Unit: 105 tajeset “The Scorpion Squadron”, IDF/AF Serial: 211 The 105 Squadron of the Israeli Air Force, also known as The Scorpion, was founded in December 1950 as a Spitfire squadron and has since operated the P-51 Mustang, Dassault Super Mystere, IAI Sa’ar, and F-4 Phantom II. It currently operates F-16Ds at Hatzor Airbase.
Israeli Air Force 201 Squadron F-4E Phantom II at Tel Nof, Independence Day 2013.
The Israeli Air Force was the largest foreign operator of the Phantom, flying both newly built and ex-USAF aircraft, as well as several one-off special reconnaissance variants. The first F-4Es, nicknamed “Kurnass” (Sledgehammer), and RF-4Es, nicknamed “Orev” (Raven), were delivered in 1969 under the “Peace Echo I” program. Additional Phantoms arrived during the 1970s under “Peace Echo II” through “Peace Echo V” and “Nickel Grass” programs. Israeli Phantoms saw extensive combat during Arab–Israeli conflicts, first seeing action during the War of Attrition. In the 1980s, Israel began the “Kurnass 2000” modernization program which significantly updated avionics. The last Israeli F-4s were retired in 2004.
For almost 20 years, from 1960 to 1980, the Phantom II was the top fighter of the world, against which all other combat aircraft were measured. By the time production of the type ended in 1979, over 5,000 Phantom IIs had been built around the world. Planned from 1953, the prototype XF4H-1 was first flown on May 27th 1958, having been developed as a carrier based interceptor for the U.S. Navy. Delivered for service from February 1960, the first versions were the F-4A and F-4B for the Navy, followed by the C,D and E for the U.S. Air Force. The F-4E was the main export version and the first true multi-role variant, with an internal 20mm chin mounted cannon absent on previous versions. The Phantom was the main U.S. fighter in the Vietnam War and served in numerous other air forces around the world, including those of Britain (RAF and Navy, built in Britain), Germany, Japan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.
Israel had first expressed an interest in acquiring the Phantom in 1965, but the U.S. was not yet willing to sell the fighter to Israel and agreed to provide A-4 Skyhawks instead. After the 1967 Six Days War Israel watched with growing alarm the rapid rearmament of Arab air forces with frontline Soviet fighters and sought to renew its own fighter fleet. France, its major arms supplier until then, had embargoed all sales to Israel after a 1968 commando raid on Beirut’s airport. Israel therefore once again turned to the U.S. in hope of acquiring the F-4 and in a meeting with Israeli prime minister Levy Eshkol in January 1968, president Lyndon Johnson finally agreed to look favorably on a Phantom sale to Israel. In December 1968 the “Peace Echo” deal was signed for the provision of 44 F-4Es and 6 RF-4Es to the IAF and on March 25th 1969 Israeli crews begun training on the new fighters. Although the War of Attrition was still going on at the time, the IAF sent its best pilots and navigators to the U.S., headed by the two future F-4 squadron commanders: Avihu Ben-Nun and Shmuel Hetz. The Israeli delegation returned to Israel during August and on Friday, September 5th, the first Israel Phantoms landed at Hazor AFB. The four planes, wearing an IAF color scheme but still carrying their American markings, joined the new 201st “Ha’ahat” (The One) squadron, commanded by Shmuel Hetz. Delieveries continued at a rate of 4 a month and on October 23rd the 69th “Patishim” (Hammers) squadron was reformed at Ramat-David, headed by Avihu Ben-Nun. The type entered service as the “Kurnass” (Sledgehammer), the last aircraft arriving in May 1971.
F-4 Phantom II – The Hammers Squadron With the War of Attrition raging along the Suez Canal, the new Phantoms and their crews were only given a short adjustment period before being thrown into the fighting. The first operational Phantom sortie took place on October 5th 1969, a combat air patrol in the southern Sinai lead by the 201 squadron commander Shmuel Hetz. The Phantoms were a technological and operational leap for the IAF and with their unparalleled load capacity, long range and missile weaponry, were rapidly introduced into the IAF’s day to day operations. On October 22nd, only 8 weeks after their arrival, the Phantoms flew their first ground attack mission, against an Egyptian SA-2 battery near Abu-Sweir. In November 1969 the IAF initiated operation “Helem” (Shock), in which Phantoms routinely conducted low level supersonic passes over Cairo in order to demonstrate the IAF’s ability to operate unhampered over Egypt. The first such sortie took place on November 4th and these flights continued until January 1970. On January 29th 1970, after a lone Syrian MiG-21 managed to infiltrate Israeli airspace and conduct one such flight over Haifa, Israel responded by sending Phantoms on similar missions over 5 major Syrian cities. On November 11th 1969 the Phantom scored its first kill, an Egyptian MiG-21 downed by Ehud Hankin and Eyal Ahikar from 69 squadron, flying a 201 squadron aircraft. The War of Attrition saw the first major introduction of Soviet SAMs into the fighting between Israel and its Arab neighbors and a large part of IAF operations at the time were directed against these missiles and their batteries. The Phantoms were the spearhead of the IAF’s attempt to destroy these SAMs, an attempt that lasted right up to the end of the war in August 1970. Large scale attacks took place during late November and on December 25th 1969, both resulting in the destruction of the entire Egyptian missile array. These losses were however, rapidly made good by Soviet assistance and the SAMs soon returned to pose a threat to the IAF. Such was the routine of IAF Vs. SAM operations throughout 1970. On November 17th 1969 F-4s attacked a pair of Jordanian radar stations which had provided radar coverage of Israel to the Egyptians and Syrians. Both stationed were destroyed for the loss of a single Phantom, once again flown by Ehud Hankin.
By the end of 1969, the War of Attrition had reached a stalemate, with mutual exchanges of fire taking place across the Suez Canal. In a bid to break the stalemate, the IDF had decided to commence deep penetration strikes against the heart of Egypt, further demonstrating Egyptian vulnerability and pushing the Egyptian leadership towards a ceasefire. On January 7th 1970 Israel launched operation “Priha” (Bloom) with attacks by Phantoms against army bases around Cairo. IAF F-4s returned on more strikes on January 13th, 18th and 23rd and on February 8th the IAF begun attacking Egyptian Air Force bases. During this last attack a 69th squadron F-4 flown by Aviam Sela and Shabtay Ben-Shua scored the squadron’s first kill by downing an Egyptian MiG. As Soviet assistance continued to pour into Egypt, the Egyptians attempted to disrupt these strikes by positioning their SAMs along the IAF’s penetration routes. Israeli F-4s, along with their Dassault Mirage escorts, nonetheless continued their attacks against both the SAM sites and against other Egyptian military targets, such attacks taking place on average once every ten days. On February 26th F-4s attacked two SA-2 sites when Egyptian MiGs attempted to intercept them. In the ensuing dogfight, three MiGs were downed by the Phantoms’ Mirage escort. The strikes continued during March, 13 MiGs downed throughout the month.
The absolute air superiority achieved by the IAF and the success of its deep penetration strikes propelled Egyptian president Nazer to travel to Moscow and request more Soviet assistance. During February and March 1970, 80 MiG-21 fighters made their way to Egypt, along with more surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft-artillery (AAA) pieces, new radars and even Russian pilots, ground crews and technicians. Among the new weapons supplied to Egypt were new SA-3 batteries which hadn’t even been tried in Vietnam. Lacking an electronic counter measure against these missiles, the IAF conducted pre-emptive strikes against the locations where these were to be deployed. The missiles were nonetheless deployed around major Egyptian cities and airfields and were defended by Soviet pilots and anti-aircraft crews. The arrival of the Soviets prompted the IDF to discontinue operation “Priha” in order not to aggravate the Russians and to prevent direct clashes between Israeli and Soviet forces. The last deep penetration strike took place on April 13th 1970, bringing the operation’s total to 45 such strikes.
On April 25th two Egyptian air force Ilyushin Il-28s attacked two Israeli strongholds in the Sinai. Three IAF F-4s were scrambled to intercept the intruders and Shmuel Hetz downed one using an AIM-7 Sparrow, the missile’s first IAF kill. The second Il-28 was downed by a Mirage which had also arrived at the scene. On May 18th a dozen F-4s flew a long range strike against an Egyptian seaport in response to the sinking of an Israeli trawler and the mining of another. After two Egyptian ambushes on May 30th led to the deaths of 15 Israeli soldiers, the IAF conducted three days of heavy strikes against artillery positions on the western bank of the Suez Canal. 3 Egyptian MiGs were downed trying to intercept the IAF strike aircraft.
Egypt’s inability to counter Israeli supremacy led to their adoption of new tactics. Under the cover of darkness, the Egyptians and the Soviets would advance their SA-3 batteries eastwards (towards the Suez Canal), to surprise IAF fighters the next day. At the same time, the Soviets begun building up dense missile defences 30km away from the canal. When these were complete, the construction crews would advance even closer to the Canal and would initiate construction under the cover of the line of defense that had just been completed. Furthermore, whereas the missiles were previously deployed in a linear pattern, they were now grouped together, providing increased coverage, mutual defence and increased fire power. The Egyptian air defences begun to pose a serious threat to operations not only over Egypt but also over the Suez Canal and even into the Sinai, then under Israeli control. On June 24th, a pair of Phantoms on a mission against a SAM site at Abu-Sweir were fired upon by a number of batteries, one aircraft was hit but managed to return safely to base. On June 30th the IAF launched a furious attack on Egyptian defences after it had been discovered that dozens of SAM batteries and hundreds of AAA guns had been advanced the previous night. Two Phantoms were downed during these strikes, both falling prey to Egyptian SAMs. Another Phantom was downed on June 5th, once again by a SAM. The IAF broke off its attacks for two weeks in order to rethink its tactics and to come up with new methods to deal with the SAM threat.
- Sledgehammer (Kurnass) has to the best description of the F-4. “Given enough power even a brick can fly!”