Published by The Freeman Center
The Maccabean Online
Political Analysis and Commentary
Israel's Secret Weapon for Any Strike on Iran
By Yaakov Lappin
21 September, 2013
No potential future air campaign in Iran, against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, would be possible without the secretive units nestled deep in the maze of an Israel Air Force base.
A commander of the IAF’s airborne electronic warfare unit. Photo: IDF Spokesman
Nestled deep in the maze of an Israel Air Force base, secretive units form an essential component in any Israeli air strike in enemy territory with air defenses.
Indeed, they would have been an inseparable part of recent air force strikes in Syria, attributed to Israel by foreign media reports, to stop the transfer of sophisticated missiles and air defenses to Hezbollah.
No potential future air campaign in Iran, against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, would be possible without the units.
This is the Electronic Warfare (EW) Section, which is made up of two units.
One operates from the air in specially fitted planes, and the second is ground based.
The two units work in synergy, viewing themselves as part of a greater whole.
They disrupt the enemy’s radar systems, blinding and dazing those being targeted for strikes. They can paralyze enemy communications systems needed to coordinated defenses.
The units also keep fighter jets safe from enemy EW attacks.
When “playing defense,” EW personnel will disrupt the communications of hostile aircraft, such as Hezbollah drones, attempting to intrude upon Israeli airspace, and prevent them from communicating with their ground stations.
The IAF’s airborne Electronic Warfare unit – called Sky Crows – has a new commander, a 39-year-old father of three, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post from his office in early September.
“What is Electronic Warfare? It’s a thought experiment,” he said cryptically.
Hampered by the need to keep the unit’s activities classified, the commander divulged the little that he could.
“This is a war between two sides. Each side works with radars and communications.
The enemy uses these. He wants to protect his skies.”
“We want to protect our skies,” he continued.
“A radar readout is the basis of how we seek our skies.”
“We’re not firing kinetic weapons, but rather, electrons, so that the other side will find it very, very, very difficult to discover our jets,” the commander, a lieutenant-colonel, said.
The world of Electronic Warfare is like an eternal cat and mouse game, he added. “We must stay one step ahead,” he stressed. He warned against underestimating Israel’s enemies, and said that keeping a modest attitude is vital.
“EW is an intrinsic part of achieving aerial supremacy. If a plane penetrates Israeli air space, we have the ability to disrupt its communications,” he said.
“We’re a full partner in maintaining Israeli air security, and in missions of supreme national security,” he stated.
“Wherever the IAF is required to take action, we’ll be there. We’re a part of all of the IAF’s sub-missions. We’ll defend the fighter plane that will fly in combat,” the source said. He referred to a “security envelope,” also known as an “EW suit,” which must be fitted around every warplane heading into action. “This is an encompassing suit,” the source explained.
“We’re connected by the umbilical cord to all of the air force’s operational needs. We’re in close cooperation with the flight squadrons. There’s an ongoing dialogue between us,” he added.
Communication with the air force’s headquarters in Tel Aviv also maintains a key aspect of the EW units’ work.
“This cooperation is critical to success.
It’s our strength,” the commander said.
During peacetime, EW units prepare themselves for the need to scramble sorties quickly.
“We understand exactly what is occurring in near and distant arenas.
We adapt ourselves to this and provide solutions,” the commander explained.
During a future war, EW units must also be able to continue to function under intense rocket and missile attacks on the Israeli home front, and are working to ensure that they can do so.
The Sky Crows unit has lost 14 of its members – 13 to enemy fire – in its history.
The unit’s commander said he stays in touch with all of the bereaved families. “I emphasize this because it underlines why we’re here: for the love of the homeland. This is a central message I impart to the others,” he said.
“After three years of service, we all become reserves. Everyone who serves here wants to be here, and is therefore a volunteer.”
The son of Holocaust survivors, the commander has put up a poster in his office depicting the historic flight of Israel fighter jets over the Auschwitz death camp in Poland in 2003.
“My focus is on the resurrection of the Jewish people. I don’t live in the shadow of the idea that all was lost.
Revival is my home, a sense of mission and Zionism. We have no other land,” he said. “We are prepared to sacrifice our lives.”
It’s hard to explain to those on the outside what the unit does, the commander said.
“This is part of the challenge. We can’t talk about it at home. The people who make up this unit are the cream of the crop.”
“But they can say very little,” he added.
The air force’s EW Section has its own school that trains future generations of personnel.
The school’s commander, a captain who, like the unit commander, cannot be named, sits in his office in a flight suit. He has a dual role, for in addition to commanding the training school, the captain also operates electronic warfare systems himself in the Sky Crows unit.
Most of the time, though, the captain is busy ensuring that EW operators from the ground and airborne units are qualified for their missions.
Prospective cadets pass through a series of physical and mental tests before commencing training. Some cadets are headhunted; others have been rejected from air force fighter jet pilot courses and end up here.
It takes one year to train them fully, and the unit members –both men and women – are then required to serve for two years.
“Just one year of operational service isn’t enough,” the school commander said.
After a month of basic training, the cadets arrive at his school, an experience he compares to “entering a tunnel. In the first week they’re in shock. They’re in very tough circumstances, under physical strain, and they must comply with strict discipline.”
Then, the cadets head to a training base near Hatzerim in the South, for a course in field combat skills and firearms training.
“This is necessary,” the school commander said, “because they can end up in hostile enemy territory. Airborne units could be shot down.” Later, the cadets return and begin learning the fundamental aspects of the EW world. They start by studying physics, and the composition of an electromagnetic wave.
“After the basics, they move on to the intelligence aspects, target selection, and how to utilize EW. They get to know the targets intimately, in order to know how to strike them,” the source stated.
“We drum into them the fact that in one moment, they could go from operating their systems at high altitudes to being on the ground and fighting for their lives [if they’re shot down],” he said.
“The scope of material they must learn is enormous. They’re tested at the end of every week. They get to go home once every three weeks. This is what it takes to be in an EW unit,” the captain added.
Each new course is made up of 18 soldiers, and a third of the cadets are typically female (though in the last course there was just one woman).
The cadets must pass a selections committee, which decides if they can become operators. A second committee, headed by a unit commander, decides who will go to the airborne and ground-based units. Those found unfit for service are let go.
In the next stage, the young men and women interact for the first time with the EW systems. They also meet fighter jet squadrons.
“They’ll start using simulators, too. We continue with the strict discipline, and the cadets remain disconnected from all other things,” the school commander noted. In the final week of this stage, the prospective EW operators tour defense industries that work closely with their units. After three- and-a-half months, they complete the first stage of their training.
For the next seven months, the soon to be operators must master their complex system. The emphasis on discipline now decreases.
The commander listed the main training points of the advanced training phase: “They’ll learn about actual enemy targets.What to do against whom. How to take off and use the systems. The differences between routine flights and combat missions. The changing threat.”
“They also learn about their role in the wider context of our EW capabilities, and that they form an inseparable part of this,” he said. After the final stage, the cadets become operational unit members. Later, some will become officers, and will go on to train the next wave of cadets.
“This is a place where we don’t tell others what we do. It’s very hidden. We’re active every day. The classified aspect creates big difficulties in explaining what we do to the outside world,” said the school commander.
Two young Electronic Warfare operators, who are also instructors, spoke to the Post on their base.
One, a female operator, explained, “It’s not trivial that a woman signs on for three years. The implications of what we’re doing are known to us, both as instructors and operators. This is hard work, but it’s satisfying.”
A male operator added, “You understand that you’re connected to everything that goes in the air force. You know everything.
You know there are things that must stay with you.”