW) missiles used until then.
In 2005, IAF inaugurated the Advanced Training Center at Ovda AFB in Southern Israel. The IAF Red (Aggressor) Squadron (the Flying Dragon Squadron) operates the center. It specializes in the employment of enemy combat tactics and performs enemy simulation (“aggressor”) activities for the various other squadrons of the IAF. The Red Squadron includes a helicopter flight that originally consisted of several Tzefa helicopters to enable the training of ground and aerial forces against attack helicopter threats.
With the expansion of the IAF’s AH-64 Peten and Saraf helicopters, a decision was made in 2005 to merge the Tzefa squadrons and demobilize the Fighting Family Squadron, whose helicopters were divided among the First Attack Helicopter Squadron, the Tzefa flight of the Red (Aggressor) Squadron and the advanced training – attack helicopter squadron at the IAF flying school.
Over the years, the IAF Tzefa OrBat suffered a number of major accidents, four of which had fatal results. On March 18, 1987, the commander of the Tzefa squadron, Lt. Col. Zion Bar-Or and Second Lt. Yuval Wagner were killed in an accident. On March 15, 1998, the commander of Palmachin AFB, Brig. Gen. Shmuel Eldar and Lt. Ilan Gur were killed in an accident. On September 10, 2008, Maj. Yuval Holtzman and Maj. Shay Danor were killed in an accident. The last accident involving a Tzefa helicopter occurred on March 12, 2013. Lt. Col. Noam Ron and Maj. Erez Flekser were killed in that accident.
As stated, in the last year the IAF demobilized its Tzefa OrBat and bade farewell to one of the world’s most recognizable and familiar aircraft.