The History of the Israel Air Force begins in May 1948, shortly after the formation of the State of Israel. Following Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, its pre-state national institutions transformed into the agencies of a state, and on May 26, 1948, the Israeli Air Force was formed. Beginning with a small collection of light aircraft, the force soon transformed into a comprehensive fighting force. It has since participated in several wars and numerous engagements, becoming what has been described as "The mightiest air force in the Middle East".
Early years (1948–1967)
Preceded by the Sherut Avir, the air wing of the Haganah, the Israeli Air Force was officially formed on May 28, 1948, shortly after Israel declared statehood and found itself under immediate attack. At first, it was assembled from a hodge-podge collection of civilian aircraft commandeered or donated and converted to military use. A variety of obsolete and surplus ex-World War II combat aircraft were quickly sourced by various means – both legal and illegal – to supplement this fleet. The backbone of the IAF consisted of 25 Avia S-199s (purchased from Czechoslovakia, essentially Czechoslovak-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s) and 62 Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk IXEs ferried from Žatec base code-named "Zebra" where pilots also received preliminary flight training. Creativity and resourcefulness were the early foundations of Israeli military success in the air, rather than technology (which, at the inception of the IAF, was generally inferior to that used by Israel's adversaries). Many of the first IAF's pilots in 1948 were foreign volunteers (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and World War II veterans, who wanted to collaborate with Israel's struggle for its independence. The IAF's humble beginnings made its first air victories particularly impressive and noteworthy. Similarly the Air Transport Command begun its existence as the Panamanian registered Lineos Aeros de Panama Society Anonyme or LAPSA acquired C-46 and C-47 aircraft.
Israel's new fighter arm first went into action on May 29, 1948, assisting the efforts to halt the Egyptian advance from Gaza northwards. Four newly arrived Avia S-199s, flown by Lou Lenart, Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman and Eddie Cohen, struck Egyptian forces near Isdud. Although damage was minimal, two aircraft were lost and Cohen killed, the attack nevertheless achieved its goal and the Egyptians stopped. The Avias were back in action on May 30, attacking Jordanian forces near Tulkarem, losing another aircraft in the process. The Israeli Air Force scored its first aerial victories on June 3, when Modi Alon, flying an Avia S-199 (probably D-106), shot down a pair of Egyptian Air Force DC-3s which had just bombed Tel Aviv. The first dogfight against enemy fighters took place a few days later, on June 8, when Gideon Lichtaman shot down an Egyptian Spitfire. As the war progressed, more and more aircraft were procured, including Boeing B-17s, Bristol Beaufighters, de Havilland Mosquitoes and P-51D Mustangs, leading to a shift in the balance of power. Although the IAF had never secured complete aerial supremacy, by the end of the war it had proven decisive in the air.
The war also saw the IAF clash with Britain's Royal Air Force. During the summer and autumn of 1948 RAF photo-reconnaissance De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 13 Squadron RAF flew routine reconnaissance overflights over Israel. These high-altitude flights remained unchallenged until Israel acquired the Mustang. On November 20, 1948 one such reconnaissance aircraft was spotted over the Galilee and was shot down by Wayne Peake, crashing in the Mediterranean off Ashdod. The IAF and RAF clashed again on January 7, 1949, during Operation Horev, when four RAF Spitfires were shot down, followed by a Hawker Tempest later that day.
The Israeli Air Force played an important part in Operation Kadesh, Israel's part in the 1956 Suez Crisis. At the launch of the operation, on October 29, Israeli P-51D Mustangs severed telephone lines in the Sinai, some using their propeller blades, while 16 IAF DC-3s escorted by fighters carried out Operation Machbesh (Press), dropping Israeli paratroopers behind Egyptian lines at the Mitla Pass. The co-pilot of the lead C-47 in the formation was Yael Rom, one of the IAF's first female pilots and the first trained and certified by the force.
During the 1950s, France became a major supplier of warplanes to Israel, but relations between the two countries deteriorated just before the Six-Day War, when France declared an arms embargo on Israel. Consequently, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) significantly increased its aircraft and weapons production (initially based on the French models) and Israel switched to the United States as its principal supplier of military aircraft.
The Six-Day War
In three hours on the morning of June 5, 1967, the first day of the Six Day War, the Israeli Air Force executed Operation Focus, crippling the opposing Arab air forces and attaining air supremacy for the remainder of the war. In a surprise attack, the IAF destroyed most of the Egyptian Air Force while its planes were still on the ground. By the end of the day, with surrounding Arab countries also drawn into the fighting, the IAF had mauled the Syrian and Jordanian air forces as well, striking as far as Iraq. After six days of fighting Israel claimed a total of 452 Arab aircraft destroyed, of which 49 were aerial victories.
The War of Attrition
Shortly after the end of the Six-Day War, Egypt initiated the War of Attrition, hoping to prevent Israel from consolidating its hold over the lands captured in 1967. Israel's goal in the fighting was to exact heavy losses on the opposing side, in order to facilitate a ceasefire. The Israeli Air Force consequently undertook repeated bombings of strategic targets deep within enemy territory and repeatedly challenged Arab air forces for aerial supremacy, all the while supporting operations by Israel's ground and naval forces. On July 30, 1970, the tension peaked: An IAF ambush resulted in a large scale air brawl between IAF planes and MiGs flown by Soviet pilots – five MiGs were shot down, while the IAF suffered no losses. Fear of further escalation and superpower involvement brought the war to a conclusion. By its end of August 1970, the Israeli Air Force had claimed 111 aerial kills while admitting losing only four aircraft to Arab fighters. Notable operations of the War of Attrition include:
- Operation Rooster 53 – December 26, 1969: IAF Super Frelon and Sikorsky CH-53 Yas'ur helicopters carry paratroopers in a raid to capture an advanced Soviet P-12 radar deployed in Egypt near Suez. A CH-53 helicopter carried the 4-ton radar back to Israeli held territory, tethered underneath it.
- Operation Priha (Blossom) – January 7, 1970 – April 13, 1970: a concentrated series of strikes against military targets in the Egyptian heartland.
- Operation Rhodes – January 22, 1970: Israeli Para and naval commandos are transported by IAF Super Frelon helicopters to Shadwan Island where they kill 30 Egyptian soldiers and take 62 more prisoner. The soldiers dismantle Egyptian radars and other military equipment for transport back to Israel. IAF bombers sink two Egyptian torpedo boats of the P-183 variant during the operation.
- Rimon 20 – July 30, 1970: the IAF shoots down 5 Soviet piloted MiG-21 fighters in a carefully orchestrated ambush.
Yom Kippur War
Following the War of Attrition and its battles with Egyptian air defences, the IAF spent the next years developing new SEAD tactics and weapons and in renewed reconnaissance efforts. New weapons such as the AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-12 Bullpup were introduced and the IAF was confident that it could deal with the threats posed by enemy air defences and be able to provide Israeli ground forces with essential close air support. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War Israel fielded 390 combat aircraft, of which 100 were F-4 Phantoms, 165 A-4 Skyhawks, 65 Dassault Mirage IIIs and IAI Neshers and 20 IAI Sa'ars (upgraded Dassault Super Mysteres).
On October 6, 1973, with war imminent, the IAF begun preparing for a pre-emptive strike against Egyptian and Syrian airfields and anti-aircraft positions. The Israeli government, however, decided against pre-emption. IAF aircraft were therefore in the process of re-armament to the air-to-air role when hostilities began at 14:00. One of the first encounters of the war was the Ofira Air Battle, involving two Israeli Phantoms versus 28 Egyptian MiG-17s and MiG-21s. In the aerial combat that ensued, the Phantom pair managed to down 7 to 8 Egyptian planes and driving off the rest. The next morning begun with Operation Tagar, a SEAD offensive against Egyptian air defences, beginning with strikes against Egyptian air bases. Tagar, however, was quickly discontinued when the dire situation on the Golan Heights became apparent. IAF efforts were redirected north, where the ill-fated Operation Doogman 5 was carried out. Flying with outdated intelligence and no electronic screening against mobile SAM batteries and heavy flak, 6 IAF Phantoms were lost. 2 airmen were killed and 9 captured. The detailed planning and extensive training undertaken before the war had gone to waste and the sustained campaign required to defeat enemy air defences was abandoned in the face of Egyptian and Syrian advances. The IAF was forced to operate under the SAM threat, yet the close air support it provided allowed Israeli troops on the ground to stem the tide and eventually go on the offensive, first in the north and later in the south.
After the failed Israeli counter-offensive in the Sinai on October 8, the southern front remained relatively static and the IAF focused its attention on the Syrian front. While A-4 Skyhawks provided much needed support to troops on the ground, at the cost of 31 aircraft by the end of fourth day of the war, IAF Phantoms repeatedly struck Syrian air fields. Following Syrian FROG-7 strikes on military and civilian targets in northern Israel, the IAF also initiated a campaign to destroy the infrastructure on which Syria's war-making capacity depended, targeting strategic targets in Syria such as its oil industry and electricity generating system. On October 9, 1973, seven F-4 Phantoms attacked and destroyed the Syrian General Staff Headquarters in the heart of Damascus, damaging Syrian Air Force Headquarters as well. By October 13 the Syrians had been pushed back and beyond their initial lines, Damascus had come within range of Israeli artillery and an Iraqi armored brigade, the vanguard of its expeditionary force, was destroyed. With the threat to northern Israel removed, IAF attention switched to the south once more.
On October 14 the Egyptian army launched an offensive along the entire front, but was repulsed by the IDF. Israel followed on this success by attacking at the seam between the 2nd and 3rd Egyptian armies and crossing the Suez Canal into Egypt. Israeli forces fanned north and south, destroying Egyptian rear units and punching holes through its air defence array. This allowed the IAF the freedom of action it was previously denied and renewed attacks led to the collapse of the Egyptian Air Defence Force. This prompted increased activity by the Egyptian Air Force, and from about October 18 to the end of the war, intensive air battles took place between Israeli and Egyptian aircraft.
October 14 also witnessed the beginning of Operation Nickel Grass, the American airlift to Israel, 5 days after the Soviet Union had commenced a similar endeavour for its Arab allies. The same day witnessed the IAF strike the Egyptian air base at Tanta and Mansoura, strikes that continued into the next day, while Syrian air bases were revisited on subsequent days. IAF Mirages and Neshers scored 14 aerial victories on October 18, including 3 Libyan Mirages. On October 21 Israeli forces captured the Egyptian air base of Fayid, which became a hub for Israeli transports flying supplies to Israeli troops on the east bank of the Suez canal. Nicknamed Nachshon, the base was inaugurated on October 23 when a damaged Nesher made an emergency landing at the field. The air bases at Kibrit, Kasfreet, and Shalufa were also captured, but were not utilized. In the last air battle of the war, at noon on October 24, a dozen more enemy aircraft were shot down. These included three kills by Giora Epstein, bringing his total to 17 aircraft and making him the world's high-scoring ace of the jet era 1973 until at least 2012 as well as Israel's all-time highest scoring ace.
Official Israeli Air Force losses of the war number at 102 aircraft, including 32 F-4 Phantoms, 53 A-4 Skyhawks, 11 Dassault Mirages, and 6 IAI Sa'ars, although other accounts suggest as many as 128 Israeli aircraft were lost. 91 air force personnel, of which 53 were airmen, were killed. 172 Egyptian aircraft were shot down in air-to-air combat, for a loss of between 5 and 21 for the Israelis (on all fronts). No official numbers were released on the Arab side, though total Egyptian losses were between 235 and 242 aircraft, while Syria lost between 135 and 179.
Ever since the Yom Kippur War, most of Israel's military aircraft have been obtained from the United States. Among these are the F-4 Phantom II, A-4 Skyhawk, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and E-2 Hawkeye. The Israeli Air Force has also operated a number of domestically produced types such as the IAI Nesher, and later, the more advanced IAI Kfir, which were unauthorised derivatives of the French Dassault Mirage 5 (Israel bought 50 Mirage 5s from Dassault Aviation, but they were not delivered due to the French embargo imposed following the Six-Day war). The Kfir was adapted to utilise a more powerful US engine, produced under license in Israel.
In 1976, IAF C-130 Hercules aircraft participated in Operation Thunderball, the rescue from Entebbe, Uganda, of the hostages of Air France flight 139. In March 1978, the Israeli Air Force participated in Operation Litani.
On June 7, 1981, eight IAF F-16A fighters escorted by six F-15A jets carried out Operation Opera to destroy the Iraqi nuclear facilities of Osiraq. The eight F-16As, each armed with two unguided Mark-84 2,000-pound delay-action bombs, were manned by Ze'ev Raz, Amos Yadlin, Dobbi Yaffe, Hagai Katz, Amir Nachumi, Iftach Spector, Relik Shafir, and Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut.
1982 Lebanon War
Prior to the 1982 Lebanon War, Syria, with the help of the Soviet Union, had built up an overlapping network of surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. On June 9, 1982 the Israeli Air Force carried out Operation Mole Cricket 19, crippling the Syrian air defence array. In subsequent aerial battles against the Syrian Air Force, the IAF managed to shoot down 86 Syrian aircraft without losing a single fighter plane in an air to air combat. IAF AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships destroyed dozens of Syrian armored fighting vehicles and other ground targets, including some T-72 main battle tanks.
In 1986 an IAF F-4 Phantom, piloted by Captain Aharon Achiaz, was inadvertently damaged midair and abandoned, resulting in the capture of flight navigator then-Captain Ron Arad by the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Amal. To this day, the whereabouts of Arad has not been disclosed by his captors.
Operation Wooden Leg
On October 1, 1985, In response to a PLO terrorist attack which murdered three Israeli civilians in Cyprus, the Israeli air force carried out Operation Wooden Leg. The strike involved the bombing of PLO Headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, by F-15 Eagles. This was the longest combat mission ever undertaken by the IAF, a stretch of 2,300 kilometers, involving in-flight refueling by an IAF Boeing 707. As a result, PLO headquarters and barracks were either destroyed or damaged.
1990s and beyond
Many of the IAF's electronics and weapons systems are developed and built in Israel by Israel Military Industries, Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit, and others. Since the 1990s, the IAF has upgraded most of its aircraft with advanced Israeli-made systems, improving their performances. In 1990 the IAF began receiving the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship and started equipping its aircraft with the Rafael Python 4, Popeye, and Derby missiles.
During the first Gulf War of 1991, Israel was attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles. Israeli Air Force pilots were on constant stand-by in their cockpits throughout the conflict, ready to fly to Iraq to retaliate. Diplomatic pressure as well as denial of IFF (Identify Foe or Friend) transponder codes from the United States, however, kept the IAF grounded while Coalition air assets and Patriot missile batteries supplied by the U.S. and the Netherlands sought to deal with the Scuds.
In the late 1990s, the IAF began acquiring the F-15I Ra'am (Thunder) and the F-16I Sufa (Storm), manufactured specially for Israel according to IAF requirements. The first of 102 F-16I Sufas arrived in April 2004, joining an F-16 fleet that had already been the largest outside the US Air Force. The IAF also purchased the advanced Israeli air-to-air missile Rafael Python 5, with full-sphere capability, as well as a special version of the Apache Longbow, designated AH-64DI or Saraph. In 2005 the Israeli Air Force received modified Gulfstream V jets ("Nachshon"), equipped with advanced intelligence systems made by Israel Military Industries.
The Israeli Air Force took an extensive part in IDF operations during the al-Aqsa Intifada, including the controversial targeted killings of Palestinian militant leaders, most notably Salah Shakhade, Mahmoud Abu-Hunud, Abu Ali Mustafa, Ahmed Yassin, Adnan al-Ghoul, Jamal Abu Samhadana, and Abed al-Aziz Rantissi. While this policy was criticized due to the collateral damage caused in certain instances, Israel claims it is vital in its fight against terrorism and that IAF pilots do whatever they can to avoid civilian casualties, including aborting strikes.
In 2007, Israel achieved a civilian casualty ratio of 1:30, or one civilian casualty for every thirty combatant casualties, in its airstrikes on militants in the Gaza Strip. Commentators have noted that, "No army in history has ever had a better ratio of combatants to civilians killed in a comparable setting".
On October 5, 2003, the Israeli Air Force attacked an alleged Palestinian militant training camp in Ain es Saheb, Syria.
2006 Lebanon War
The IAF played a critical role in the 2006 Lebanon War by leading the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. These strikes – mainly, though not exclusively, in southern Lebanon – were aimed at stopping rocket launches by Hezbollah's militia targeting Israeli towns. The IAF flew more than 12,000 combat missions during this war. The most notable mission, taking place on the second day of the war, resulted in the IAF destroying 59 Iranian-supplied medium- and long-range missile launchers in just 34 minutes. Widespread condemnation followed the July 30 IAF airstrike on a building suspected to be a militant hideout near the village of Qana, in which 28 civilians were killed. Hezbollah shot down an IAF CH-53 Yas'ur helicopter on the last day of the war, killing five crew members. Earlier, an IAF F-16I had crashed during take-off. Israeli aircraft also shot down three of Hezbollah's Iranian-made aerial drones during the conflict.
Operation Cast Lead and recent activities
On September 6, 2007, the Israeli Air Force successfully bombed an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in Operation Orchard.
During Operation Cast Lead (2008–2009), Israel Air Force had a main role in destroying Hamas facilities and targets in the Gaza Strip, carrying out more than 2,360 air strikes until the end of the campaign.
According to a CBS news report, in January 2009 Israeli planes struck a convoy of trucks in Sudan that was headed for Egypt and carrying weapons apparently meant for the Gaza Strip. 17 trucks had been bombed and 39 smugglers had been killed in the strike. On April 5, 2011 a car driving from Port Sudan Airport to Port Sudan was destroyed by a missile. Both passengers, one of which may have been a senior Hamas military commander, were killed. According to the Sudanese Foreign Minister it was an Israeli attack. Sudanese newspapers reported that Israeli aircraft attacked Gaza-bound arms convoys again in late 2011.
In what was widely believed to be a long-range attack by the Israeli Air Force, an arms factory in Khartoum, Sudan, that was alleged to have participated in arms-smuggling to Hamas, exploded on October 23, 2012. The Israeli government refused to either confirm or deny its involvement.
In November 2012, the IAF participated in Operation Pillar of Defense, during which, according to the IDF Spokesperson, Israeli forces targeted more than 1,500 military sites in Gaza Strip, including rocket launching pads, smuggling tunnels, command centers, weapons manufacturing and storage buildings. Many of these attacks were carried out by the Air Force.
On January 30, 2013, Israeli aircraft allegedly struck a Syrian convoy transporting weapons to Hezbollah. Other sources stated the targeted site was a military research center in Jamraya responsible for developing biological and chemical weapons. Two additional air strikes reportedly took place on May 3 and 5, 2013. Both targeted long-ranged weapons sent from Iran to Hezbollah. According to anonymous US officials, Israel launched another airstrike on 5 July. It targeted Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles near the city of Latakia, and killed several Syrian troops.
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