Israeli Air Defense and Air-to-Air Combat Capability



The Iron Dome counter-rocket system developed by Rafael is one of four Israeli air defense systems that the U.S. is helping to fund.

While the Israeli air defense system is scarcely leakproof-a fact it demonstrated some years ago when a defecting Syrian pilot flew undetected deep into Israeli air space-a fully alert Israeli air defense is capable of coordinating its sensors, fighters, and land-based defenses with a level of effectiveness that no other Middle Eastern air force can approach. Israel has a better overall mix of systems, better-trained personnel, and a far better ability to integrate all its assets with its own technology and software than any other Middle Eastern air force.

The Israeli Air Force has an unequalled record in air-to-air combat. It destroyed many of its opponent’s aircraft on the ground in the 1967 war and then scored 72 air-to-air kills over the rest. It destroyed 113 Egyptian and Syrian aircraft in air-to-air combat during the war of attrition and killed 452 Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian aircraft during the October War in 1973.

It killed at least 23 Syrian aircraft between 1973 and 1982 and killed 71 fixed-wing aircraft during the fighting in 1982. It shot down three Syrian fighters between 1982 and 1992. While it has lost 247 aircraft in combat since the beginning of the 1948 war, only 18 have been lost in air-to-air combat. In contrast, Arab forces have lost at least 1,428 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in combat and 817 have been lost in air-to-air combat.

Air Offense and Air-to-Ground Combat Capability

Israel’s advantages in strategic and long-range offensive operations are even greater. The IAF is the only air force in the Middle East that is seriously organized for strategic attacks on its neighbors. Other Middle Eastern air forces may have long-range strike aircraft, effective munitions, and even a limited refueling capacity. They were, however, essentially amateurs in using their assets to inflict strategic damage on an enemy nation or in conducting effective long-range strategic strikes.

Israel has shown it has the ability to strike deep into the Arab world and has greatly improved its long-range strike capability since its attacks on Osirak in 1981 and on Tunisia in 1985. It has the F-15I and greatly improved refueling capability, targeting capability, standoff precision munitions, and electronic warfare capability. Israel could probably surgically strike a limited number of key targets in virtually any Arab country within 1,500 nautical miles of Israel and could sustain operations against western Iraq. It would, however, probably be forced to use nuclear weapons to achieve significant strategic impact on more than a few Iraqi facilities, or if it had to simultaneously engage Syrian and Iraqi forces.

The IAF has also adapted its offensive tactics to gain an advantage over terrorists within urban areas. These tactics have included precision strikes against hostile leaders, such as targeting Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, in March 2004 in the Gaza Strip. When the IAF fully coordinates with the Shin Bet security service, Military Intelligence, and regional command authorities, it can assume a large part of the counterterror operations that would otherwise be assumed by forces on the ground at a much higher risk.

The IAF works not only in active air operations, but also uses UAVs for situations that require waiting and watching a possible target. The goal, according to one senior Israeli official, is to have the capability to strike an emerging target within 50 seconds or less, although the times when targets do emerge are fleeting, action is achieved by shortening the sensor-to-shooter loop.

The IAF has long benefits from access to the most advanced U. S. air-to-ground, as well as air-to-air, munitions and has developed or modified many munitions on its own. According to some reports, Israel has been in talks with the United States to obtain $319-million worth of air-launched bombs, including 500 “bunker busters,” possibly to use on Iran’s alleged underground nuclear facilities. Among the bombs Israel might get from the deal are 500 one-ton bunker busters, 2,500 regular one-ton bombs, 1,000 half-ton bombs, and 500 quarter-ton bombs.

In addition the United States and Israel have discussed undertaking a joint project, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF is slated to replace the F-16 that has been Israel’s primary assault aircraft for the past 25 years. Lockheed Martin and numerous other countries are developing the plane, yet for the time being Israel is being left out of the activities. The United States suspended Israel’s involvement following an Israel-China arms deal that ended with Israel reneging on the deal with China and the former Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron resigning.

Security relations between Israel and the United States became strained when the United States discovered that Israel was selling U. S. Patriot antimissile technology to China throughout the 1990s. Relations were intensified when the United States learned that Israel was providing China with Harpies, an unmanned aerial vehicle with a bomb that homes in on radar, in 2001 and conducted maintenance on the drones in 2003 and 2004. After learning that China now possessed the drones and that Israel was going to provide maintenance and upgrades for them, the United States drastically reduced weapons and technology transfers to Israel. The United States felt that the agreement between Israel and the United States, that each would be committed to global security, was damaged and only when Israel reneged on the deal, as was already stated, did the Pentagon agree to resume security and technological relations with Israel in August 2005.

Following the disagreements between Israel and the United States regarding Israel’s military sales to China, the United States also asked Israel to halt a military deal with Venezuela. (Hugo Chavez has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration and has been a partner with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in opposing U. S. policies.) The deal with Venezuela that was brought to a halt included upgrading the F-16 fighter jets for the Venezuelan Air Force, but since the jets are constructed from an American-made platform, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), which would have done the upgrading, needs the Pentagon’s permission to work on the jets. It is not clear at the time of this writing whether the deal between Israel and Venezuela has been delayed or whether it is going to be canceled completely.

Some IAF experts have called for Israel to advance in the direction of the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) following the suspension of Israel’s involvement in the JSF program. The costs of training pilots, the operational limitations of manned vs. unmanned aircraft, and the price a nation pays when a pilot is downed or taken hostage have all become part of the Israeli debate on UCAVs. There has also been research on manned vs. unmanned aircraft capabilities for the IAF by the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Studies. There is not, however, any current move toward building a UCAV fleet in the near future. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, former Israel Air Force commander and a key participant of the Fisher study about the JSF program and UCVAs, has stated that “[w]e need to solve all the problems with the Americans and that next-generation fighter our new center of gravity.’

IAF Readiness and Training Standards

Israeli pilot and aircrew selection and training standards are the highest in the Middle East and some of the highest in the world. In addition, Israel has developed a reserve system that requires exceptional performance from its air force reservists. There are no reserve squadrons in the IAF, and all squadrons can operate without mobilization. However, about one-third of the aircrew in each squadron are reservists. Reserve aircrews train 55-60 days a year and fly operational missions with the squadron to which they are assigned. In the event of a call-up, the reserve aircrews and operations support personnel report first and then support personnel for sustained operations. About 60 percent of the IAF reserves are in air and ground defense units.

In contrast, other Middle Eastern forces are weakened by their failure to enforce rigorous selection procedures for assignments other than combat pilot and by their failure to create a highly professional class of noncommissioned officers that were paid, trained, and given the status necessary to maintain fully effective combat operations. In most cases, these problems are compounded by poor overall manpower policies and promotion for political and personal loyalty. Other Middle Eastern air forces also tend to be weakened by a failure to see command and control, intelligence and targeting, high-intensity combat operations, and sustainability as being equal in importance to weapons numbers and quality. While Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have moved toward the idea of force-wide excellence in supporting an overall concept of operations, they still have a long way to go before approaching Israel’s level of capability.

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