Surrounded by gentle slopes and verdant fields in the Jezreel Valley, the Ramat David Air Base is home to a squadron of F-16 fighter jets. Despite the pastoral surroundings, the pilots are continuously preparing for the worst.
Dubbed by the Israel Air Force as the “First Jet Squadron,” the unit has had a glorious history since its founding in 1953, when it was established and equipped with British-made Gloster Meteor jet fighters. It has fought in all subsequent wars, experienced several platform upgrades, and counts the late astronaut Ilan Ramon as a former serving member.
Today, the squadron consists of single-seat Fighting Falcon jets, known in the IAF as the “Barak” (Lightning).
The plane’s varied roles include preparing for war on multiple fronts, gathering intelligence on the enemy’s activities, intercepting and engaging aerial threats, and possibly, if foreign publications are correct, take part in a covert battle against an Iranian- led, regional arms-smuggling network to terrorist organizations.
As an integral part of the IDF’s long-range reach, the squadron could play a role in any strike on Iran.
“We create responses to a range of arenas and threats,” Lt.-Col. Guy (full name withheld for security reasons), squadron commander, told The Jerusalem Post last week.
“We operate according to a very complex working plan, and strive for maximum efficiency and levels of readiness,” Guy, who possesses a quiet intensity, added.
The F-16c was delivered to the air force in 1987 and “has served loyally ever since,” Guy said. The age of the platform is deceptive. Inside the aircraft, the IAF has been busy with upgrades to avionics, weapons systems, and structural changes. The result, Guy said, is a platform that is almost as technologically advanced as the new jets coming off production lines today.
As squad commander, Guy must ensure his pilots and their aircraft are always on standby, and that they are able to scramble quickly in response to sudden threats, whether aerial or ground-based.
This includes responding to sudden radar readouts of southbound combat aircraft in Syria, which are likely heading to the Syrian Golan to bomb rebel targets, but still need to be monitored closely.
The IAF isn’t the only one improving its war-fighting abilities, Guy noted. “The threats against Israel are also being upgraded,” he stated.
“We’re preparing ourselves for a changing array of threats. In a future clash, our aim will be to assist as quickly as possible, and to have the capabilities to end the conflict as quickly as possible,” he added.
That means “delivering the most aggressive blow to the enemy,” Guy said, referring to new weapons systems that allow pilots to strike hundreds of targets within 24 hours with precision-guided bombs. “This is what we plan and train for.”
Asked about the many improvements in standoff weapons, which allow fighter jets to strike targets from longrange distances, Guy said being able to carry out missions without getting close to the targets is desirable. “If the target lacks air defenses, or the threat to the plane is low, we can approach the target,” he explained. But, he added, either way, the new weapons systems and intelligence that enables targets to be discovered, allow for surgical strikes.
Responding to a question about the air force’s ability to handle multiple fronts simultaneously, Guy said: “Even though it’s a worn out saying, it’s true that Israel is surrounded by enemies. We are aware of that when we draw up the worst case scenario for war on multiple fronts, involving threats near and far. The whole of the IDF is preparing itself for that scenario.”
Alluding to the threat posed to Israel from Iran’s nuclear program, Guy acknowledged the IDF and IAF are continuing to prepare to deal with long-range threats.
He also hinted at the involvement of his squadron in Israel’s covert campaign against an Iranian-led arms smuggling network to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, a campaign that relies on advanced intelligence and the ability to take speedy action.
“We’re aware of our surroundings, and of the dynamics on the other side. There are extreme changes under way,” he said. “We enter where we have to enter, wherever there is a potential threat. We keep our eyes open to understand if a new threat has materialized. And if we are required to act, we do so, based on our ability to identify and deal with threats,” Guy said.
The squadron commander paid tribute to “the world of intelligence.” A world, he said, that was enjoying new, technological means “different to what we’ve known in the past. We make sure we are in control and act where necessary.”
During training, Guy added, the IAF and ground forces are forging closer links, and creating an interconnected operational network that enables them to work together in combat.
Capt. Eyal (full name withheld for security reasons), a 24-year-old F-16c pilot, provided a glimpse into the life of a young man with a heavy burden of responsibility on his shoulders.
He completed a three-year pilot’s course and a year and a half of advanced training before joining the squadron, where he said he is “returning my debt to the state.”
Even while at home, or stuck in traffic, Eyal’s mind is with the air force, he said, admitting it is difficult for others, even those closest to him, to fully understand his world.
“I’m proud to defend the country,” he said. “We have to be highly versed in strategic developments and know what’s going on. We also need to be able to think quickly – there’s not much time in the air. We spend many hours training every day,” Eyal said.
The pilot, a cheerful, yet highly sharp man, expressed full confidence in his jet despite its considerable age, saying the defense establishment and military industries have ensured it remains cutting edge.
Asked about preparations to engage the most powerful nemesis on Israel’s borders, Hezbollah, Eyal said unique training sessions, dedicated to dealing with the organization and its enormous arsenal of 100,000 rockets, are held every six to eight weeks.
The Syrian air force remains a very challenging foe, he said, despite its prolonged engagement against rebels in the three-year civil war. “Since the war started, we’ve been on higher alert. We’re much more alert to movements close to Israel. Our intention is to defend, without heating things up,” he explained.
The pilot said he was confident in the IDF’s ability to employ advanced electronic warfare capabilities against air defense systems that could threaten his aircraft.
“Israeli citizens can sleep quietly,” he said. “We provide a reply to every challenge that might appear.”
Lt. Hen Ilsar, an operations officer, gave insight into what is essentially the squadron’s back office – the staff of flight controllers who ensure all operations run smoothly.
“We explain to the pilots where they can and can’t fly. We’re responsible for scrambling jets. Once in the air, pilots are never alone. We provide assistance with anything they need over our communications channels,” she said.
“Our shift begins at 7 a.m. We ensure the jet takes off on time. Before missions, we scan the intelligence data. And our job is to make sure the planes are equipped with everything they need. Our involvement extends to knowing where bombs will be dropped.
Should any technical problems develop in the air, we provide assistance,” Ilsar said.
The experience has been eye-opening, she said. “I’m exposed to how the pilots work. They are perfectionists and good at multitasking.
They deal with a lot of pressure,” she said.
“There are days when we have a very heavy work load. We are the bottleneck that everyone must pass through. And they all come with demands. They’re convinced their mission is the most important,” Ilsar said with a smile.
Lt.-Col. Nir Davidovich, the chief technical officer on base, is tasked with ensuring the jets are able to take off, fly their sorties, and land safely.
He is responsible for all maintenance crews, made up of conscripts and non-commissioned officers.
“We fix the planes and get them ready for takeoff. In our priorities ladder, our people come first,” Davidovich, a thin man with piercing blue eyes, said.
“Everything is critical. There are no non-critical areas of our work. Our unit is like an orchestra, all parts must perform smoothly. Just one part has to go wrong for a disaster to occur. There is no room for error. When the plane takes off, flies its mission and lands safely – we know that our mission has been accomplished,” he said.