Sometime after midnight on September 6, 2007, 10 F-15I fighter jets took off from an air force base in Israel and headed towards Syria. The target – a nuclear reactor being built along the Euphrates River modeled after the North Korean reactor in Yongbyon and financed with Iranian assistance.
Minutes into the flight, the command came through from headquarters in Tel Aviv and seven of the planes broke away from the formation and dipped into Syrian airspace. Seconds later they had already dropped their first bomb on a radar installation. Only a few moments had passed and the planes were already over the nuclear rector, dropping their AGM-65 bombs, each one weighing about half a ton.
As the planes began making their way out of enemy airspace, the Syrian military finally woke up and fired air defense missiles into the air. But it was too little, too late.
This is the reported story of the socalled Operation Orchard, the bombing of a fledgling nuclear reactor which Syrian President Bashar Assad was building illicitly in an effort to strike a balance of power with Israel. Israel never confirmed attacking the site.
What is less known about the raid on the reactor is Israel’s reported use of electronic warfare in neutralizing Syria’s air defense systems, which form a tight line of security along its borders against Israeli raids like the one three years ago.
Two months after the operation, Aviation Week published a story titled “Israel shows electronic prowess” claiming that IAF electronic warfare (EW) systems succeeded in deactivating all of Syria’s air defense systems for the entire period of time that the Israeli fighter jets needed to infiltrate the country, bomb their target and escape.
Israel has never confirmed its use of electronic warfare and network invasion during the 2007 strike, just like it has never publicly confirmed that it was, in fact, the Israeli air force behind the bombing. In the article, however, Pinchas Buhris, who served as director general of the Defense Ministry at the time, admitted that Israel was investing a great deal of resources in developing these state-of-the-art capabilities.
“You need this kind of capability,” Buchris said at the time. “You’re not being responsible if you’re not dealing with it. And, if you can build this kind of capability, the sky’s the limit.”
For Lt.-Col. Oren, commander of the IAF’s Sky Crows Squadron – the unit responsible for developing and operating Israel’s EW capabilities, this statement is more than true.
IN AN EXCLUSIVE interview and visit to the squadron – the first ever by a civilian reporter – Oren provides a unique and rare glimpse into the quieter side of what the air force does. While pilots and fighter jets usually steal the headlines, in most operations there is always an element of EW involved, assisting the planes in getting where they need to go undetected.
The squadron’s mission is quite simple, Oren explains.
“The current theater of operations for aircraft is challenged and threatened by advanced surface-to-air missile systems in enemy territory,” he says. “Our objective is to activate our systems and to disrupt and neutralize the enemy’s systems.”
The Sky Crows Squadron is located on the far side of the Tel Nof Air Force Base not far from Rehovot. The headquarters are built like most squadron headquarters in the IAF – in the shape of a U – with offices lining both sides.
All of the personnel wear jumpsuits even though they are not pilots, although some of them started off but did not finish the IAF’s elite pilots’ course.
The importance of EW systems in the air force has grown tremendously in recent years as Israel’s enemies seek more and more advanced air defense systems. Iran is still working on convincing Russia to supply it with the S-300, one of the most advanced surface-to-air systems in the world. Syria recently received new Russian systems and Hizbullah and Hamas are believed to have a significant number of shoulder-to-air missiles.
Any potential future Israeli operation in Syria, Lebanon, Iran or Gaza would require the activation of EW systems to ensure that IAF planes arrive at their destinations unharmed, are able to drop their bombs over their designated targets and return to their bases back home.
THE IAF’s EW capabilities are split into two categories. The first is blocking communications and C4I systems. The second category is disrupting radar systems and preventing them from detecting and tracking incoming planes. As the squadron’s motto goes: “They shall not hear us; they shall not see us.”
The squadron, Oren says, relies on three main components – intelligence, technology and the men and women who operate the systems.
The intelligence is provided by the IAF’s Intelligence Command which studies the air defense and radar systems in the hands of Israel’s enemies and relays the information to the squadron. Then, the Israeli defense industries enter the picture and in coordination with the squadron and the IAF’s Materiel Command develop the necessary systems. The technological capabilities are described as “top secret” and only a select few within the industries and IAF know exactly how they work.
As Oren explains, even the closest of allies do not share information on each other’s EW systems. One example is Israel’s recent decision to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which is a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet. Despite years of negotiations, Israel did not receive approval from the Pentagon to install its own EW systems on the plane in place of the US system. Instead, it can only attach the system as an “add-on” to the existing platforms.
“Israel is considered a world superpower in the field of EW,” Oren says.
The decision to open up the squadron to the media was not made easily and had to be approved at the highest levels within the IDF. One of the considerations was the unit’s 40th anniversary since its establishment in 1970 as well as – like many stories coming out of the IDF – a means of bolstering Israel’s deterrence.
The IAF’s EW systems are split into two subcategories – some are airborne and others are land-based in permanent installations. Oren’s squadron is responsible for the airborne equipment and his teams fly frequently on various missions – some involving fighter jets, some special operations behind enemy lines and some during routine sorties. Not much can be said about exactly what these officers currently do but some insight can be provided by looking at Israel’s past operations and wars.
In the First Lebanon War in 1982, for example, the airborne EW systems were instrumental in sabotaging Syria’s air defense systems and providing the IAF with ultimate air superiority over Lebanon. In subsequent air battles, the IAF managed to shoot down dozens of Syrian fighter jets without losing a single plane.
During the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the unit was again activated but this time mostly to break into Palestinian and Lebanese TV and radio channels to push anti-Hamas and anti-Hizbullah propaganda.
“The bottom line is that the IAF’s EW capabilities are relevant in every theater of operations and on every front,” Oren says. “There is no IAF operation that we are not part of – from special operations, to routine operations and all-out wars.”
A LOT of the unit’s work boils down to the intelligence it is provided ahead of a mission. While definitely focused on his missions, Oren always has Ron Arad on his mind. Arad, an IAF navigator, ejected over Lebanon in 1986 and is still missing in action.
“We have to know exactly which radar there is, what frequency it is operating on and what time we need to hit it,” Oren explains. “The price of a mistake is a plane detected and possibly a pilot getting shot down and having another Ron Arad on our hands.”
Oren’s unit can install systems in large aircraft like C-130 Hercules transport planes and this way provide coverage over a large area by disrupting many different systems at once. In addition, as a second layer of defense, each plane carries its own EW systems which are much more limited in their scope and range.
“I can protect an entire area from a standoff position while a plane’s systems are good just for itself as another layer of self-defense,” he says.
The training in the unit is long and last a year and a half before operators are declared operation-ready. After basic training and studies that include learning about systems employed by the enemy, the operators spend an entire year learning how to use the Israeli EW systems.
“There is a lot of pressure and a need for quick decisions and responses,” the unit commander says.”
One operator is Lt. Tal, a 21-year-old female officer. “This job requires a lot of studying – just sitting and reading books on the systems,” she says.
As an EW operator, Oren believes in the school of thought which argues that Israel does not need to get overly excited by the possible delivery of the S-300, for example, to Iran. While Oren won’t comment, foreign media reports have speculated over the years that Israel has or is already developing an EW system that would succeed in neutralizing the advanced surface-to- air missile system.
“We shouldn’t get stuck on one threat or another,” he suggests.
“The other side is constantly building up its capabilities and the IAF knows now and will know in the future how to provide a response to those threats.”
The advantage of using EW is that it is a soft-kill weapon and, unlike a bomb or missile, is not always even detected.
As a junior EW operator, Oren participated in the bombing of Ahmed
Jibril’s weapons storehouse along the Lebanese- Syrian border in the
1990s. His mission was to ensure that the Syrian air defense systems
would not detect the IAF aircraft.
He remembers his hands shaking aboard the EW aircraft as he worked to neutralize each radar.
“There was a large group of air defense batteries,” he recalls. “We
activated the EW systems diligently and hit them hard with EW.”
The Sky Crows fit in well with the IAF’s overall policy of ensuring that
it retains a qualitative military edge in the Middle East. This has
never been more true than today, a period marked by unprecedented
military buildup throughout the region – the $60 billion arms deal to
Saudi Arabia as an example – in face of Iran’s continued pursuit of
“The IAF wants to retain its aerial superiority and we make sure that it can,” he says.