Escuadron de Combate 111

Kfir C-10 of the FAC.

Fuerza Aérea Colombiana (FAC – Colombian Air Force)/Escuadron de Combate 111 IAI Kfir C10 FAC-3041,which was lost in a crash on approach to Palanquero on December 31 2017. The pilot ejected safely. This aircraft wore a special paint scheme, which included a black lion silhouette on the nose and external underwing fuel tanks. After a routine training flight, the aircraft had a technical failure and crashed on approach to Base Aérea Militar 2 Palanquero, Puerto Salgar Cundinamarca, at 0935hrs.  The pilot ejected and was recovered safely, without injury.  This was the fifth Kfir to have been lost by the FAC in the last five years.

FAC 3008 is a two-seat Kfir COD. The jet retains full combat capability, evidenced by this load of Derby and Python AAMs. The latest I-Derby ER missile incorporates an innovative radio- frequency seeker and a range of up to 100km.

Escuadron de Combate 111 K? rs top up from the FAC’s sole KC-767 multi-role tanker transport. Nearest the camera is K? r COA serial FAC 3048, carrying an air-to-air load-out of Derby and (outboard) Python 5 AAMs, plus a Litening pod on the shoulder pylon.

Colombian Air Force or FAC (Spanish: Fuerza Aérea Colombiana)

Deep in the heart of Colombia, on the banks of the Magdalena River, the pride of the Fuerza Aérea Colombiana (FAC, Colombian Air Force) is found at Palanquero air base. This is home to Comando Aéreo de Combate No 1 (Combat Air Command No 1) and named after aviator Captain German Olano Moreno. Situated among the Cordillera Mountain ranges, the airfield’s rich aviation history dates back to the 1930s when seaplanes used to operate from the Magdalena. Today, the FAC’s Escuadron de Combate 111 is the base’s most significant resident with its Kfir (lion cub) fighters. It’s also home to the AC-47T Fantasma gunships as well as T-37B Tweet trainers.

Over the years, access to the base has been extremely limited, due to Colombia’s security situation and ongoing war with both guerrillas and the various infamous drug cartels. Today, the country has made significant inroads to tackle drug-related crime, thanks to a prolonged and determined battle. In 2017, a second peace agreement was reached with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas and other Marxist groups to disarm. Although these measures have had a positive effect on violence within the nation’s borders, there are many hurdles to overcome before its citizens can feel like the longstanding conflict is truly behind them. Adding to the country’s challenges is the ongoing unrest along its long border with Venezuela. Colombia has absorbed almost two million refugees from its neighbour. Many thousands of refugees have arrived there from the lawless country to the east, increasing the strain on the government in Bogota.

Along with the significant improvement in national security, the FAC has become more open to showcasing its combat assets. Its premier fighter is the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Kfir C10, with around 21 aircraft currently assigned to Escuadron de Combate 111.

Founded in 1989 by Major General (ret’d) Forero Gonzalo, Escuadron de Combate 111 has been at the front line of the Colombian Air Force for almost three decades, with the Kfirs now bristling with advanced technology. Kfir force Colombia’s Kfir pilots are typically very experienced and spend most of their careers associated in some way with this squadron.

They are the Colombian military’s first line of defence and therefore held in high regard. Once pilots are selected to serve on the Kfir squadron, they are likely to spend close to a decade on that assignment. It’s a prize that’s hard won, as the path to the Kfir cockpit is a long and arduous one. Thousands apply to join the FAC academy and applicants must complete various aptitude tests as well as a psychological evaluation and rigorous background checks, in an effort to gain as much knowledge on the potential cadet’s environment and his family history. From close to 4,000 applicants, only 100 will be selected for the academy.

Only the top percentage of students make the grade to enter Kfir training. Even then, they must first prove their mettle and excel in basic flying training and in the follow-on EMB-314 Super Tucano. Having accumulated four years of service and 350 flight hours, they are eligible for a further evaluation for advancing to the Kfir.

Palanquero operates like a small town, with all families and related facilities located on base. While progression to the Kfir is long, once here the personnel enjoy a stable family environment, thanks to the FAC.

Maj Sanchez is the current Kfir squadron operations officer. He told AFM his father was an armament officer on the Mirage 5 and that he was brought up at Palanquero. Today, he walks to the jets along the same shelters as his father did before him. Like all Kfir aviators, Sanchez built considerable flying experience before he arrived at the Kfir, indeed he flew the AC-47T as a co-pilot, and eventually became an instructor pilot (IP) on the Super Tucano – before strapping on the Kfir C10.

Modern Kfirs

The Kfir was an iconic fighter in the Israeli Air Force, loosely modelled on the Dassault Mirage 5. It featured the powerful General Electric J79 engine and canards to enhance manoeuvrability and stability.

The Kfir C1 and C2 variants served in Israel, and this was the standard of aircraft that was initially sold to Colombia from 1989. Israel sold 12 C2 models to the FAC, with all the airframes having seen combat operations over Lebanon. In 1990, 11 were upgraded from C2 to C7 standard by the Comando Aéreo de Mantenimiento (CAMAN) in Madrid, just north of Bogota. This provided the aircraft with the ability to employ Rafael’s Python 3 air-to-air missile (AAM) and added an in-flight refuelling probe to extend combat radius, initially for working with the FAC’s sole Boeing KC-137 tanker, Zeus.

In 2009, following two decades of service, ten survivors were upgraded again under what IAI dubbed the `Kfir 2000′, more commonly known as the C10. A new nose profile accommodated the Elta EL/M-2032 advanced multi-mode radar, plus the DASH (Display and Sight Helmet), two new multifunction cockpit displays, Python 5 missiles and a new beyond visual range (BVR) capability via the Rafael Derby AAM. It also added Link 16 data link, the Rafael Litening targeting pod and the RecceLite reconnaissance pod.

In addition to the ten upgrades, the FAC also purchased ten additional single-seaters that were mothballed in the Negev desert, plus three upgraded two-seaters, which became TC12s. Some upgraded single-seaters lack only the new radar and are known as C12s.

With one Kfir TC12 having crashed in July 2009 prior to acceptance (and subsequently replaced by IAI) the FAC was ultimately in possession of 20 Kfir C10/C12s and three TC12 two-seaters (another two TC12 attrition losses in 2010 and 2014 were similarly replaced from Israeli stocks). The jets are now referred to locally as Kfir COA (single-seat) and Kfir COD (dual-seat).

Industry support

Israeli industry has played a significant role in supporting and advancing Colombia’s Kfir force. There is a very noticeable Rafael presence at Palanquero, with the C10s toting the company’s long-range Derby and Python 5 missiles. Rafael markets both these weapons as a cost- effective package for lightweight fighters.

In addition to increased air-to-air weapons, Rafael also integrated its Spice 1000 GPS- guided munition. This can be added to a Mk83 bomb and effectively works like a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kit. Spice has the added advantage that if it encounters GPS jamming, it can be guided by either image matching or by electro-optical targeting, which ultimately provides excellent mission flexibility.

Most of the Kfirs are able to carry the Rafael Litening targeting pod and, for more complex strike missions, the two-seaters can be used and crewed with a `combat navigator’ in the back, often to gain proficiency with the similar RecceLite pod.

Future force

Despite their age, Colombia’s Kfirs are at the top of their game and the Colombian military holds a lofty reputation in Latin America. The FAC foresees the Kfir in its current state as a viable platform until at least 2025. While Venezuela to the east holds little real threat in terms of current capabilities, an increasing Russian relationship is troubling. Indeed, in recent years this has actively tested Colombia’s air defences. Back in 2013, Russian Tu-160 Blackjacks were intercepted by FAC Kfirs near Colombian airspace. It means the FAC must not only tackle domestic uncertainly, but also international threats to its borders.

Maj Freddy `Stuka’ Figueroa is the current Kfir squadron commanding officer. He told AFM that the FAC is well aware of its neighbour’s troop mobilisations, as well as high-speed flights in the vicinity of the border, but he stressed that such incidents are handled via diplomatic channels, not military ones.

Figueroa speaks highly of the 2018 Red Flag detachment, which took six jets to America for 38 days, starting at Barranquilla on July 2, with the last aircraft landing back at Palanquero on August 9, all supported by the FAC’s KC-767 Jupiter multi- role tanker transport and 130 personnel.

Their first stop was Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, for Relampago, a work-up exercise for Red Flag. Summing up, the squadron’s CO felt that Red Flag in the blistering heat of July provided the Kfirs with not only a first-class tactical training exercise for the pilots, but also a unique logistical experience for the squadron deploying en masse. It encompassed everything from maintaining the jets to managing public relations messaging, all the time working hand-in-hand with the USAF.

However, the main purpose was to really challenge the new Kfir equipment and capabilities in a realistic combat environment on the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). It was also about interoperability, following NATO rules and standards alongside partner nations and allies, all the while strengthening Colombia’s partnership with the US.

Previous exercises such as this have led directly to the FAC modifying its practices and procedures and there is no doubt that Red Flag 18-3 will be no exception.

As the Kfir enters its fourth decade of service in Colombia, it’s safe to assume the FAC will maintain its stature in the region, maintained in part by flying one of the most technologically advanced fighters on the continent.

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