The 103rd ("Elephants") Squadron has just returned from a two-week visit to the United States, where it participated in a course in the US Military's Advanced Airlift Tactic Training Center. The challenges faced by the aircrew members and loadmasters include SAMs (Surface-to-Air Missiles), fighter jets and small arms
It's noon. From the window I see an impressive desert view, with cactuses just like in Wild West films and wide barren plains – I have arrived at Arizona. After a 90-minute long drive we encounter two large roadblocks, which indicate that we have arrived at the Fort Huachuca base, in which the AATTC (Advanced Airlift Tactic Training Center) is located. On the runway in front of me, I see two "Shimshon" (Super Hercules C-130J) aircraft belonging to the 103rd ("Elephants") Squadron; as I enter the building, I see IAF aircrews and loadmasters debriefing the flight they'd just performed alongside American instructors from the academy.
"One of the 'Shimshon's missions is transporting forces and equipment while flying deep in enemy territory. Over the years, the US Air Force has operated in incredibly challenging areas and developed combat doctrines which we could learn a lot from", said Brig. Gen. Eyal Grinboim, Commander of Nevatim AFB, home to the 103rd Squadron.
"The evolving battlefield requires us to update and develop our combat doctrines. Our tight cooperation with the US Military allows us to exchange information with them. The last time we participated in this course was a decade ago, and it helped us develop our tactical capabilities in threatened areas. We realized that the region had changed following the Arab Spring and the collapse of certain countries and regimes, all while SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) systems were active in the theatre. As a result, we decided to make progress with our operational capabilities and be more effective in the battlefield".
All Around the World
"The purpose of the course is drilling flight in threatened areas and problematic topography. The elements making up a threatened area include SAMs, MANPADs (Man-portable air-defense systems) and hostile fighter jets, among others. We simulate almost all possible scenarios with real means, which makes our training more realistic", elaborated Lt. Col. H', Commander of the 103rd Squadron. "The academy's instructors are well-experienced both in instruction and operation, most of them having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The course provides its participants with resources unavailable in Israel alongside unique topography and flight spaces which optimize our training. Furthermore, the fact that 16 countries take part in the course allows for knowledge exchange between crews from all around the world".
The two-week-long course is held ten times a year for crews from the US Air Force, the US Navy and various countries from around the world. All courses are similar, beginning with a theoretical section, moving onto mutual flight, and ending with a joint debrief.
"We saw that the Israeli crews still utilize some of the tactics we taught them 10 years ago", described Lt. Col. Barrett Golden, the course commander. "In these 10 years our tactics have evolved and some of our defensive maneuvers have changed. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. If in the past, wars were brute-force-on-force, nowadays, conflicts are becoming more asymmetric.
“This brings about different modes of operation from the enemy, such as the use of MANPADs and GPS jamming. It's amazing when I jump in an Israeli C-130J and see how similar our modes of flight are. That's a huge testimony to how effective training is. I could jump in the seat with an Israeli pilot and we could go flying together, which is amazing", said Lt. Col. Golden with a smile.
"Interoperability is key to improving aerial force", added Lt. Col. Golden. "We understand that interoperability with allies who work a bit differently than we do, such as Israel, improves us. It allows both sides to learn from another country's tactics and implement new things in their combat doctrines. We emphasize cooperation because we know that in the future we'll work together in face of common threats. For that to happen, we need to learn how to fight together".
What We Learned
After hearing about the course, its importance and relevance to the current state of affairs, I wanted to hear the aircrew members' and loadmasters' conclusions regarding the course. "We learned many operational lessons throughout", said Lt. A', an aircrew member at the 103rd Squadron. "We learned about flight preparation, about how they study topography and the way they divide responsibilities between the aircraft's crew members. However, the main thing isn't learning but drilling what we learned upon our return".
Another platform for learning, besides the course studies, was the flight to and from the United States. "Long flights are one of the Transport Division's unique capabilities, and the flights to and fro helped us maintain our operational preparedness", explained Maj. A', the deployment leader and an aircrew member at the 103rd Squadron.
The course was meant for the squadron's loadmasters and aircrews, but the technical department faced significant challenges as well – from the biting cold of Missouri and to maintenance of the aircraft at irregular hours. "Flying to a foreign country in a different continent – all while stopping in several airports along the way – improves our skills in both maintenance and logistics, among others", explained Maj. Mordy Mor, Commander of the 103rd Squadron's Technical Department. "Flying to a faraway continent while ensuring that the aircraft are fit for flight is difficult. We had to be sharp, focused and professional".
"After completing the course and coming back home, we updated our combat doctrines in light of what we learned. The course provided us with new perspective regarding processes we utilize in Israel which ensured that we can perform them in a safer manner", concluded Brig. Gen. Grinboim. When the day ended - after I had watched copious impressive airdrops and landings - I looked and saw the Israeli flag waving above the building's entrance alongside the US flag, and was immediately filled with pride for the IAF and its cooperation with its American partner.