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Air Force

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.

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.

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. 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. Boeing 707s had been converted for in-flight refueling of F-15s and F-16s (see table 14, Appendix A).

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.

Data as of December 1988

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