The Israeli Defence Force, is a unified service, and all branches of the armed forces answer to a single commander, unlike in the US, UK, or many other modern countries who operate separate services with their own commands. The Israeli Air Force, Zroa HaAvir VeHahala (Air and Space Arm) in Hebrew, is the air combat/defence branch of the IDF. Its history stretches back to 1937 when the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, formed an air branch. It also traces its history to the founding of Sherut Avir (Air Service) of the Haganah in November 1947, just before the partition plan was accepted by the UN. The two forces merged, and on 29 May 1948 the IAF began operating.
Following its humble beginnings, with Czechoslovakian made World War Two surplus Messerschmitt Bf 109s, and Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk IXEs also from Czechoslovakia and pilots, many WW2 veterans, from around the world, it has grown into one of the best air forces in the world. The air force has been at the forefront of defending Israel from her enemies since the early 1950s. It had skirmishes with, mainly, the Egyptian and Syrian air forces throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, it wasn’t until 1967 when its pilots, and ground crews, showed what it could do. In only a few hours it had virtually destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground, and by the end of the Six Day War, it had destroyed a total of 452 enemy aircraft, of which 49 were aerial victories.
Following this was the War of Attrition until the Yom Kippur war broke out in October 1973. Due to the efforts of ground troops, the IAF was again able to cause the collapse of the Egyptian Air Force and caused significant damage to the Syrian Air Force. Israel lost between 102 and 128 aircraft while the Arabs lost a total of between 370 and 421.
Much of the period leading up to the 1982 Lebanon War was spent rebuilding and retraining following the heavy losses of 1973. It was, however, punctuated by two, now iconic, operations. First, in 1976 a C-130 of the IAF transported troops to Uganda as part of Operation Entebbe, and more importantly, they performed Operation Opera, destroying Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons facilities at Osirak. This mission was led by Colonel Ilan Ramon, who later became Israel’s first astronaut. Operation Opera reverberated around the world as it prevented Iraq, a rogue state, from getting nuclear weapons. The following year, the IAF launched Operation Mole Cricket 19 during the Lebanon War, crippling Syria’s air defence network, and the Israelis subsequently shot down 86 Syrian jets for zero loss!
It was then, during a routine mission over Lebanon in 1986, that one of the saddest chapters in IAF history was opened. Pilot Yishai Aviram and navigator Ron Arad were forced to eject following damage caused by a faulty bomb on their aircraft. While Aviram was able to be rescued, under heavy fire Ron Arad was captured. Neither he, nor his remains, have ever made it to Israel and he is currently listed as Missing in Action, presumed dead.
Following the 1982 Lebanon War, the IAF’s mission changed mainly to keep watch over the skies above Israel and bomb terrorist targets when needed. During this transition, the ‘Ace of Aces’, Colonel Giora Epstein retired. In a 42 year career, he shot down a total of 17 jet-engined aircraft, and is the highest scoring ace of the jet age. Additionally, other opportunities opened up, namely that to go into space and become part of Israel’s space program, in co-operation with NASA. To this end, Colonel Ilan Ramon was chosen and was selected for NASA Shuttle Mission STS-107 Columbia.
Colonel Ramon spent 16 days in space, and, although a secular Jew, observed many Jewish rituals including keeping the Sabbath with rabbinic help. When the Colombia was coming in to land, it broke up with the loss of all hands just 16 minutes from landing. Colonel Ramon was posthumously awarded the US Congressional Medal of Honor, the only non-US citizen to receive it. In a further tragedy for the Ramon family, Ilan’s son, Assaf, was killed during a routine training flight just three months out of flight school. In their memory, a new airport is being built near Eilat to be called the Ilan and Assaf Ramon Airport.
Today’s generation of pilot’s don’t face the same threats that their fathers and grandfathers faced, but they train rigorously in the way Ilan Ramon and Giora Epstein did, so that if they need face air-to-air combat, they will be on the winning side. We have seen in the past, how the IAF operated and what it has achieved. The mission has changed and the threats have changed, but they are ever-ready. In this day and age, with Iran threatening Israel, and Obama’s administration seemingly wavering on its support of Israel, the IAF need to be more ready than ever to face threats. It is going to be interesting to see how as the nature of air threats to Israel develop, how the IAF will adapt to meet those challenges.