Who are the soldiers of the Israel Air Force Missile Unit?

They work around the clock to prepare for the growing threat of ballistic missiles; "We are a national treasure," says unit’s commander.

IAF missile unit 521 (photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
IAF missile unit 521
(photo credit: Courtesy IDF)
Of all the pictures hanging on the wall in the Israel Air Force Missile Test Unit, there is one that stands out prominently: an aerial photo of the famous front gate at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The photo shows deserted railroad tracks leading into a large redbrick building, and three gray fighter jets above it in the cloudless blue sky. On a small metal plate embedded in the corner of the picture, a handwritten note reads, “In the name of the State of Israel, we must remember and never forget. We have only ourselves to rely on.” It is signed by Shkedi – that is, Eliezer Shkedi, the former Israel Air Force commander.
These words express the essence of our being as Israelis, which is felt quite strongly at the Palmahim Air Force Base. We have only ourselves to rely on. We must do everything in our power to protect our people who reside in Zion, while at the same time create a strong enough deterrence that will prevent rockets from ever being launched into Israel in the first place.
I am visiting Palmahim, the largest military base in the country, during a period when Israel is being threatened more than ever before. If you pay attention, you can feel the tension in the air. There’s never any feeling of business as usual here, though. Maybe that’s because this unit is in charge of carrying out the testing of new high-energy missiles designed to protect Israel’s air space.
This is where all of the Israel Air Force’s defense systems are tested before they become operational, including the ones developed by both local and foreign defense companies. We cannot rely on anyone except for our missiles in the heavens. “If urgent tests need to be carried out, we are the ones who take care of everything,” says Lt.-Col. G., the unit’s commander. “During the Second Lebanon War, for example, we were on call after the fighting began, too, so that we could identify problems and fix them straightaway.
“We have not been affected much by budget cuts, but neither do we live in a vacuum.”
I wasn’t given many details on this visit, but that’s no wonder: this is where the Iron Dome systems are checked before being stationed in strategic locations around the country, in order to counteract short-range rockets that are fired at Israel. This is also the place where the Magic Wand is tested.
It’s a system that was designed to intercept medium- and long-range missiles, which the authorities believe Hezbollah has in its possession and could be used to threaten the greater Tel Aviv area. This is also where testing is carried out on the Arrow 2, which protects the home front from ballistic missiles.
These three layers of active defense together form an umbrella, a protective cover over almost the entire country.
The missile test unit is the only one of its kind in the country. No other unit offers these services. “We are a national treasure,” says Lt.-Col. G., “and therefore we offer our services to everyone.” Among their clients are Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israel Military Industries, Israel Aircraft Industries, Elbit Systems and the Defense Ministry. “Because new products are constantly being developed, the volume of systems we test is always growing,” G. says. “We have been experiencing a period of change and empowerment in light of Israel’s investment in air defense.”
This is also the reason why any cuts that are made in the defense budget will most likely pass right over them. “As an organization involved in building up the air force, we are less affected by cuts. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and these cuts are affecting the industry as a whole,” he says.
G. is 44 years old, but looks much younger. He is married and has three children. A picture of his family sits on his desk in his medium-sized office. “It’s a combined family effort,” he says when I ask how he juggles family life with such a demanding job.
G. studied aeronautical engineering at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology in an academic reserve program prior to his military service. He joined this unit after serving for years in the flight test unit. He was drawn to aviation from a young age; he built model airplanes and taught children’s groups.
G. had hoped to be accepted into a pilot training course, but like many others was disqualified due to imperfect vision. “I wanted to be a pilot, but the optometrist did not let me,” he says, smiling, adding that he believes his current role is the peak of his military career.
“It’s a dream come true.”
“On one side, I am a descendant of kibbutz founders, and on the other of Holocaust survivors and soldiers in the Red Army. This combination gives me the motivation to continue carrying on with this important military service, as well as a broader perspective,” G. says, with a rare openness. “I feel a sense of purpose and motivation. This is something worth preserving; forgive me for sounding like a cliché. I never thought I’d work in a job like this, but over the years I’ve gained a sense of responsibility and commitment. It’s amazing to know that the commanders trust us to get the job done.”
The Air Force Missile Test Unit was created in 1969 as a flight test unit. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who was a staunch supporter of technology and aerospace engineering, decided that Israel must carry out its own field testing and make innovative technological advances. In 1961, after the first launching of the Shavit 2 rocket for meteorological research from Palmahim Beach, Ben-Gurion said, “This launching demonstrates Israeli scientists’ abilities. This rocket is 100-percent Israeli made.”
The unit’s first devices were purchased and delivered from various different countries. They included an IBM PC, which was one of only two that could be found at the time in Israel. In the early 1990s, however, the unit gained notoriety due to its testing of the Arrow anti-ballistic missile, another purely Israeli creation. A tremendous amount of smoke spread throughout the skies during the years when Israel improved and upgraded its technological capabilities.
Currently, the Arrow 3 is being developed, which is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in space – outside the earth’s atmosphere, in the final phase of their trajectory – and destroy them on impact, far from Israel’s borders.
Official sources say that this latest version of the Arrow missile was tested a month ago on this base.
“From the moment we start a project, it can take up to two years until we are ready to actually launch the missile.”
And missiles aren’t the only things that this base launches into the air. All of Israel’s satellite launches are also carried out by the Missile Test Unit. Israel is one of only eight countries that are capable of both building and launching satellites. The US, Russia, China, India and France are a few of this exclusive club’s members. The idea behind the creation of the first satellite was also a result of Israel’s belief that the Jewish people could only depend on themselves. When the US refused to share satellite pictures it had taken of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, then-prime minister Menachem Begin understood that Israel must be capable of developing cutting-edge satellites. It took only five years from the time the Israel Space Agency was created until the Ofek 1 was launched in 1988. It was Israel’s first satellite to orbit the earth. Ofek 9, a reconnaissance satellite that was launched in June 2010, is the last one that was launched from the base.
You don’t see any of these activities going on when you stand outside the entrance of the small office. The clear blue sea nearby looks inviting as only the Mediterranean can. On nice days, you can see gazelles drinking from the sprinklers and boars sniffing the garbage cans in hope of finding some food scraps. The coastline here is one of the few remaining nature reserves that haven’t been soiled by modernity, and the water birds and sea turtles still feel at home here. It’s so peaceful here at Palmahim, one of Israel’s most beautiful nature reserves. There is such a stark contradiction between this quiet, blinding beauty and the latest technology in the unit’s control room, which looks like it’s straight out of a Hollywood action adventure.
This is the unit’s nerve center: inside the large room there are two parallel rows of tables used by the director of testing, the senior officials and the announcer – yes, the person who counts backwards from 10 until takeoff. A number of monitors and an internal communication system sit at each control station. Across the room in glass-enclosed rooms that form an arch sit the operators, and the safety, technical and support staff. Above them hang large screens that show updated, real-time data about the test: the flight path, technical data received from radars, telemetry data including range and speed, maps and weather information.
Behind them sits the screening room, where the people who commissioned the test and security officials can sit and watch. Before the rocket is actually launched, simulations are carried out until all those present are satisfied with the results. Each test – and every year there are a number of them – has its own dedicated team made up of several dozen participants, including senior officials and a variety of engineers, each of whom fulfills a different function.
The amount of time it can take from the moment the unit takes on a new project until a missile is launched can reach up to two years, including the initial design and the addition of special capabilities if required.
However, there are other cases, as G. describes: “We also know how to respond to urgent and variable time constraints. If a client has an urgent operational need, we can carry out tests that take only a few days. We deal with a huge range of tests; some long-term tests require great technical depth and long-term planning, and some are quick and extremely urgent.”
THE MISSILE unit attracts soldiers with extremely high educational backgrounds: aeronautical engineers, mathematicians and physicists. Many of them participate in the academic reserve program. The training process can take between one and two years and is carried out gradually within the unit. At first, soldiers are trained until they are ready to carry out long and complicated tests. The training period here is much longer than for other technical systems, so the managers strive to attract technicians who will stay for a long period of time. To be accepted in the unit, technicians must have a broad education and a technological background; many of them already have engineering degrees.
In contrast with other tracks, missile unit technicians are responsible not only for system maintenance, but also for operating them. As a result, they have much more responsibility. “Ultimately, we are the ones responsible for immediately dealing with problems during testing,” says G. “Clearly this helps cut down on costs, but that’s not the only benefit.”
A large proportion of the soldiers who serve in this unit are reservists who were attracted by the fact that it considers knowledge extremely important. The more veteran members have been traveling daily to Palmahim for more than 40 years. Some of them, with quite senior positions, don’t hesitate to come to the base whenever they are needed – even on short notice. “These are people who have a unique amount of knowledge. They are simply irreplaceable,” G. says. “They are extremely dedicated and sometimes even plan their trips abroad according to their reserve duty schedule. Sometimes the number of tasks we are expected to complete overwhelms our regular staff.”
A number of women engineers and commanders also have key positions in the unit. One of them, Capt. S., is a technical director. She is 28, married, has a three-year-old son and lives in central Israel.
S. is a weather forecaster who joined the unit after completing a degree in geophysics. She was attracted by the field’s magic. “I have been exposed to a rich and challenging world that is constantly changing,” she says with a big smile. “I’m right in the thick of things, at the heart of development, and I have a lot of responsibility sitting on my shoulders. The job involves a high amount of adrenalin. Just before we are about to begin a new round of testing, the tension gets thicker and sometimes I end up spending the night at the base. At home, everyone knows that something big is about to take place, and we have an agreement where they don’t ask me for any details and I don’t divulge any.”
S., who is responsible for tools that are used in every test, gives me a tour of the various facilities on the sprawling base. The radar and optical systems and the telemetry stations are all located in different buildings, but are connected to the command center. The unit has a few systems it has been using for decades, and other new ones that are at the height of new technology. For example, the unit boasts of a new Keren Ofek radar system that enables increased communication range and a greater ability to track several targets simultaneously.
While we are traveling around the base, it’s hard not to notice the residential buildings that poke through the lush greenery. It’s incredible how close the population centers are to the military base, where tests are carried out with live ammunition.
“When the unit was created, the western section of Rishon Lezion did not yet exist and Ashdod had not expanded so far to the north,” S. says. “The residential areas around us are continuously growing and expanding.
The fact that this area is so densely populated is a very serious issue. It requires that we retain an extremely high level of control with respect to processes and equipment. I cannot allow residents in nearby neighborhoods to be harmed.”
These safety considerations have turned the sea into the unit’s playground; it’s where the missiles and satellites are fired during trial tests. Although every other country in the world launches its satellites in an easterly orbit, Israel is the only country that, for security reasons, launches in a westerly orbit – which is against the earth’s orbit, and therefore causes the loss of a significant percentage of energy in the initial acceleration.
My tour of the Palmahim Air Base has come to an end, but it has left a lasting impression on me. The Americans are still threatening to bomb Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Congress has not had its last say on the issue.
Who knows what will happen in the future of the conflicted Middle East? But it seems that even if a guided missile were to make its way into our airspace, we have people we can rely upon. 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.