Israeli Skyhawks

An A-4H of No. 102 ‘Flying Tigers’ Squadron, upgraded with most of the features of the A-4N.

Israel (Israel Air Force/Defence Force)

Israel is and has been the largest A-4 operator outside the US. Up to 1976, the Israel Defence Force/Air Force (IDF/AF) is believed to have acquired 321 new and used Skyhawks. A further seventeen TA-4Js were delivered in the early 1990s for a total of 338, although some sources give a figure as high as 355.

Israel first requested Skyhawks in 1964. In February 1966 the US agreed to supply Israel with A-4s if it agreed to certain demands and in August a contract was signed for the first twenty-four of a version of the A-4E to be designated A-4H. There was an option, soon taken up, for a further twenty-four. Israel had pledged to allow more and fuller inspections of the nuclear research facilities at Dimona and that their Skyhawks would not be equipped with nuclear weapons.

The first A-4H was flown at Palmdale by test pilot John Lane on 27 October 1967. Prior to delivery of the Skyhawks, Israeli pilots and groundcrew trained in Florida with VA-44 and VA-45, although this was interrupted somewhat by the Six-Day War in June 1967, which saw the first group of pilots urgently recalled to Israel to rejoin their units.

The initial delivery of four A-4Hs arrived at the port of Haifa on 29 ready for flight by 1 January. These became the first American jets to enter service with the warring nations in the Middle East. Known as the ‘Ayit’ (Vulture) in IDF/AF service, they soon began to replace Dassault Ouragons and Mystères in the ground attack and close air support roles. The first unit to transition to the Skyhawk was 109 ‘Valley’ Tayeset (Squadron) at Hatzor, with whom it replaced the Mystère IV Compared to the older French jets, the A-4 offered greater lifting capability, better engine reliability (requiring a tear-down inspection each 200 hours versus every thirty hours for the Mystère IV), greater speed and longer range, and the option of aerial refuelling. Using J52-P8A engines supplied as spares with the A-4s Israel reengined at least twenty-five of its Super Mystère B2s in 1969-72 to create the ‘Sa’ar’ (Tempest), which proved faster than the Skyhawk due to its slicker airframe and a very effective ground attack platform in the 1973 war.

The first Skyhawk combat missions came on 15 February 1968, when A-4s of 109 ‘Valley’ Squadron attacked Jordanian artillery and Palestinian bases along the Israel-Jordan border following attacks on Israeli settlements. The proximity of the target to the A-4s’ base at Hatzor meant that all five pylons could be used for carrying bombs, which at that time were 2501b and 5001b French-made weapons.

New squadrons formed as Skyhawk deliveries continued. No. 102 ‘Flying Tiger’ Squadron formed at Ramat-David in June 1968. Later it became the advanced jet training squadron. No.115 Flying Dragon’ Squadron received A-4Hs in March 1969 at Nevatim. In March 1971, 116 ‘Flying Wing’ Squadron converted to the A-4E from the Mystère IV, followed by 110 ‘Knights of the North’ at Ramat-David with A-4Hs. Just before the Yom Kippur war in October 1973, No. 140 ‘Golden Eagle’ Squadron began forming with A-4Es as the advanced training unit, completing the process after the war. In April 1976 143 ‘Smashing Parrot’ squadron began A-4E operations at Etzion in April 1976. Finally, reserve unit No. 147 ‘Battering Ram’ squadron was re-established in August 1978 with A-4Ns at Hatzerim. The Flight School at Hatzerim, also known as No 252 Squadron, used single- and two-seat A-4s from 1972, with the former mainly being aircraft borrowed from the ‘Flying Tigers’.

The initial deliveries of forty-eight A-4Hs were followed by a further forty-two to make ninety of this model, derived from the A-4F. The last of these arrived in 1970. Somewhat surprisingly considering US losses in Vietnam and the political fallout from the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in June 1969, the US government released twenty-five A-4Es for supply to Israel in 1969, followed by another thirty-five for a total of sixty. These came from Navy and Marine Corps squadrons, some of which were forced to revert to the A-4C because of shortages of A-4Es. The A-4Es were shipped in three batches during 1971 and were issued to 116, 110 and 102 Squadrons in turn.

Israel’s A-4Es and A-4Hs were heavily involved in the ‘War of Attrition’ with Egypt of 1969-70. During this time the TA-4H joined the inventory. This was a version of the TA-4J with Israeli equipment, five pylons and a combat capability more akin to that of the TA-4E In some US documents the last fifteen two-seaters built for Israel are referred to the TA-4J(H). Although mainly used for conversion training, the IDF/AF two-seaters were also employed in a combat role as and when necessary, including as forward air controllers. A total of twenty-five TA-4Hs were built for Israel. The following TA-4Fs are believed to have been transferred to Israel in the early 1970s: 153464, 153466, 153470, 153514, and these TA-4Js: 158492, 158493, 158497, 158502, 158503, 159101, 159102, 159103, 159104, 159546, 159547, 159548, 159549, 159550, 159551, 159552, 159553, 159554, 159555 and 159556. Following the First Gulf War, in 1992 fourteen TA-4Js were provided by the US as part of a package in payment for Israel’s non participation in the war, including 153672. In 1994, these three were also delivered: 152853, 153500 and 153672, but it is not certain if they were ever used before being resold to ATSI in Arizona.

Despite their use in action on many occasions, there are only eight known A-4 losses before October 1973, three of which were caused by Egyptian ground fire or SAMs.

Israel was very impressed with the improvements made by McDonnell Douglas to create the A-4M for the US Marines, particularly its high powered and fuel efficient J52-P408 engine. In March 1971 the US government approved an Israeli request for supply of a new designated A-4N Skyhawk II version based on the A-4M. The first A-4N flew in June 1972 and the first was handed over to Israel in January 1973. The N was basically similar to the M but lacked the self-starting capability. Israeli avionics and 30-mm cannon were added once the aircraft were in Israel. Thirty A-4Ns had been delivered by October 1973 and they equipped 115 ‘Flying Dragon’ Squadron at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

Additionally, a programme was begun in 1972 to upgrade the A-4Hs in the inventory to a similar standard as the A-4N, with the P408 engine, slightly wider intakes, the new HUD and navigation system and an avionics hump as found on US A-4Fs. Also in 1972 the two squadrons operating A-4Es had their aircraft updated with 30mm cannon, nosewheel steering and a brake parachute.

Yom Kippur War

Following a fortnight of tension, on 6 October 1973, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Syrian and Egyptian forces crossed Israel’s borders. The initial days of fighting were the most desperate for Israel and the IDF/AF. In the first three days alone, nearly sixty Israeli aircraft were lost, including twenty-four of the 162 A-4s of various models and configuration that were then in service.

The war situation quickly deteriorated and Prime Minister Meir made a direct appeal to President Nixon for immediate military aid to replace lost equipment and bolster the beleaguered IDF. It is possible that Meir hinted that the nuclear option might be used if there was a serious danger that Israel would lose the war.

Although impossible to confirm, some analysts believe that Israel assembled up to thirteen 20kt nuclear bombs for use in the event their forces were overrun and major population centres were threatened. Such a possibility was explored in the opening chapter of the Tom Clancy novel ‘The Sum of All Fears’, which was filmed in 2001 using an A-4N owned by US private contractor ATSI.

On 15 October 1973 the Nixon administration began Operation Nickel Grass to supply Israel with much needed war materiel. C-141 StarLifter and C-5 Galaxy transports from Travis AFB delivered APCs, artillery guns, ammunition, CH-53 helicopters and parts for damaged and F-4s and A-4s. The latter included nineteen entire Skyhawk rear fuselages, which were rushed straight from the transport aircraft to the repair hangars and fitted to A-4s that had been damaged by SAMs and were lined up ready to receive them. They are said to have flown into battle before the new sections could be repainted in Israeli colours. At least one of the A-4s was flown in Israel, at least for a time in standard US colours with Star of David insignia. The A-4s that arrived in October 1973 were credited with eighty-five combat missions before the cease-fire on the twenty-fourth.

Aid to Israel included nearly fifty complete Skyhawks taken directly from US squadrons. One US airman recalled being on a Marine Reserve unit’s flightline during October 1973 when the call came to urgently ‘de-class’ (remove classified equipment from) the u nit’s newly-received A-4Es and send them to Norfolk, Virginia for delivery to Israel.

A-4s were delivered via US Navy carriers in the Mediterranean. The assumption has often been that the aircraft belonged to a particular air wing and were just handed over as is where is. The actual process was more complicated. The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42) left port in the USA on 14 September 1973 with CVW-6 embarked, this being an air wing with no A-4 squadrons. On 30 October, the ‘FDR’ deployed off Crete (other sources say south of Sicily) and served as a jumping off or transhipment point for A-4s that had flown from the USA via the Azores. Personnel of former A-4 squadron VA-15, which by 1973 flew A-7s, serviced the incoming Skyhawks. One aerial refuelling was given to the A-4s between the FDR and Israel.

Thirty-six A-4s were delivered this way via the FDR. The Kennedy and Independence were also positioned in the Mediterranean and provided assistance during Nickel Grass. The figure of ‘some fifty’ A-4s delivered via carriers is also quoted by one source, and another breaks total war-related deliveries down into thirty A-4Es and Fs in October and another sixteen in November/December. These later deliveries are believed to have come via the Independence. Other sources quote up to eighty A-4 deliveries and speak of US Navy F-4J Phantoms joining F-4Es supplied from USAF stocks, although no evidence of Navy Phantoms in Israel has yet emerged.

A figure of forty-six deliveries tallies with the thirty A-4Es and sixteen A-4Fs struck off USN/USMC charge at Norfolk between 21 October and 2 November and allocated to the Military Assistance Program (MAP). The official ‘strike’ records of only twelve indicate that Israel was the recipient, the others only recording ‘MAP’. A further six new A-4Ns were handed over at Long Beach during October 1973. Ex-US Skyhawks believed transferred to Israel include:A-4Es 149647, 149664, 149964, 149990, 149995, 149971, 150016, 150082, 150087, 150091, 150095, 150124, 150134, 151040, 151084, 149984, 149994, 150026, 150127, 150138, 151028, 151066, 151072, 151120,151163, 151177, 151184, 152006 and 152097. A-4Fs were: 154178, 154191*, 154990, 154997*, 154998, 154188, 154195, 145065, 155005*, 155007, 155008, 155010, 155040, 155043 and 155048. *Not confirmed

At roughly the same time as US Atlantic Fleet carriers were preparing to act as ‘lily pads’ for A-4 deliveries, the USS Hancock, then on her final cruise in Vietnamese waters, was ordered to the Indian Ocean and then to the Arabian Sea. Aboard were VA-56, -164 and -212 with A-4Fs. As they approached the war zone, CVW-21 ’s pilots were warned that they would probably be asked to fly off their A-4s and F-8s and hand them over to the Israeli Air Force. It was never quite made clear what the rules of engagement might be if they met Arab air opposition on route or how the pilots were supposed to return, but in the end the situation stabilized before they were called upon, and the Hancock set sail for home.

Post war

It is generally accepted that fifty-three to fifty-five Israeli Skyhawks were lost in the Yom Kippur War. Many of the losses were caused by infrared-guided SA-7 SAMs. The Sa’ar survived many SA-7 hits in cases where the Ayit was lost. This was attributed to the Sa’ar’s exhaust pipe extending aft of the tail surfaces, which were easily damaged by warhead fragments on the Skyhawk. To reduce their IR signature, Israel’s A-4s were fitted with a tailpipe extension, called ‘chavit’ (barrel) in a post-war modification programme. This moved the heat source as seen by the missile seeker further aft and cooled it slightly. A missile that did explode in the heat plume was likely to be further behind the aircraft where its shrapnel could do less damage to the tail control surfaces. A variation of this idea had been tested at China Lake on the first production A4D-1 Skyhawk as early as 1963 using a long asbestos pipe that protruded from the exhaust. Although several variations of tailpipe extension and shield were tested as part of Project DIRTY, the concept was not applied to American A-4s.

Following the Yom Kippur War, nearly a decade of relative peace followed, and the A4 was gradually supplanted by new supersonic attack types such as the Kfir and F-16s and by further F-4E deliveries. In June 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, five regular Ayit squadrons (102, 115, 116, 140 and 147) were in service, flying the A-4N or A-4Hs and Fs upgraded to N standards as well as the TA-4J/H. Although facts are sparse, three reserve squadrons of A-4s (137, 145 and 202), are believed to have existed in the 1980s and 1990s but since disbanded.

Various further upgrades were implemented to maintain the A-4’s combat effectiveness. The Elisra self protection system integrated chaff, flares and radar warning receivers to defend against enemy missiles. In 1982-3 some A-4Ns of 116 Squadron, including Nos. 309, 331 and 337 were fitted with AN/ABS-19 angle-rate bombing system (ARBS), allowing them to designate LGBs including the Paveway I and II and IAI Griffin. Other weapons used by, or at least cleared for use by, IDF/AF A-4s include TAL-1 220 kg and TAL-2 250 kg cluster bombs, ATAP cluster bombs, Guillotine LGBs, Opher LGBs, Pyramid TV-guided bombs, PB-500 penetration bombs and Gabriel radarguided air-to-surface missiles. AIM-9D Sidewinders and Shaffir II AAMs could be carried for self-defence.

At least thirty-five Israeli Skyhawks have been destroyed in non-combat accidents as of 2004, in addition to the sixty-five lost to enemy action. An independent 2002 estimate in the ‘Military Balance’ yearbook gave active IDF/AF A-4 strength as one squadron of twenty-four A-4Ns and a training squadron with a strength of twenty-six two-seaters, nineteen TA-4Js and seven TA-4Hs. A small number of additional TA-4Js were supplied to the IDF/AF in the 1990s, but are not known to have actually entered service.

In January 2003 a contract was awarded to RADA Electronic Industries of Netanya to install an advanced debriefing system on the ‘entire fleet’ of A-4 and T A-4s. RADA’s initial press release talked of “all fifty” A-4s, agreeing with the ‘Military Balance’ estimate, although one aircraft crashed in February 2004. Installation of the new debriefing system, which integrates GPS, INS, a data processor and a video recorder to give a synchronized three-dimensional record of each mission was planned for 2004/5 and the A-4 is expected to remain in Israeli service in the training role up to 2010. Units believed to still operate the A-4 in 2003 include 102 ‘Flying Tiger’ Squadron at Hatzerim, which pools its aircraft with the Flying Training School (also known as 252 Squadron) and 116 ‘Flying Wing’ Squadrons at Nevatim.

From about 1989 about a dozen A-4Es were stored in anticipation of their sale to Argentina at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. Under British pressure not to help Argentina replace its 1982 losses, the USA would not allow the sale. When the political situation eased, the US sold Argentina some of its (much more capable) A-4Ms and OA-4Ms, and the A-4Es were mostly sent to desert storage at Ovda or passed to the Hatzerim Museum.

The Israeli Air Force Museum has quite a large collection of (mostly unrestored) Skyhawks. About ten A-4s including E, F, H and N models are stored or preserved at the Hatzerim museum or elsewhere on the base. A further half-dozen are displayed at other bases or are known to be in use as ground instructional airframes.

In 2000 and 2001, seventeen ex-Israeli Skyhawks joined the US civil aircraft register. Ten A-4Ns and three TA-4Js were delivered to Advanced Training Systems International (ATSI) in Arizona for contract work, and in a separate deal, four A-4Ns were upgraded and sold to BAE Systems for use as target tugs at Wittmund in Germany. Further A-4Ns (including 333 and 358) have been seen at Israel Aircraft Industries’ facility at Ben Gurion under rework for ‘a customer’ not believed to be either ATSI or BAE.

Israeli secrecy is notoriously tight, and no official listing of IDF/AF Skyhawks has ever appeared. The following represents the best attempt to match Bureau Numbers of aircraft delivered to Israel with individual IDF serials or side numbers, a process complicated by the fact the side numbers changed at least once for many aircraft and twice in some cases. For example, ninety A-4H models were produced for Israel. Initially they had two-digit serials such as ‘07’ until 1971 when the surviving aircraft were given three digit serials starting with ‘1’ (thus ’07’ became ‘107’). From 1974 they were reserialled in the ‘200’ range.

A-4H for Israel

Israel’s Skyhawks were in action soon after the arrival of the first of forty-eight A-4Hs in December 1967. The A-4H was based on the F airframe and had a braking parachute and a squared-off fin-tip which housed AN/APX-46 Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment. As delivered they all lacked the dorsal avionics package. By October 1973, many Hs had been ‘given the hump’, which was filled with the locally-developed WDNS 391 TAAL-Crystal navigation package.

The contract to supply the A-4H was signed in August 1966 and the first aircraft flew on 27 October 1967. In light of combat experience, the IDF/AF soon began to modify these aircraft, plus a further forty-two delivered in 1969 and the 106 A-4E and Fs transferred from the US Navy in October 1973 and shortly thereafter for greater survivability and combat effectiveness. The first modifications begun in 1974 included extending the jetpipe to reduce the heat difference between the efflux and the outside air as a defence against infrared missiles, and installing radar warning equipment. Chaff dispensers were another defensive addition. In 1970, the Israelis began to fit French-made 30-mm DEFA type 552 cannon to their Skyhawks in place of the jamming-prone 20mm Colt Mk 12. The A-4Es were further modified with wing spoilers and brake parachutes. The Es appear to have mainly retained their avionics humps and kept the curved tailfin tip. The equivalent two-seater was the TA-4H, of which 25 were built. This combat-capable version was used as a trainer and at times in action as a bomber.

A-4N for Israel

Based on the A-4M, the A-4N for Israel incorporated all of the indigenous improvements developed following combat experience in 1971. Most of these, including the Crystal navigation system, 30-mm DEFA cannon, extended tailpipe and locally designed ECM were fitted after delivery. Other features were an Elliot HUD, dual-disc mainwheel brakes and a new weapons delivery computer based on that of the A-7 Corsair II. The N lacked the self-starting capability of the A-4M. From 1972 to 1976, 117 A-4Ns were supplied to Israel.

Although the A-4Ns were delivered with AN/APQ-145 radar, a few appeared after 1982 with the AN/ABS-19 ARBS sensor in a glass nose cone as seen on the A-4M, although without the associated ECM blisters.

IDF/AF A-4s could carry the full range of US ‘dumb’ bombs, plus the French-made bombs in the Israeli inventory. SUU-30 and Mk.20 Rockeye cluster bombs were widely used, as were napalm and rockets. AIM-9B and D Sidewinders were available by 1973, later supplemented by Shafrir II IR-guided AAMs. AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles were used effectively against SAM radars.

Precision weapons included the GBU-8 HOBO TV-guided glide bomb, the AGM-62 Walleye and the Gabriel 3 radar-guided ASM. ARBS-equipped A-4Ns could carry Paveway I and II series LGBs. It is believed that 20mm SUU-16 gun pods were used at one time.

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