That’s right, the Israel Defence Forces Air Force (IDF-AF) has added yet another significant feather to its cap. The official announcement can be found here:
The revelation was made yesterday at the on-going three-day International Air Force Commanders’ Convention, which is being hosted by the IDF-AF’s Commander, Maj Gen Amikam Norkin, and this convention is part of the IDF-AF’s on-going 70th anniversary celebrations. About 70 air force commanders from all over the world are attending this convention, which includes a conference on ‘Air Superiority as a Bridge to Regional Stability’, which is being attended by the Indian Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh ‘Tony’ Dhanoa (as part of his official four-day visit to Israel from May 21 till 24). A videoclip showing ACM Dhanoa at the convention can be seen here:
Incidentally, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is not represented (perhaps not invited as well) at the convention and conference. But Vietnam is.
The IDF-AF’s first use of the F-35 JSF on attack missions marks at least the third time that Israel has been the first country to use a new type of combat aircraft operationally. In 1979, an IDF-AF pilot, Moshe Marom-Melnik, was the first to use an F-15A to shoot down an enemy aircraft, a Syrian MiG-21Bis. Here are two videoclips describing that aerial engagement:
Two years later, an IDF-AF pilot was the first to use the F-16A to shoot down an enemy aircraft, a Syrian Mi-8AMTsh attack helicopter.
The IAF-AF also enjoys the proud distinction of producing the world’s first and only ‘Ace of Aces’ of the jet engine era— Col Giora ‘Hawkeye’ Even-Epstein—with 17 kills to his credit. Here is the official IDF-AF account of Col Epstein’s exploits:
And videoclips describing some of Col Epstein’s memorable dogfights:
Col Epstein’s first kill came on June 6, 1967 (during the Six-Day War), when he downed an Egyptian Su-7 at El Arish. During the War of Attrition in 1969-1970, Epstein downed a MiG-17, another Su-7 and two MiG 21s. The rest of his kills came during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War (War of Atonement). Over the course of three days (October 18-20, 1973), he downed a Mi-8 helicopter, two Su-7s, two Su-20s and four MiG 21s. Then, on October 24, 1973, Col Epstein downed three more MiG-21s west of the Great Bitter Lake. Eight of these victories came with Col Epstein at the controls of the Dassault Aviation-built Mirage III. His other nine victories came in the Nesher, an Israel Aerospace Industries-built version of the Mirage V.
Since 2012, the IDF-AF has been conducting air-strikes deep into Syria, primarily against weapons stockpiles being supplied by Iran and meant for use by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. In 2014, IDF-AF aircraft twice bombed shipments of China-built and Iran-supplied C-802A anti-ship cruise missiles meant for Hezbollah and Syria. On February 10, 2018 at 4am in the morning, as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Al Quds force based at the Tiyas T-4 air base in Syria deployed a weapons-laden Saegheh drone (reverse engineered from a captured US RQ-170) into Israeli airspace, it was shot down by an IDF AH-64D Apache. Israel then retaliated by launching eight F-16Is, which blasted T-4 and the Saegheh drone’s command post with eight Spice-2000 missiles while flying over Lebanese airspace. However, Syrian air defences launched about 10 SAMs at the IDF-AF aircraft. While most of the aircraft dove low to the earth to evade the SAMs, an F-16I flying high to perform a bomb-damage assessment was damaged by shrapnel from the 478lb warhead of a V-880 missile of the S-200 Vega-E LR-SAM. Three or four additional V-880s were launched at the crippled F-16I, and its crew ejected over Israeli airspace, apparently just moments before one of the V-880s struck (this was the first combat loss of an IDF-AF aircraft in 35 years). In retaliation, IDF-AF for the first time launched its F-35I ‘Adir’ JSFs, which then blew up three Syrian SAM Batteries while evading all 14 additional SAMs fired at them.
Syria had acquired 48 S-200 Vega-E LR-SAMs from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. The Vega-E can launch a huge, 10-metre long V-880 radar-guided missile. No less than four booster rockets propel the nearly eight-tonne missile to a maximum speed of Mach 8 to strike a target up to 150 miles away. Unlike earlier predecessors, the S-200 can guide up to five V-880s at a time towards a target, though they are not designed to engage low-flying aircraft. In September 2016 and March 2017, S-200s unsuccessfully sniped at IDF-AF combat aircraft attacking targets in Syria. In the latter incident, several V-880s sailed into Israeli and Jordanian airspace, and Israel shot one down with an Arrow-1 SAM to prevent it from landing in a populated area. Again in September 2017 an S-200 engaged an IDF-AF aircraft, but missed yet again. This time the IDF-AF retaliated by blowing up the S-200’s fire-control radar and Battery Command Post with four Spice-2000 missiles.
The Tiyas T-4 air base, between the cities of Homs and Palmyra, was once again the target of the IDF-AF’s wrath on April 9, 2018, after Russia had covertly informed Israel that the Al Quds force was trying to set up a large air force compound under its exclusive control and was planning to deploy Russia-built S-300PS LR-SAMs there. Once again, the IDF-AF employed its F-35Is for conducting the air-strike, which killed at least four advisers from the Al Quds force. One of them was a Colonel with a senior position in a group dealing with drone operations in Syria. The Lebanese television station Al-Manar, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, reported seven Iranians killed.
Tiyas T-4 hosts contingents of both the Syrian and Russian air forces. The Iranians, who operate independently, are relatively far away from the Russians and they control the air base’s western and northern sides. Subsequently, Iran moved its people from T-4 to another Syrian air base near Palmyra, far away from the area where Russia operates.
In both April 2017 and April 2018, Syrian air defences completely failed to detect and engage a total of over 160 US, British and French cruise missiles. In the first attack, 59 Tomahawk TLAMs struck Shayarat air base without eliciting counter-fire, apparently damaging or destroying five S-200 Batteries amongst other targets.
Because the TLAM—and other—cruise missiles fly at extremely low altitudes, they are extremely difficult to detect, track and intercept except at very short distances because of the curvature of the Earth and terrain features such a hills, mountains and valleys. A ground-based target acquisition/illumination radar is inherently limited by line-of-sight and against a very low-flying object, the radar horizon is short—as little as 12 miles depending on the terrain features in the area. Even from the air, look-down, shoot-down multi-mode radars are challenged due the clutter caused by terrain features. So, the Earth is not a smooth marble. Warships have an easier time providing air-defence against low-flying cruise missiles, because there are no obstructions between the radar and the target, once the target breaks the radar horizon. Over land, terrain, buildings and foliage all block the radar’s line-of-sight. The greater the distance to the radar, the harder it is to detect low-altitude targets because the chance of blockage by an obstacle, or by sheer Earth curvature, goes up. There are no over-the-horizon fire-control radars, obviously. Even relatively small changes in altitude from 1,000 feet down to 500 feet result in a reduction of the radar horizon by an additional 25%. Descending even slightly to 300 feet further reduces the radar horizon range by an additional 25% because of a simple mathematical formula. The formula for the radar horizon is 1.23 times the square root of the antenna height in feet (answer in nautical miles). That is a perfect sphere where the radar loses the ability to see the ground because of the Earth’s curvature. Obviously, for a target in the air, the radar detection range is longer because the target may be above the radar horizon.
One partial solution is to mount the radar on high ground (or rely on airborne cueing if one is very technologically sophisticated). Thus, small, low-flying cruise missiles are simply very challenging targets for ground-based air defences to detect and engage due to the manner in which intervening terrain interferes with ground-based radars. Only short-range air-defence systems (SHORADS) are likely to have a shot at hitting a cruise missile. But just because a short-range system like the Pantsir-S1 theoretically has the capability of doing so does not mean it will on a reliable basis—as the result of the IDF-AF’s May 10 air strike vividly illustrates.
On May 10, 2018 when, in response to an Iranian rocket artillery attack (32 launched against northern Israel, especially the Golan Heights), 28 IDF-AF F-15Is and F-16Is launched more than 60 Israel Military Industries-built Delilah loitering cruise missiles (each weighing about 190kg and having 250km-range) at targets throughout Syria. In addition to numerous Iranian logistical bases and staging areas, the IDF-AF aircraft also fired on Syrian air-defences that attempted to engage them, destroying five Syrian SAM Batteries. These reportedly included older, fixed Dvina V-750VK and S-200 Vega-E Batteries, as well as Buk-M2E and Pantsyr-S1 systems and older Strela-10M and 9K33 Osa-AK short-range systems. Moscow has deployed two Batteries of its most advanced SAM systems to its base in Latakia—the S-300V4 and the S-400—as well as additional Pantsir-S1s for close-in air-defence. Though the Russian Batteries are not supposed to engage IDF-AF aircraft, and are unlikely to shoot at US aircraft (despite periodic threats to the contrary), the Russian radars have been linked to the Syrian air-defence network, thereby enhancing their radar coverage. And yet the Russians do not seem to be providing early warning cues to their Syrian counterparts about imminent IDF-AF air-strikes.