Highest number of IAF peacetime operations took place in 2019

A senior officer in the IAF told The Jerusalem Post that 2019 was the busiest year for an air force in peacetime.

200TH UAV SQUADRON Commander Lt.-Col. Y looks at a map of the Middle East in his office. (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
200TH UAV SQUADRON Commander Lt.-Col. Y looks at a map of the Middle East in his office.
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
Facing multiple enemies on multiple fronts, it’s been a very active year for the Israel Air Force, from the North to South and beyond, both offensive and defensive.
A senior officer in the IAF told The Jerusalem Post that 2019 was the busiest year for an air force in peacetime.
“This year saw the most operations by the air force since the founding of the State of Israel,” said Lt.-Col. R, the commander of the IAF’s 253 Negev Squadron, during a recent interview at Ramon Airbase in southern Israel.
Flying F-16s, ground crews and pilots in Lt.-Col. R’s squadron have been working 24/7 and acting on all fronts, carrying out precise and successful missions against Israel’s enemies.
Tensions with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip continue to pose a threat to Israel, with several rounds of violent conflict breaking out more than a dozen times over the last year and close to 2,000 rockets fired from the blockaded coastal enclave.
In response to the rocket fire, the IDF has struck over 1,000 targets in the Strip over the past year, the large majority of them belonging to Hamas.
Along the northern border, which according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi is the central strategic challenge facing the State of Israel, the military is facing an overt conflict with the Islamic Republic which continues to entrench itself in Syria.
Iran has for years been trying to establish a 1,200-km. (745-mile) long land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, a major concern for Israel which since 2013 has been carrying out a “war-between-wars” campaign aimed at preventing Iran from reaching its goal.
Israeli officials have warned that Iran is also attempting to entrench itself in Iraq, a mainly Shia country, as it did in Syria, where it has established and consolidated a parallel security structure. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in August hinted at Israel’s role in several strikes in the country saying, “Iran has no immunity, anywhere.”
That conflict is “unprecedented,” Lt.-Col. R said, adding “We are living in an era which will one day be named. It started with the Arab Spring and never really ended.”
According to Lt.-Col. R, “The dynamics of the Middle East have an impact on our squadron which has to be ready to go from zero to 100 in seconds.
“The Middle East has many challenges which the air force is able to answer,” he explained. “The reason why we don’t have enemy jets in our airspace is because we have great defensive capabilities and many of our operations are offensive.
“A good way to bring peace is strength,” Lt.-Col. R said, adding nevertheless that he can’t look down on Israel’s enemies.
“Our enemies are also learning and so we have to keep learning from the moment we land.”
And while the air force is at its peak, Lt.-Col. R warned that next year won’t be any different.
But it’s not only the pilots who are busy; troops in the air defense division have been working just as hard protecting Israeli skies.
According to Lt.-Col. Nir Talias, commander of 947 Iron Dome Battalion, the past year has been challenging for the soldiers and reservists who had to deal with “a high number of challenges” posed by threats both in Gaza and in the North.
“We are only part of Israel’s defense systems which protects the home front to allow citizens to have a normal life, even under fire,” Talias said.
MORE THAN 1,500 rockets and mortars have been fired toward Israel over the past year from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, and over two dozen fired from Syria, a significant increase in the past four years.
According to numbers released by Israel’s Shin Bet security service, more than 2,600 rockets and mortars have been fired over the past two years from Gaza; over half of those in the last year alone. The majority of the rockets and mortars fired into southern Israel over the past year were launched during three violent rounds of conflict with the Strip.
Talias’s troops are on alert 24/7 to confront terror groups and Shi’ite militias “which are trying to challenge our sovereignty and carry out terror attacks, especially rockets,” he said, adding, “It’s no secret that there are challenges. We understand the threat and what the other side wants to do, and while there are always surprises, we always learn from every cycle.
“We are always trying to be three steps ahead of our enemy, so every cycle of violence – be it in the South or North – we will be better and stronger.”
Israel has a comprehensive protective umbrella able to counter the growing missile threats from its enemies, and continuously improves the technology behind the country’s anti-missile systems.
These include the Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets; the Arrow (Arrow-2 and Arrow-3) system which intercepts ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere; and the newly operational David’s Sling missile-defense system which is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium-to-long-range rockets, as well as cruise missiles fired at ranges from 40-300 km.
Israel also has three Patriot system batteries as well as the naval Barak-8ER long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM), designed to defend against a myriad of short-to-long-range airborne threats like incoming missiles, planes and drones at both low and high altitudes, and upgraded to have an extended range to protect against cruise missiles.
Talias told the Post that 90% of rockets heading toward residential areas have been intercepted by his troops using the Iron Dome system.
According to Talias, the ability to identify the projectile and intercept it before it falls is a challenge to troops, but the Iron Dome is able to deal with threats within moments.
“Everyone is always trying to challenge us, and we try all the time to make sure that our soldiers make the right decision at the right time,” he said. “It’s of strategic importance.”
And Talias doesn’t see his workload getting lighter in the near future.
“Next year we will face the same kind of threats... we are prepared for war,” he said, explaining that even though “our system is to prevent war by stopping rockets from hitting our citizens,” troops always stay prepared.
THE IAF’S eye in the sky, the 200th UAV Squadron, was just as busy as the 253th Squadron flying the Heron medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) some 13,000 flight hours on all fronts.
“It sounds crazy, but I can be in the control station taking part in an operation and within half an hour I can be in a theater watching a movie with my wife,” said Lt.-Col. Y who commands the squadron.
He told the Post that his pilots were responsible for 70%-80% of IAF operations over the past year.
“We work 24/7, there’s not one day that we aren’t in the air,” he said as he turned on his computer screen to a scene in Gaza. “I can see everything the drone is seeing from my office. You see right there? That is a Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant who just left his mosque.”
And while they aren’t manned like the fighter jets in Lt.-Col. R’s squadron, it’s the man or woman on the ground in central Israel who makes the final decision. A growing trend, the drone world presents a constant dilemma of collateral damage while preserving the safety of the mission.
“We know it’s not a game, we see the explosions. We make the decisions for the fighter jets to strike or not to when we see there are civilians in the area.”
Lt.-Col. Y recounted one operation several months ago where two Gazans were spotted approaching the border fence with Israel, which made the decision to strike them.
“The next day when we understood that they were children, my stomach dropped and I saw the face of the team. They were ashen. We understood it’s not a video game.”
The Heron, known as Shoval in the IAF, has a 45-hour duration at up to 35,000 ft. With an operational range limited only by fuel availability, the RPAs can take part in missions (reconnaissance as well as combat and support roles) over 1,000 km from where they are being operated in central Israel.
“There are no borders, the RPA will go wherever it’s needed,” Lt.-Col. Y said, adding that “every year we cross the boundaries of what we can do.”
According to Lt.-Col. Y, it’s a new ball game since Iran entered the messy picture of the Middle East.
“Our enemies in the North and South are always challenging us. It’s like a chess game and we have to stay humble because they aren’t suckers,” he said. “The downing of the American drone in June has shown that taking out drones has entered the equation now.”
Pointing to Saudi Arabia, he said it’s not a rare event for state or non-state actors to use drones for attack operations.
“The technology is there and we need to be ready. Infantry commanders in militaries are teaching their soldiers to look up for drones,” he said, and he wants to be ready when the target is Israel.
“It’s not something you would see from first-grade terrorists or ISIS. These kinds of attacks are by someone smart with a lot of resources and assets,” he said.
And like other officers, Lt.-Col. Y doesn’t see anything changing in the region in the coming year.
“There are no quiet borders,” he said. “The Iranians will continue to work to project their power. It’s a very challenging time to be an officer in the military. Israel counts only on itself and we always work to stay strong.”