30 years after Lebanon war, pilots reminisce

1982 war marked first time the Israel Air Force used attack helicopters in combat, helping establish doctrine relevant today.

Israeli Cobra helicopter 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli Cobra helicopter 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 capability.
“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 week.
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 systems.
“Their ability to fly low gave the helicopters an advantage over fighter jets when facing air-defense systems,” Dagan explained.
The first 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 military.
“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.
The 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.
“The 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 Fighter.
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.
In order to have an influence, you need people who will be there, like a pilot flying a helicopter,” he said.