IAF Magazine Articles

Confrontation

Ground to air missile systems are one of the central challenges faced by combat aircraft operating in enemy territory. In order to practice handling this kind of threat the Air Force carried out a workshop. All the flights shared one common denominator: a clear and present danger.

Shani Pais | Photography: Debbie Schraiber and the IAF Magazine Archive

The fighter jet flies at speed through a hilly area in enemy territory. It's still difficult to make out its target: an antiaircraft (AA) missile battery. Suddenly the battery appears, and the plane enters an attack approach. The AA battery does not have long to react, but the neighboring battery is able to return fire in an attempt to interrupt the attack. This is the essence of the struggle: the pilots do all they can to avoid the missiles, and the battery operators try their best to bring down the plane. The pilot has a few seconds to identify and attack the target, without getting hit whilst flying in the danger zone. Attacking targets in an area defended by missiles is one of the greatest challenges for air-crew, all the more so when enemy aircraft and mobile AA squads come into the picture. 

During the First Lebanon War, the "First Combat" Squadron took part in Operation "Mole Cricket 19": the destruction of the Syrian antiaircraft batteries in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. "We were required to enter the area of the batteries, identify the target, approach it and drop the bombs, all in less than a minute", explains squad leader Colonel (reserve) Amos. "Throughout the journey we knew that it was a critical mission". At the start of the war enemy AA missiles covered a large area. From the moment they were destroyed the Air Force had a major advantage. 

During the workshop arranged by the "First Combat" Squadron the pilots dealt with highly capable threats from the ground, many for the first time. The aim of the week long workshop was to train pilots to deal with the missile threat.  This was no easy task. "As far as I'm concerned, this workshop was a real experience", says Captain Omri, Second-in-Command of the flying squadron on Hatzor Airbase. "The decisions the pilots had to make during the mission and whilst under pressure were a particular challenge for those undergoing operational training, and who were meeting this threat for the first time". 
 

Their First Time 

Missile defended area workshops are the main training method used to learn to handle ground based threats. During the workshop the pilots fly in a training area provided by Rafael, a civilian contractor who provides simulated enemy AA batteries which detect and lock on to the aircraft. 

Before the flights the pilots are briefed with information about the area over which they will fly, intelligence on the nature of the threats and their rough locations. It's up to the pilots to plan an attack appropriate to the target, the weapons at their disposal and the threats they are expecting. During combined aerial-ground threat exercises the pilot must choose which threat to engage first - the missile batteries or the enemy aircraft approach him. 

'The level of the exercise was very high. It was not just a case of locating the target, but also of defending ourselves from a variety of threats both from the ground and the air", explains Major Itai, Second-in-Command of the "First Combat" Squadron. "During the attack, the pilot needs to decide if he is able to continue to go for the target, or if the aerial threat is too close. During the attack he must find the target, aim and launch his weapons at the right moment, all whilst making sure that the battery does not lock on to his aircraft". 

The difficulty of the exercises increased throughout the week. At first they flew in pairs, and later in quartets. Every day the number of batteries, targets and aerial threats increased, and got closer to the area of the target.  

In parallel, the pilots practiced an additionally unpleasant scenario: loosing contact with the control room. They need to find a solution quickly, whilst an enemy plane tried to shoot them down and whilst missile batteries threatened them from below. Major Itai: "It wasn't easy to get a clear picture of what was going on in the air whilst the warning system announced that a ground-to-air missile was headed in your direction, it's a horrible feeling. It makes it hard to carry out the objective, particularly for a pilot who is experiencing it for the first time". During the exercise they were joined by a 'friend' belonging to the same side as the batteries: an imitation MiG-29 that added an air-to-air threat to the threat from the ground based missiles. 

The group responsible of operating the ground-to-air missiles was the "enemy staging" section of the training department. During the Yom Kippur War the influence of AA batteries made it clear that the need for practicing against ground-air threat had increased. 
 

A New Direction 

Antiaircraft weapons improve every year. The "enemy staging" section of the training department tries to give the pilots the tools they need to cope with them, and makes sure that the field training systems (which are now two decades old) are always upgraded and relevant. 

"The ideal way of understanding enemy weaponry is to purchase the same systems that they do. Sadly, our enemy and the state that equips them is not cooperative in this regard, and that's why we are here", explains Captain A, head of the section. "The Intelligence Group, the Operations Group and the Training Group plan five years ahead, and in the process check what the situation in the field is today, where the gaps are, what that most successful response to the threats would be and which threats are expected to enter the arena". 

All the flight and damage calculations are carried out in the command centre, where the radar information is received and processed. Despite being very reliable, the systems capabilities are limited as is not mobile.  

During the workshop the pilots faced a new and no less dangerous threat: the SA-6 system, a mobile ground-to-air missile battery that can be moved quickly. As a result, it's difficult to plan how to evade or attack it in advance. The SA-6 has been the central threat faced by the Air Force on various fronts for many years. "In the past the battery was the pilots' nightmare. Today, they are less and less successful at locking on to the planes. There's no doubt that the training has helped us to deal with them", adds Captain Elkanah. "The pilot needs to use the warning system to understand where the mobile battery is and act accordingly: which path to fly on, how to hide from the battery and from which direction they should reach the target.  He needs to find the solution whilst in the air, at the moment of true, which makes everything more complicated" agrees Major Itai. 

SA-7 heat-seeking missiles are also becoming part of the workshop. When the shoulder-launched missile 'sees' the aircraft, the Rafael representative shouts "locked on" to the unit's officer, who launches a flare to represent the launch of the missile. Here the "four second rule" comes into effect: within a few seconds the pilot must notice the missile and protect himself by firing flares. If he fails to do this in time he 'falls'. In the debrief they check if the aircraft's flares were launched in time. Despite being the only way pilots can train for a real threat, each squadron only takes part once per training cycle, as operating the batteries is very expensive. 

According to Captain A, the main development in the unit over the coming years will be training pilots against shoulder launched rockets; new weapons that are easy to operate, cheap and available, and that only give the pilot a short period of time to react to them. 
 

The 'Enemy' 

Five people sit around numerous electronic devices in a small trailer unsuited to the summer Mediterranean desert climate. Three of the Rafael workers are responsible for aiming the radar beam, one sits in front of a computer and another speaks on the radio. 

First Lieutenant Michael, aged 24, is the only representative of the Air Force on the site from which the battery is operated. He works in a civilian facility where the operators are Rafael employees who are older and more experienced than him. Despite his relative isolation, Michael gets to know most of the IAF's pilots, who he 'fights' during every workshop. Michael is responsible for putting together the timetable for the workshops, so as to get as much as possible out of the exercises the Air Force has budgeted for. "If a squadron cancels a flight without good reason, they become less of a priority for us", he says. Together with Gal, the operations clerk, he is responsible for supervising the operation of the batteries. 

The contents of the exercise change from time to time. The relatively fixed locations of the threats in the field are the central problem faced by the unit, who try and keep the more experienced pilots on their toes. For example, in the last workshop they 'fired' shoulder-launched rockets from dunes that had not housed a threat until now. 

Another factor that is expected to improve significantly is the debriefing the exercise within the squadron. In the future, they intend to give the pilots an audio recording of the conversation between the operators during the operation. "The recording is very useful. The operators who aim the radar beam are in constant communication with each other, and its important for the pilots to hear how they function, so that they can work out when the critical point is and so that they can learn what puts the operators under pressure, and how to make themselves difficult to handle", explains Captain A. "We will bring all the data together, so that the pilot can sit and see it in its entirety. Today that data is dispersed over a few screens and cassettes. It needs to be more available, and played back in parallel. If the debrief does not take place quickly, whilst it is still fresh, then it's a lot less efficient".  The new system will make more data available, creating a more accurate picture of the situation. For example, if the plane escapes from the lock, will the battery still launch a missile and in which direction? 
 

There's an Opening 

When they are flying against advanced AA systems, the pilots use every trick in the book to evade the batteries. When the warning systems announces that an ground-to-air battery has locked on or launched a missile the pilot does everything they can to avoid getting hit. 

Towards the end of the workshop the penny dropped. The pilots understood how to fly so as to avoid the batteries, when they need to activate the aircraft's defense systems, at what speeds to fly and how to maneuver in the best way possible, explains Major Itai. 

There are various methods for disconnecting from a battery's lock, and for evading radar. One method is to operate defensive systems. Firing flares, for example, is an efficient method of throwing off heat seeking missiles.  

The main way to avoid a missile launch towards you is to carry out evasive maneuvers, operating close to the aircraft's safety limit. During the exercise the pilots carried out many such maneuvers. In the future, the main tool to use against the battery will be unmanned dummy aircraft. The F-35 future fighter is equipped with advanced electronic countermeasures, but until it is acquired by the IAF the critical factors for evading the threats will be the pilot and his maneuvering ability. 

"Dealing with the threats depends largely on your instincts", concludes First Lieutenant Matan, who planned the exercise. "When a MiG-29 approaches you and a ground-to-air rocket locks on to you, everything depends on a spur of the moment decision. There are no clear rules here. You need to analyze the situation quickly and to know your priorities, what you need to deal with first". Despite their intensity, First Lieutenant Matan refuses to describe the workshop as pressured. "They are simply high-adrenaline flights. There should be more exercises like this, to prepare us better for the moment of truth".

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