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Israel Air Force [IAF] / Air Corps (Hel Avir)

By a tremendous effort, Israel assembled a motley group of combat aircraft when Arab air forces attacked it after the declaration of independence in 1948. The first airplanes came from Czechoslovakia, which furnished propeller-driven Messerschmitts and reconditioned Spitfires from World War II. Czechoslovakia also trained the first Israeli pilots, although these few were quickly supplemented by hundreds of experienced volunteers from a number of countries. The prestige of the air force was enhanced after its spectacular success during the June 1967 War, and the subsequent decade saw an unprecedented increase in its manpower and equipment resources. Since 1971 the air force has also assumed full responsibility for air defense.

The air force is not designated as a separate service. Officially known as the Air Corps (Hel Avir), the air force, however, enjoy more autonomy within the IDF structure than the official designation would suggest. The commander has the status of senior adviser to the chief of staff. Along with the ground force area commanders, the commander of the air force holds two-star rank. In 1988 the air force consisted of about 28,000 men, of whom approximately 9,000 were career professionals, and 19,000 were conscripts assigned primarily to air defense units. An additional 50,000 reserve members were available for mobilization. As of 1999 the IAF strength of 32,500 included some 22,000 conscripts who mostly serve in the air-defence brigades. Reservists numbered 54,000.

The air force commander, who was directly responsible to the chief of staff, supervised a small staff consisting of operations, training, intelligence, quartermaster, and manpower branches, at air force headquarters in Tel Aviv. Orders went directly from the air force commander to base commanders, each of whom controlled a wing of several squadrons. As of 1988, Israel had nineteen combat squadrons, including twelve fighter-interceptor squadrons, six fighter squadrons, and one reconnaissance squadron.

The mainstays of the combat element of 524 aircraft were of four types: the F-16 multirole tactical fighter, the first of which became operational in Israel in 1980; the larger and heavier F-15 fighter designed to maintain air superiority, first delivered in 1976; the F-4 Phantom, a two-seater fighter and attack aircraft, delivered to Israel between 1969 and 1977; and the Kfir, an Israeli-manufactured fighter plane first delivered to the air force in 1975, and based on the French-designed Mirage III. The air force also kept in service as a reserve older A-4 Skyhawks first acquired in 1966. All of these models were expected to be retained in the inventory into the next century, although the Skyhawks would be used primarily for training and as auxiliary aircraft.

Israel's project to design and build a second-generation indigenous jet fighter, the Lavi (lion cub), was cancelled in 1987 because of expense. Instead, Israel was to take delivery of seventy-five advanced F-16C and F-16D fighters produced in the United States. In July 1999 the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, chose to purchase the F-16I s, to modernize the IAF. In a parallel development, all the IAF long-range F-15I planes purchased in 1998, have already entered service. Israel at first ordered 21 of the F-15I aircraft, and later increased its order to 25.

The air force inventory also included a large number of electronic countermeasure and airborne early warning aircraft, cargo transports and utility aircraft, trainers, and helicopters. Attack helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache, Hughes Defender and AH-1 Cobra add a new dimension to the land battle. Sikorsky and Bell helicopters transport troops and equipment while performing assault, medevac and rescue missions in both war and peace. The IAF is interested in acquiring squadrons of 24 Apache Long-Bow combat helicopters - double the number originally planned. In the context of the deal, existing IAF Apaches will be upgraded to include the advanced Long-Bow elements including radar and missile systems. The transport fleet includes the Boeing 707 and Hercules C-130 aircraft as well as the locally produced Arava short take off and landing (STOL) transport. Boeing 707s had been converted for in-flight refueling of F-15s and F-16s.

Israeli air force commanders pointed out that the ratio of combat aircraft available to Israel and the total of all Arab air forces, including Egypt and Libya, was on the order of 1:4 in 1987. Nevertheless, Israel's superior maintenance standards and higher pilot-to-aircraft ratio meant that it could fly more sorties per aircraft per day. Israel also enjoyed an advantage in precision weapons delivery systems and in its ability to suppress Arab air defense missile systems.

With little expansion of the air force contemplated, emphasis was placed on motivating and training pilots and relying on versatile, high performance aircraft. The Israeli air force repeatedly demonstrated its superior combat performance. During the June 1967 War, waves of successive bombings of Egyptian and Syrian airfields caused tremendous damage. The Arab air forces lost 469 aircraft, nearly 400 of them on the ground. Only forty-six Israeli planes were destroyed. The October 1973 War was marked by a large number of dogfights in which the Israelis prevailed, claiming the destruction of 227 enemy airplanes at a cost of 15 Israeli aircraft. On the other hand, sixty Israeli airplanes were lost in missions in support of ground forces. In the Lebanon fighting in 1982, Israeli airplanes destroyed most of the Syrian missile sites in the Biqa Valley. The Israeli air force also dominated the air battle, bringing down ninety Syrian aircraft without a loss.

The air force had demonstrated its ability to bring Israel's military power to bear at distant points and in unconventional operations. In 1976 its transport aircraft ferried troops to the Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue passengers on a commercial airplane hijacked by Arab terrorists. In June 1981, F-16 fighter-bombers destroyed the Osiraq (Osiris-Iraq) nuclear research reactor near Baghdad, Iraq, flying at low levels over Saudi Arabian and Iraqi territory to evade radar detection. In 1985 Israeli F-15s refueled in flight and bombed the headquarters of the PLO near Tunis, Tunisia, at a distance of more than 2,000 kilometers from their bases.

When the first Hawk missiles arrived in 1965, IAF Commander Ezer Weizmann succeeded in placing this sophisticated air defense system under Air Force control. By far the most important recent development in air defense was the acquisition of Patriot missile batteries during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Israeli crews mastered the system under the pressure of live combat. U.S. Army and IAF personnel worked side by side to protect Israeli cities from Iraqi Scud surface-to-surface missiles.

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