Skip to comments.No room for error - Israeli fighter jocks mimic enemy dogfighters
Posted on 11/29/2010 8:05:26 AM PST by sukhoi-30mki
No room for error - Israeli fighter jocks mimic enemy dogfighters
by Gur Salomon
JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) -- Several Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16 Fighting Falcon jets are patrolling the skies over the Uvda Airbase on an interception mission far above the Negev Desert hinterlands. Just as they spot the enemy, lock on and ready for battle, enemy F-16s unexpectedly swoop down on their tails.
Later on, while the pilots - members of an IAF squadron on a week-long training deployment at Uvda - are concentrating on bombing a ground target, they are notified that one of their colleagues had just been shot down. Thousands of feet below, Cobra helicopter gunships are searching the sandy dunes for the downed pilot.
The dilemma for the visiting pilots is not a simple one: should they continue to battle it out with the rival jets, or peel off and provide cover for the rescue efforts?
The downed pilot is eventually rescued. His friends are now ordered to escort a fighter that had sustained enemy fire back to base. Along the way, they have to contend with more hostile jets and evade surface-to-air SAM missile batteries.
This multi-element training sortie is one of dozens flown monthly at Uvda, a typical day at the office for the F-16 pilots deployed here on a permanent basis and tasked with training their colleagues from the IAF's fighter squadrons.
But in the volatile Middle East, the war games played out at Uvda could quickly and unexpectedly become real.
Regardless of how a future war might unfold, the fighter squadrons are destined to play a critical role in ensuring the physical survival of the state. Xinhua was granted rare access to the IAF's 115th Squadron, where the most extreme war scenarios are taught and drilled on a daily basis.
CREATING A REALISTIC PLAYGROUND
A blinding sun glares off the broiling tarmac of Uvda's runways, home to the 115th Squadron. A few dozen F-16 Falcons and F-15 Eagles slowly taxi across the asphalt, and then, one by one, light up deafening afterburners and arc into the sky on training sorties.
Among them are several F-16As piloted by members of the 115th, more commonly known as The Red Squadron or, by its official name, The Flying Dragon. It's an aggressor squadron set up in July 2005 that leads the IAF's Advanced Training Center.
For the next hour or so, they will put their colleagues, pilots from visiting squadrons who deployed here for a week-long training series, through sweat-drenching combat maneuvers.
The objective of the training missions that take place at Uvda is clear: the Red Squadron role plays the enemy for the visiting pilots who are designated "Blue" or "the good guys."
In addition to emulating the specific performance capabilities of various enemy fighter aircraft and their weapon systems, the Red Squadron pilots are required to fly in accordance with the known dogfighting doctrines and tactics of enemy air forces in the region.
"The small characteristics are extremely hard to adopt," said Capt. Omer, one of the squadron's two deputy commanders.
"I learned to fly in the IAF. That's how I fly, and it's hard to change old habits. It's not so much about how to fly. It's about modifying habits and instincts," he told Xinhua.
The 115th is regarded highly unconventional among the IAF's gamut of fighter squadrons, exclusively designated to conduct training missions and exempt from maintaining interception alert 24/7. In wartime, the squadron would be dispersed, its 25-to-33- year-old pilots immediately returning to their original squadrons and the aircraft sent into real battle.
The squadron's uniqueness is also attributed to being the sole fighter squadron in the IAF that incorporates a wing of AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships on a permanent basis. There is also a ground forces section tasked with training air crews in dealing with ground-based threats, mostly advanced anti-aircraft batteries, shoulder-fired missiles and electronic warfare.
"The IAF saw that it has a lot of resources that it can put to better use," explained Capt. Omer, "mostly aircraft, live munitions ranges and ground assets that should be operated together."
According to the Flying Dragons, the visiting pilots - veterans and novices alike - find the training here particularly thrilling. They view it as a much welcomed respite from the banality of daily flying in their squadrons. Here, they get a chance to temporarily ditch the strictly-enforced safety rules and push the 70 million U. S. dollars machines to - and often over - the edge.
That "bleeding edge" flying sometimes leads to tragic results: a pilot and navigator flying an F-16I were killed during night time maneuvers, when their craft crashed shortly after takeoff from Uvda on Nov. 10.
A MAN OF VISION
The winner in a dogfight typically plays to the strengths of his own aircraft while forcing his adversary to fly at a design disadvantage.
The need to embed this rule-of-thumb in fighter pilots' instinctive reactions was on the mind of Colonel Kobi Richter in 1977 when, as a young squadron commander, he first approached the IAF's top brass with the idea of establishing an aggressor squadron that would train pilots and enable them to better understand and deal with the MiGs employed by enemy air forces.
"I'm coming from a more scientific background," said Richter, who holds a Ph.D. in electrophysiology and pharmacology.
"My idea at the time was: I can teach you a lot by just taking all the performance graphs of, let's say, the MiG-21, and the performance graphs of your own aircraft."
"I first want you to read them," Richter explained. "Then I can tell you 'here's where I have an area of advantage, here's an area of disadvantage. Now let's see how I can manage a dogfight in a way that it will occur as much as possible in my area of advantage. '"
Though over a decade away from the inside of a cockpit, Richter still enthusiastically recalled his flying days. His 22-year career included 12 official kills of enemy aircraft, making him one of the IAF's top aces.
In 1977, he commanded the 117th Squadron, known as "The First Jet Squadron" based on the northern Ramat David airbase, the air force's last operational French-built Mirage squadron.
Upon assuming command, Richter thought the time has come to change the way fighter jocks training by having them "adopt a scientific approach to flying." For the next two years, his pilots faithfully replicated enemy MiGs in joint training sorties they called "Panther Series" for their colleagues from the IAF's F-4 and F-15 squadrons.
But his idea had already been implemented by the U.S. armed forces for almost a decade. In 1969, the U.S. Navy established its Fighter Weapons School (TopGun; known as the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program since 2006) to restore dogfighting capabilities to its pilots, then engaged in aerial combat over north Vietnam.
"As a matter of fact, we were the first instructors of the TopGun instructors. They came to Israel around '68 to learn from our experience in air-to-air and modern warfare for their first round of instructors," Richter revealed.
Richter's red squadron operated for just two years before the IAF decided to disband the last batch of its Mirages from active duty. "I'd like to believe and hope that we influenced the way we train pilots in any specific mission," Richter said humbly.
LACKING REAL EXPERIENCE
Though at first glance it all may seem like a game, it's hard not to be impressed by Capt. Omer and his colleagues. It's even harder to doubt their professionalism and skills or, for that matter, those of all other fighter pilots in the IAF.
But one undeniable fact looms over the glory of the IAF. Its young generation of pilots, and that includes the squadron commanders, have no experience in battling a real enemy.
Twenty-eight years have gone by since the IAF fought its last aerial feuds against Syrian aircraft in the 1982 Lebanon War. But some IAF pilots, mostly battle-seasoned veterans of the 1973 war, note that the IAF at that time took to the skies with F-15s and F- 16s - until today considered the world's finest air superiority jets.
"There's no reason for concern," said Col. Giora Epstein, a renowned aviator in Israel. In 1997, at the age of 59, he boarded an F-16 for his farewell flight from the IAF.
"Despite their lack of experience, they are no less better than my generation," Epstein said. "In many areas they're much better than we were. That includes the aircraft, armaments and systems, all of which are far superior to what we had. The IAF is still excellent."
As Israel and the U.S. weigh the option of a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, many analysts predict such a move would throw the entire region into conflict.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian use, while Israel and Washington reject such claims as a guise for developing nuclear weapons. The Jewish state sees a nuclear Iran as a threat to its very existence and has refused to rule out the possibility of launching a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
No pilot at the 115th (or any other pilots for that matter) Squadron will speak about Iran, let alone mentioning the word. That is the official policy determined by the IDF's high command and strictly enforced by the IAF.
But Lt.-Col. Eyal, commander of the 115th Squadron, sounds self- assured from the inside of his cockpit upon returning from another sortie.
"My impression is that the IAF is prepared for any mission it will be ordered to carry out - be it near or far away, in the near future or further down the road," Eyal said.
I think it’s got to be hard to be realistic when 5 minutes on afterburner will take yo outside of the country.
I have heard many who visit Israel remark on how small a place it really is.
That said, the IDF and IAF are among the best in the world.
If youd like to be on or off, please FR mail me.
“I think its got to be hard to be realistic when 5 minutes on afterburner will take yo outside of the country.”
Actually, that makes it very realistic, if not always by design.
And, FWIW, there are very real cat-and-mouse aerial games over surrounding countries every day. There are overflights of Syria and Lebanon with very real SAMS being shot at you, every week.