Analysis: Relevance of IAF dogfight training

F-16I crew killed in crash were drilling dogfights over enemy territory, in a training mission that underlines IAF’s preparations for war on several fronts.

iaf f16 takes off 298 ap (photo credit: AP)
iaf f16 takes off 298 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The last flight that Majors Amichai Itkis and Emanuel Levi made Wednesday night was one that Israel Air Force pilots do not encounter on a daily basis or, to be more exact, have not encountered in almost 30 years.
The two men were flying the lead aircraft in a formation of four F-16I Sufas and were drilling dogfights with enemy aircraft over enemy territory. The last time an IAF pilot fought with an enemy pilot was in 1982, when Israeli jets shot down some 80 Syrian jets without losing a single one of their own.
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Some might say that due to the almost three decades that have passed since then, such training is obsolete. Well, not exactly.
As Teheran, which has a large air force, continues to race forward with its nuclear program despite stiffened sanctions and threats of more, the possibility that the IAF will be sent to attack Iranian nuclear facilities is real.
In addition, the Middle East is slowly changing – while Israel has for decades enjoyed clear air superiority in the region, this is no longer as straightforward as it once was.
Syria, which for decades neglected its air force, several years ago began expressing interest in acquiring new MiGs, with some reports claiming that it has already signed a deal with Russia. Egypt is currently buying more than 20 F- 16s and Saudi Arabia is finalizing a $60 billion deal to buy 84 F-15s that could one day pose a direct threat to Israel.
What is unique about training for dogfights in enemy territory is that the IAF pilots cannot rely on help from Israel’s ground-based radars. Instead, they only have their onboard radars. The imperative is to detect the enemy before the enemy detects you and then to shoot him down.
It will take some time before the IAF will be able to conclude what exactly caused Wednesday’s crash. While a mechanical malfunction is being considered, the growing assessment is that the plane hit the ground due to human error. The pilot might have miscalculated the altitude and how close the plane was to the ground.
Like the IAF’s last major accident – the crash of a Sikorsky CH-53 Yasour transport helicopter in Romania in July – the F-16I was flown Wednesday night by an experienced pilot and navigator. Itkis was the squadron’s former deputy commander. Levi was one of the first navigators to fly on the Sufa when it arrived in Israel several years ago.
While there is no common denominator that directly connects the two accidents, there is no question that the IAF is flying a lot more in recent years, including overseas, mainly as a consequence of Israel’s strategic standing in the Middle East and the growing threats the nation faces.
Intensive training is not a bad thing. As the saying goes in Hebrew, “Tough in training means easy in war.”
One could argue that the crew should not have flown three sorties in one day, and instead, maybe just one, or at most two.
On the other hand, it is important to understand what type of conflict the IAF is preparing its pilots for. With Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas all connected in what some call an axis of evil, the IAF and the IDF are preparing for the possibility that the next war will be fought simultaneously on several fronts.
As a result, pilots and navigators need to know how to fly several times a day, on different fronts and in different battle conditions – in Gaza with light surface-to-air missile systems, Lebanon with heavier systems and Syria and Iran with the possibility of dogfights.