Security and Defense: Safeguarding the skies

The IAF is gearing up for increasingly sophisticated Russian arms being sold to Iran and Syria.

IAF f-16i 224 (photo credit: IDF )
IAF f-16i 224
(photo credit: IDF )
Just over 10 minutes. That's about how long it takes for the IAF to scramble a pair of jets and fly to a point about 100 miles off the coast of Tel Aviv to intercept an incoming commercial plane that is not responding, raising fears of a possible hijacking. While the media don't always report these incidents, they happen almost daily. It could be a civilian airliner that fails to respond to air traffic control calls as it enters the 200-mile mark off the coast and raises fears of a 9/11-type attack on the Azrieli Towers. It could be a Syrian military jet that is training just north of the Golan Heights and suddenly appears to be moving toward the border. The modus operandi for dealing with these events varies, but in general, approval for shooting down a plane needs to come from the prime minister, defense minister, chief of General Staff and IAF commander. In April, 2007, for example, then prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Amir Peretz, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Air Force Elazar Shkedy were all placed on-line after a Continental Airlines passenger plane failed to make contact with air traffic control as it approached the country's airspace. It responded to calls at the last minute. Top IAF officers said it was the closest the air force had ever come to intercepting a civilian passenger plane, except for the 1973 interception of a Libyan airliner which flew over the Israeli-controlled Sinai and failed to heed attempts at communication; 108 people were killed. However complicated, defending the skies from civilian airliners is just one of the wide-ranging list of IAF responsibilities when facing the growing number of threats and operational challenges. OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan likes to say that the air force looks at the Middle East through multifocal glasses. Through one lens it sees the threats close to home; through the other it sees the threats that are far away, such as Iran. Adding to the challenge is the unprecedented procurement of weaponry by Syria, Iran and Hizbullah. Over the past year, Syria has ordered from Russia close to 20 MiG-29 fighters as well as advanced anti-aircraft systems, such as the Pantsyr-22 and the SA-17 with ranges of up to 40 kilometers. These systems, which will be delivered over the next year, are the first procurement of advanced weaponry by Syria since the mid-1980s. Iran is also investing unprecedented sums in anti-aircraft systems to defend its strategic nuclear installations. Talks about the sale of the highly advanced S-300 air defense system took place last week in Moscow during a visit there by reelected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. One of the most advanced anti-aircraft-missile systems in the world, the S-300 has a reported ability to track up to 100 targets simultaneously, while engaging up to 12 at the same time. Iran's air force also flexed its muscles this week when it put on an exercise in the Persian Gulf, reportedly flying a distance of 3,000 km. including midair refueling. The air force consists of two main platforms - F-4 Phantoms that it received in the 1970s from the US, which are used mainly for air defense, and MiG-24s used for offensive operations. Their standoff capabilities are limited and the Iranians are not believed to have GPS-guided missiles. They do, however, have television missiles that can be guided from a distance since they transmit images in mid-flight, but their range is limited. While the Iranian air force does not pose a major threat to the IAF and its advanced American-made fleet of F-15s and F-16s, the exercise demonstrates the possibility that it could be used in an attack against Israel, which is within range due to the Boeing 747 refueling tankers it possesses. While these platforms do not make an IAF strike against Iran impossible, they make it more complicated. "The State of Israel has said that any other solution is preferable," Nehushtan said this week, apparently referring to Iran's nuclear drive. "Nevertheless, the IDF understands that it needs to prepare options and the air force understands its role." The IAF's response to the major improvement in regional air defenses include, the procurement of new airplanes, increased training and mental preparations. While there have been accidents that have led to the loss of life in recent years, the last downing of an IAF aircraft was during the Second Lebanon War when a transport helicopter was shot down by Hizbullah, most likely by an anti-tank missile. Before that, the last aircraft shot down was in the 1980s. "Pilots need to know that they do not always come back from an operation," explained one top IAF officer this week. "We will know how to deal with all the different air defense systems, but we need to also realize that it will likely come at a price." To grapple with the S-300, the IAF will soon start using a new virtual training system for its pilots to practice evading the heat-seeking missiles. Until now, the IAF has trained against anti-aircraft missiles by activating its own air defense system - including the Hawk missile - and having it lock on to the training jets. This was deemed expensive and also not effective. Instead, with the new virtual trainer, the pilot will see in his helmet's heads-up display missiles being fired at him. If the plane is hit, the pilot will see a sign indicating that the plane is "destroyed." In addition, to deal with the ever-changing and dangerous environment, the IAF is pushing hard for approval to purchase the fifth-generation stealth F-35. Also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, it has been developed by Lockheed Martin and if Israel places an order in the coming weeks, it will begin receiving the first of its 25-plane squadron in 2014. Nehushtan recently visited Fort Worth, Texas, where the plane is being manufactured and came back impressed. A group of top IAF pilots spent a few days flying on its simulator. They returned with only praise. Unfortunately, the IAF's path to the plane has encountered several major obstacles, particularly an American refusal to allow the integration of Israeli systems on the aircraft, but these now appear close to being overcome. Some officials in the defense establishment, however, including Defense Ministry Director-General Pinhas Buhris, have tried to dampen the IAF's enthusiasm for the plane. According to top IAF officers, the Pentagon is leaning toward allowing Israel to install its own electronic warfare systems on the plane, to connect its computer mainframe to the general IAF system and to allow Israel to independently maintain it. Due to its stealth capability, the plane would be capable of overcoming all the different radar and air defense systems in Iranian and Syrian hands.