120th ‘Desert Giants’ Squadron expands the long reach of the IAF

MILITARY AFFAIRS: IAF’s 120th ‘Desert Giants’ Squadron has taken part in hundreds of missions, including missions for Israel’s ‘war between the wars’ campaign against Iran.

GIVING THE thumbs up to the  Re’em Boeing 707 tanker aircraft.  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
GIVING THE thumbs up to the Re’em Boeing 707 tanker aircraft.
The 120th (“Desert Giants”) Squadron tanker aircraft are a central part of the Israel Air Force, enabling fighter jets to go anywhere, at any time. Without them, fighter jets can go so far.
“We extend the IAF’s long reach,” said the commander of the squadron, Lt.-Col. T., during my visit to the Nevatim Air Force Base in southern Israel.
Israel’s fleet of Re’em Boeing 707 tanker aircraft, the number of which remains confidential, are former civilian aircraft adapted for military uses such as aerial refueling of fighter jets and transport.
Able to carry 20 extra fuel tanks while modified for aerial refueling, the Re’ems can be adapted to carry passengers as well as cargo such as military equipment and ammunition. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the planes have also been used to carry medical equipment.
Sitting in the cockpit of one of the aging planes, Lt.-Col. T. admitted that it was challenging to fly the planes, explaining that the captain must be able to coordinate with the boom operator, who sits in the back of the plane.
Though they are a strategic platform, many of the Re’em aircraft are nearing the age of 60 and require the hands-on work of technicians paying attention to every detail.
“The Re’em is a challenging platform because of its age; and, yes, there is a bit of ‘overwork’ needed on the plane in order for it to be operationally ready for all the missions that are required of it,” said one of the squadron’s senior technical officers, Maj. S. “This squadron is the long arm of the IAF and needs to stand up to everything that is demanded from it.”
Sitting in his office overlooking the tarmac with several Re’em aircraft, Maj. S. explained that in addition to the aircraft’s age, the wind, heat, sandstorms, and other weather-related challenges that are prevalent in the Negev are additional difficulties that his troops need to contend with.
With the planes nearly half a century old, its parts are not the easiest to replace, should one of them break or stop functioning. Israeli defense companies can make specific parts, if needed, and in 2017 the IAF bought a Boeing 707 from the Brazilian Air Force to use for parts.
“Of course, everyone wants a new platform, but even though the Re’em [aircraft] are old, we are keeping them operational until they are taken out of service,” Maj. S. said.
With the need to keep ahead of increased threats in the Middle East, the Re’em aircraft are set to be replaced by Boeing’s advanced KC-46 refuelers in the coming years.
“The KC-46 will give us a lot more, both in terms of missions and range,” Lt.-Col. T. said. “The reach that they can get to will improve our strategic depth.”
Unlike the more advanced and newer KC-46 refuelers, everything is done manually on the Re’ems, including maneuvering the boom to the planes in midair.
Almost like a video gamer, the boomer has to be precise and have incredible hand-eye coordination in order not to miss the plane the boom is refueling.
In the KC-46, the boomer sits right behind the cockpit and has digital displays to aid him in maneuvering the boom to the receiving plane. The offload, rate and boom limits are also automatically set.
With a range of 11,830 km. with the capacity to unload some 207,000 pounds (94,000 kg.) of fuel, the KC-46 can refuel over 64 different types of aircraft.
All fuel tanks in the KC-46, which is specifically built for combat close to the battlefield, are fully inerted and are configured with ballistic armor. The plane also has IR countermeasures, RF warnings, threat avoidance systems, and NVIS lighting (Night Vision Imaging System), enabling the plane to land in complete darkness and giving the massive plane full covert capabilities.
Israel is also able to add indigenous electric warfare countermeasure systems.
Like the Re’em, while its main purpose is to act as a refueler, the KC-46 can be configured in two hours to act as an airborne field hospital, a transport plane (with a capacity to carry some 6,500 pounds [3,000 kg.] of cargo) or 200 passengers.
OVER THE past year, the squadron has carried out hundreds of refueling operations, including several as part of Israel’s “war between the wars” campaign.
Though Lt.-Col. T. could not expand on missions carried out as part of the campaign, he shared with the Post that the most interesting mission over the past year was part of the covert campaign that aims to prevent the entrenchment of Iranian forces in Syria and to stop the smuggling of advanced game-changing weaponry to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The complicated mission took months of planning and training before the planes took off from Israel.
“The mission needed troops to work with precision, and at the end of it, it was a success, both operationally and strategically.”
While that was one of the more interesting missions of the year, the one that touched him the most was joining the IAF delegation for a two-week drill in Germany.
During the drill, the IAF and the German Air Force conducted a joint flyover in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and of the Israelis murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. An IAF Gulfstream G550, two IAF F-16s and two German Eurofighter Typhoons flew over the Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base near Munich and then over the Dachau concentration camp.
IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin as well as the commander of the German Air Force, Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, were aboard the Gulfstream which was piloted by Lt.-Col. G., the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
“As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the personal context was great,” Lt.-Col. T. said as he held up a Luftwaffe pin that he keeps in the pocket of his flight suit. “On the one hand, it was really hard, but on the other hand, it was really meaningful to come with our air force, with our flag, and fly over Germany. My grandmother is no longer alive, but I am sure she would have been proud.”
The squadron has also carried out tens of other missions, including cargo missions around the world.
Over the years, the squadron has flown thousands of kilometers across the world, and it broke the record for the longest IAF flight, when it flew 14,500 km. to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for the Red Flag exercise.
The long journey took three days, with several tankers prepositioned in Spain and Lajes Air Base in the mid-Atlantic, before they flew to Bangor, Maine, and then finally to Nellis.
The tankers have also flown to Australia, Japan, Alaska and Russia, where the squadron took part in the operation to repatriate the body of Sgt.-Maj. Zachary Baumel, almost 40 years after he went missing during the battle of Sultan Yacoub during the first days of the First Lebanon War in June 1982.
According to Lt.-Col. T., a laboratory was fitted on the plane in order to identify his remains before being flown to Israel for burial.
Though Lt.-Col. T. is filled with pride for the Re’ems, aircraft “with souls,” he is nonetheless excited about the KC-46s which will accompany IAF jets on future missions far from Israel’s borders.
“The KC-46 is state-of-the-art and will allow the squadron to continue to change, as the needs of the IAF are only increasing. These aircraft will be with us for many years to come.”