Palmahim airbase, central Israel: Snipers hidden from view took long-range shots, striking two armed men guarding a secretive security facility in a distant enemy country.
Shaldag unit marks 40 years of operation
Suddenly, a low flying Blackhawk helicopter swept down, and masked commandos rapidly dropped down on ropes, landing on the facility's rooftop.
From there, they moved quickly downwards, from room to room, detonating grenades, firing off assault rifles, and taking full control of the site. The commandos' every move projected stealthiness and lethality; Combat teams traveled in formation, scanning their environment through their gun scopes.
Their mission: To raid the facility, recover vital intelligence data, and get back to Israel before anyone could discover what had happened. These scenes formed part of a drill held last week.
Yet on any given day, the unit's members might be far from Israel, carrying out a growing number of covert missions that make up the IDF's 'War Between Wars,' - a series of low-profile operations that greatly benefit Israeli security. Shaldag (Hebrew for the Kingfisher bird) is the name of an Israel Air Force (IAF) commando unit that operates on the ground, in the depth of enemy territory.
Built to gather intelligence and attack enemy targets in a stealthy and surprising manner, the unit's achievements are numerous, dramatic, and hidden behind a tight veil of official secrecy. A senior military source familiar with the unit said last week that its area of coverage began where Israel's borders ended, and continued onwards, far beyond.
The unit is active during routine times such as these, carrying out covert, highly sensitive special operations, and plays key roles during conflicts as well.
Founded forty years ago in 1976, Shaldag was created as a result of lessons learned during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in the wake of a conclusion by the defense establishment, according to which, the IDF was poorly prepared for special operations. The IAF wanted its own ground unit, to be able to hunt down and destroy enemy surface-to-air missile batteries, and set up Shaldag.
Throughout the years, the unit underwent several stages of evolution, falling under the IAF's direct command in 1986, and becoming a core part of the IAF's special airborne forces headquarters in 1992.
A year earlier, in 1991, when Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles began raining down on Israel, the unit's members were on board helicopters heading east to Iraq, when they were recalled by the government.
Their mission to destroy mobile Iraqi missile launchers had been aborted. Most missions since then have gone ahead. "This is a special force built by the standards of the air force," the senior source said. Flexibility, readiness, and total availability for missions are core features.
Sometimes, the unit operates alone, conducting missions that will never come to light. On other occasions, they join other IDF combined armed operations. All members sign up to one year of additional service, and carry out combat reserve duties in the unit until they turn 34.
Shaldag unit training day
After 34, reservists take part in planning, command and control, intelligence, and training roles. The unit often 'loans out' combat crews to the regular infantry, exporting its expertise in raids on enemy positions in the age of asymmetrical warfare.
Shaldag is at the edge of the IDF's commando capability, a position it shares with Sayeret Matkal. When it is not engaged in operations, its commanders analyze enemies and seek to understand what the coming years will bring.
The First Lebanon War of 1982 was the unit's first war, when members conducted forward intelligence-gathering missions in Lebanon.
It was also the first time that Shaldag used laser markers to guide IAF munitions to targets, a role that is no longer necessary in 2016, when the IAF's precision guided bombs can reach their destinations alone, day or night, in all weather conditions.
In the Second Lebanon War of 2006, the unit conducted over 100 missions behind enemy lines, tracking down rocket launchers, forcing out Hezbollah guerrillas from their cover, and gathering intelligence that enabled air strikes.
During the Gaza war of 2014, the unit conducted attack missions and assisted the IDF's ground offensive. It also took part in finding and destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels. It conducted attacks and killed dozens of terrorists, while building up what sources describe as "an intelligence infrastructure" for the rest of the military to use in Gaza.
Today, the IAF needs more intelligence than ever before, as Israel's sub-state enemies prepare to target the home front with waves of rocket strikes and cross-border raids. Hezbollah, Hamas, and jihadists in Syria disperse themselves in complex environments filled with civilians, making the task much more complex for the soldiers.
Tracking down Hezbollah projectile launchers is something Shaldag has been doing for twenty years, when it began operating during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, though these days, the available intelligence, and the scope of threat, are unrecognizably larger.
Estimates of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal vary, but the Iran-based Lebanese organization has been estimated to be in possession of over 100,000 projectiles pointed at Israel. In addition to raiding targets, Shaldag helps the IAF strike its targets from the air. Unit members speak the IAF's language, and transmit precise target coordinates to fighter jets and attack helicopters.
In the past, the IDF was hesitant about ordering high-risk commando raids. However, sources familiar with Shaldag touted the unit's "ability to get there," or reaching highly inaccessible areas in highly armed, hostile territory. The unit also plays a role in the IDF's daily counter-terrorism efforts in the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip, despite the latter's crowded urban conditions, where commando activities are especially prone to detection.
"The idea [behind our participation in counter-terrorism] is to take intelligence capabilities, sneak in, and thwart [the targets]," one source said. "The scope of the unit's operations in Judea and Samaria and in Gaza are enormous," he stated. Operations included accurate sniper fire on terrorists from over 1000 meters away.
Still, the IDF's ever-growing appetite for intelligence forms the unit's main focus.
"The War Between Wars is the most complex of all. It is more focused, and occurs in all relevant arenas. We are continuously considering the cost-benefit. We have a growing number of achievements."