The first prime minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, stated in 1955: “The State of Israel and the Jewish People will be put to test in the Negev.” This statement resonates in recent years within the IDF and IAF as Israel’s defense infrastructure is slowly but steadily shifting south from the center of the country; this plan is known simply as “IDF moves to the Negev.” It was initiated as part of a larger plan to sell the land upon which the bases were located in an effort to lower the taxes the IDF pays annually on the land and to generate income to cushion the budget cuts the IDF had suffered in the past decade.
In the heart of the Negev desert is the Ramon Air Force Base. One of the IAF’s most active operational bases, it houses three squadrons of Israel’s newest fighter–the F-16I “Sufa” (Storm).
The last of the “Sufa” squadrons to be established and the newest fighter squadron in the IAF inventory (until the awaited arrival of the F-35 in 2017) is the reestablished “One” Squadron. In this squadron, the pilots chosen are the premier aviators in their group.
The “One” was originally established as an F-4E Phantom (Kurnass/Sledgehammer) squadron 45 years ago. In 1969, as part of a deal that brought the best aircraft the U.S. government had to offer, marking the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel, the One was established.
Then as now, the IAF’s best were chosen for the unit, among them individuals who later went on to take up leading roles in the IDF or IAF and government, such as Eitan Ben Eliyahu, who became the IAF Commander; Danny Haloutz, who went on to become the first IAF commander chosen to IDF chief of staff; and Ron Huldai, who at the age of 29 was the acting commander of the squadron in 1973, leading his squadron into a war on two fronts–later known as the Yom Kippur War. Huldai would later be elected as mayor of Tel-Aviv (1998—present).
The Yom Kippur War
The Yom Kippur War broke out 41 years ago, on October 6, 1973. On Yom Kippur, most of the men in Israel, including those who are not religious, are in shul, and the vast majority of them are fasting. The One Squadron, situated in Hatzor AFB, was mobilized that morning of Yom Kippur, as was most of the army, directly from shuls across the country. The IDF Army Intelligence (AMAN) believed the war would break out at 6 p.m., towards the end of the fast, and were having the squadron prepare for a preemptive strike. At 1:58 p.m., when the sirens sounded across Israel, they were caught off-guard and forced to scramble to the air to protect Israel’s skies from attack instead of providing much-needed support for ground forces that were coming under attack by the armies of Syria and Egypt.
The One Squadron had the best group of aviators Israel had to offer, but they were working with little operational intelligence, an issue that was compounded by the rising amount of pressure from ground forces crying for assistance in pushing back the Arab offensive. The downed aircraft due to SAM (surface-to-air missile) cover and the loss of their crews were only making the situation worse.
The IAF was up against three layers of air defense cover provided to the Egyptians and the Syrians by the Soviet Union–SA-2, SA-3, and the new and mobile SA-6, which proved deadliest of all. This air cover had existed along Israel’s borders since the War of Attrition cease-fire of 1970, which saw the Egyptians and Syrians move their cover forward unhampered after three years of Israel bombing the bases of those SAM batteries.
The most painful of operations undertaken by the squadron was the attempt to eradicate the SAM threat. This operation, known as “Dougman 5,” was implemented on October 7, one day after hostilities broke out, and included several formations from different squadrons aimed at eradicating the missile threat and returning control of the skies to the IAF.
The One Squadron’s route to its targets was through a concentration of other Syrian forces; squadron operation planners asked to have the route changed, but despite their repeated warnings and pleading, IAF HQ was unwilling to comply with their demand due to the large number of aircraft participating in the strike, and the One Squadron was forced to fly through Syrian forces as opposed to flying around them. As a result, the One Squadron suffered a rough fate, as four squadron aircraft were shot down by missile defenses, with their crews MIA, and two more aircraft were damaged and forced to land in Ramat David Air Base in northern Israel.
Throughout all this, the squadron was bent but wouldn’t break, and they continued to perform the tasks assigned from IAF HQ throughout the Yom Kippur War.
The squadron would later go on to participate in Operation “Artzav 19” in which they would attack and destroy the entire Syrian missile-defense system in the Bekaa Valley during the First Lebanon War in June of 1982. This was the IAF’s ultimate proof that it had overcome the operational issues of 1973.
The ‘One’ Today
Today, many things in the Squadron are different, most notably the aircraft the Squadron flies–the F-4E Phantom (2000) was replaced with the sleek design of the newest F-16 variant Lockheed Martins Fort Worth has to offer. Its home has changed as well; the squadron, while operating the Phantom, had operated in the center of Israel, first on the Hatzor AFB and later on the Tel Nof AFB.
The squadron was closed in 2004 as a Phantom 2000 (Kurnass) squadron and reopened in 2008 in the Ramon AFB in the South of Israel as the last and most advanced “Sufa” F-16I squadron. The One Squadron is the face of the Air Force’s projected plan to become leaner and more advanced while developing infrastructure in the south of the country next to the Air Force’s main training areas.
The squadron building is new, modern, and fully equipped with the latest debriefing technology. In conversation, though, it seems like the same guidelines and spirit that led the squadron in 1973 exist today.
When approaching the squadron from any point in the base, a 30-foot tall metal monument with an F16 silhouette carved out of its top end is visible. This giant monument is the work of sculptor Rafi Bahalul and architect Eran Shemesh, himself a former fighter pilot. According to Bahalul, the monument is a symbol of both humility and strength. The silhouette of the F16 at the high point of the monument is positioned so that those looking at it will look up, as if to ask for help from the heavens above. Engraved at the bottom of the monument are the names of the squadron’s fallen men. In the war, most of the squadron’s original aircraft were lost; seven aviators were killed and fourteen captured. Their names are etched in the monument to remind the young members of the “new” squadron that they may suffer losses, but that the State of Israel counts on them not to break under pressure, however intense it may be.
After several months of coordination with the IDF and IAF Spokesperson’s Department, we were given exclusive insight to the squadron’s home and met with Lt.-Col. A., the squadron’s current commander. (All active IAF flight crew members’ names up to the rank of Brigadier General are withheld due to security considerations.)
Y.R.: Please tell us a bit about yourself.
Lt.-Col. A.: I am married with 4 children. I was born in 1973, several months before the Yom Kippur War. Before I received the command of the One Squadron, I had served in several positions, I started out in the Scorpion Squadron (F-16D Barak) after which I was assigned to a position in the Air Force HQ, following which I was a reservist for 7 years until I re-enlisted to become deputy squadron commander of the Negev Squadron (F-16I Sufa). I was then appointed commander of the One Squadron (F-16I). Interestingly, the Scorpion Squadron in which I grew up as an aviator, housed the earlier F-4 Kurnass One Squadron, so I felt like I had come full circle when assuming command.
Y.R.: Can you tell us what it feels like to be in charge of one of Israel’s most advanced assets?
Lt.-Col. A.: I can tell you that I feel an ongoing sense of responsibility in a wider sense beyond just the squadron, along with the realization that the Israeli Air Force provides me as a commander with an opportunity to develop squadron personnel professionally and operationally to a wide range of capability–from the maintenance personnel’s readiness to the airmen’s ability to bring an aircraft to its maximum capability while staying within the appropriate safety guidelines.
Y.R.: Can you shed some light on what a day in an IAF squadron looks like?
Lt.-Col. A.: The squadron flies almost every day, including night missions. Daily briefings are held between 07:30 and 08:00, and end-of-day debriefings are usually held anywhere between 18:00 and 00:00, so it is a long day, as you can imagine. An aviator’s day does not end with flight operations; every aviator also holds additional roles within the framework of the squadron and has “ground” tasks that he is responsible for.
Y.R.: The IAF in recent years has had to strike terrorists operating within a densely populated environment. What measures does it take to minimize damage to civilian life?
Lt.-Col. A.: In recent years, we have encountered the operational demand that forces us to operate against terrorists who fire rockets from within a civilian population. In order to protect noncombatants, we operate with extreme precision and with high-quality intelligence assets. We bring forth a higher level of mission-result expectancy in which keeping civilian casualties to a minimum plays a key role. Some of our tactics have to be very creative in order to follow this code of ethics, but we see this as our primary goal while operating, and in doing so, we have brought the number of civilian casualties within an aerial battlefield to the lowest number worldwide. We are proud of this accomplishment and we continuously brief and debrief this aspect in order to keep ourselves at this high standard of ethics. The IAF uses a wide array of weapons that are considered “smart” and hit with precision exactly where the weapon was meant to be delivered.
Y.R.: The One Squadron, in 1973 during the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and even today, is considered The IAF’s “Tip of the Spear.” During the war, the One Squadron suffered many casualties as a result of the IDF being caught by surprise; do you think the squadron is better equipped today to handle a similar situation should it arise?
Lt.-Col. A.: The One Squadron leans on its past, develops its present, and looks to the future. The squadron’s history of placing tremendous value on fulfilling its missions is maintained to this day. Many missions today are different, especially now that cutting-edge technology is available to us to perform our jobs better; yet the fundamentals are still the same, and the demand that we need the best people to perform these missions is just as it was 40 years ago.
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Ongoing reports of Russia deciding in favor of supplying the S-300 SAM system to the Syrian regime have Israel’s decision-makers losing sleep.
Should Israel decide to go through with an attack of any type on Syrian soil, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that the current One Squadron may find itself up against a threat very similar to the one that its founding aviators dealt with 40 years ago.Â v
Yissachar Ruas writes for Israel National News and Israel Hayom. More of his work can be viewed on his Facebook page.