The First Lebanon War might not be known for its helicopters but it was the
first time the Israel Air Force used attack helicopters in combat, providing
results and helping to establish a doctrine that is still studied as a new
conflict looms on the horizon.
The Israel Air Force’s history with attack
helicopters dates back to before the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Nehemia Dagan, a decorated helicopter pilot, urged the
military’s top brass to invest in creating an attack helicopter
“We originally raised the idea before 1973 but there were
people in the IDF – particularly in the ground forces but also in the air force
– who were opposed to the investment,” Dagan recalled in an interview this
The realization that the air force required such a capability came
after the war, during which IDF armored divisions and infantry brigades
encountered fierce resistance from the Egyptian and Syrian military, and fighter
jets were downed by sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missile
“Their ability to fly low gave the helicopters an advantage over
fighter jets when facing air-defense systems,” Dagan explained.
helicopters arrived in 1975 and two squadrons were established – one of Cobras
and the other of Defenders. A number of years later, the IAF installed TOW
anti-tank-missile launchers on the helicopters but it wasn’t until the 1982 war
that they saw combat.
During the war, Dagan said, the two squadrons
destroyed a combined 110 armored vehicles – mostly from the Syrian
“It was an unbelievable success,” he said. “The two squadrons
destroyed more armored vehicles together than each of the two divisions that
operated in Lebanon did on their own.”
Brig.-Gen. David Barki, the
current commander of the IAF’s Helicopter Directorate, said that the lessons
learned from the battles in 1982 still resonated widely throughout the air force
as it prepares for future conflicts.
Israel’s current attack helicopter
squadrons are made up of Cobras and Apache helicopters. Some of the Cobras have
been in service since the late 1970s and early 1980s and are expected to
continue operations until 2020.
“The main lesson was that attack
helicopters can assist ground forces as they maneuver by attacking before the
force, by locating and destroying enemy targets and by neutralizing
anti-aircraft systems,” Barki said in an interview on Thursday.
advantage attack helicopters have over fighter jets, Barki said, is the pilot’s
ability to see the battlefield from “up close and inside” while providing
commanders on the ground with a better view of what is happening.
attack helicopter pilot is like a combat soldier,” he said. “The pilot knows how
to adapt the platform to the various missions the IAF faces and to make sure it
is relevant for all different types of challenges.”
Last year, the IAF
held a conference called “2030” during which officers predicted that in 20 years
the air force will consist mostly of unmanned aerial vehicles and
fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike
Barki said he believed there would also be room for attack
helicopters in the mix.
“While UAVs have made significant progress,
seeing something on a monitor is not like being inside a battlefield.
order to have an influence, you need people who will be there, like a pilot
flying a helicopter,” he said.
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