"An army of mice commanded by a lion can do more than an army of lions commanded by a mouse", Napoleon declared hundreds of years ago, expressing a worldview that is just as valid today. A commander who knows how to lead is an essential part of achieving any objective, be it in 18th Century France or 21st Century Israel.
There is however, one central difference: in the past a commander led troops on the ground or at sea, but today the sky has become one of the crucial arenas in any war or armed conflict. There are also commanders in the sky, and they too are leaders. One of them is in command of every squad, and they are responsible for making the right decisions, particularly in the grey area of dilemmas that emerge in the sky at the moment of truth. Those who command a squad of combat aircraft have to use their discretion, taking difficult decisions with no right answer, often within a matter of seconds.
In reality, even during peace time the IDF's forces carry out routine security operations on numerous fronts, and they can be just as complicated as operations during war. Thus, those in the field need to think carefully about the implications of their actions, and about how they can avoid stirring up conflict.
"During routine security sorties, the main dilemma is how to react to isolated violent incidents, when you are not at war", explains Major (reserve) Yochai, a pilot in the "Scorpion" Squadron. "You want to carry out the mission, but you need to think about the wider implications of your actions. Was this what the decision-makers intended? How will this specific action effect other operations in the area? When an operation is taking place in an urban setting, a situation in which we often find ourselves, any potential mistake can have far reaching implications".
The balance between carrying out the mission and preserving the status quo was a difficult challenge for the leaders participating in the workshop. In enemy territory, threatened by MiG patrols, with "Rambo" (the ground force) urging them to act, the leaders found themselves under pressure and had to make a quick decision.
"I didn't feel comfortable entering into air-to-air combat with enemy aircraft, when the only one telling me to attack was 'Rambo'. They could only see that mortars were falling around them, didn't know where they were coming from and shouted 'take them down', explained Major (reserve) Oren, a pilot in the "Scorpion" squadron. When it comes to deciding whether or not to engage enemy planes during routine security operations, there's a lot of room for discretion on the part of the leader, and there's not always consensus between the commander and his deputy.
Major Oren: "During times of calm, one of the most important tasks is to make sure that the situation stays calm. A bad decision can lead to deterioration". "If I had to decide whether or not to intercept Syrian aircraft firing on our forces in Lebanon, I'd take them down", disagreed Lieutenant Yonathan, one of the squadron's navigators. "Even though I recognize that this sort of action has the potential to start a war, I believe that it's the right thing to do".
Taking off. Years of training lead up to the moment of truth. They need to prove themselves, and know the importance of the mission, a mission that could endanger them, and the squad that they are leading.
"The hardest dilemma is knowing when the situation has become extreme, knowing when I should say to myself 'even if stick to the objective, I won't be able to achieve it, I'm just going to get damaged", explains Major Itai, second-in-command of the "1st Combat" Squadron. "We practiced situations in which you need to decide how to react to a specific threat." "If air control reports that the target area is very dangerous, do we need to change our method of attack? If an enemy aircraft is troubling the squad, at what distance will he be able to see us?"
However, the dilemmas facing the leaders don't always affect their squad alone. During one of the flights, when the squad was on its way to carry out an attack on a ground target, they suddenly heard a cry for help over the radio, from an aircraft in distress.
Major (reserve) Yochai, a reserve pilot in the "Scorpion" Squadron: "In order to decide when to engage the enemy plane threatened aircraft that called for help, we needed to consider the urgency and importance of the initial mission that we'd been sent on, and to decide if we could put off the strike for a later stage, or if future operations depended on our neutralizing the target immediatly. We faced a dilemma that was more than just moral; rescuing the plane and its pilot would have preserved our future operational abilities, whereas striking the original target would have implications for future sorties and on the eventual outcome of the conflict. We hoped that the pilot would fly on until after we struck our target, and that then we would come and help him. Sadly, in this scenario the pilot fell, but that's not to say that we made the wrong choice as we couldn't be sure how our strike affected the rest of the battlefield".
The dilemmas that the leaders faced did not just deal with dangers faced by our pilots and navigators, but also those faced by our forces on the ground. They must strike their targets, neutralizing threats faced by our troops, whilst at the same time taking great care to avoid friendly fire.
"On our way to strike a ground target, soldiers on the ground reported missiles launched in their direction", describes Major A., a pilot in the "1st Combat" Squadron. "We needed to decide whether or not to attack a target that was close to our troops, at the same time as Syrian aircraft were nearing us. Our ground forces were located near the new target. The distances between them, UN forces and the target itself were very small. We decided to attack our original target, rather than the one we received from the commander of the team on the ground, because of the risk of hitting our own troops".
"Gal, I need a word", said one of the Aircrew, approaching the second-in-command of the "1st Combat" Squadron. "We just went on a redundant flight; they never sent us an order". Sometimes the leaders need to exercise discretion for various reasons, for example if the radio connection is lost and orders cannot be transmitted
"During one of the workshop flights, we practiced defending Israel's skies. The scenario we practiced was one in which a large number of aircraft attempted to penetrate Israel airspace", explains Major A. "We set out with limited information, and without air control. We didn't have pictures of the enemy aircraft, and we could only know exactly where they when they locked on to us.
Thus, there are situations in which they are forced to factor in political considerations, weighing up consequences far greater than those discussed in the regulation books. In these cases, the pilots make very difficult decisions. "I, as a leader, do everything I can, but when I was forced to decide whether or not to take a gamble and endanger myself, when enemy aircraft were entering Israeli territory, I decided to pursue them and to bring them down before they crossed the border into Israel".
Despite the fact that the name of the oldest squadron based at Uvda Airbase is "The Flying Dragon" Squadron, many know it as "The Red" Squadron, referring to their reputation as Israel's best "red" pilots, pilots who play the role of the enemy during training exercises. Indeed, they often coach other squadrons on the tactics and equipment of Israel's enemies.
"There's no doubt that the exercise was more useful when the 'red' team was played by members of 'The Red' Squadron than when it was played by pilots from our squadron", said Major A. "They demonstrated professionalism in every part of the exercises, and were extremely threatening as enemy pilots. In additional to their flying skills, the aircraft they used were very high quality and the exercises were more challenging than usual".
In addition to the challenge posed by the opposing squadron, "The Red" Squadron was forced to undertake air-to-air combat in an unfamiliar area, with conditions unlike those the squadron is used to. "In general we practice air-to-air combat in the south, or over the sea. Some of the workshop flights took place in areas that were new to us. This added an element of uncertainty."
Putting experienced pilots up against new dilemmas is a challenge for "The Red" squadron, who need to find ways to take those used to taking difficult decisions to the edge of their abilities. "Every experienced pilot has experienced tough dilemmas", says Major A. "We're used to participating in routine security measures, without threats from the ground or in the sky. On the other hand practicing operations under threat, like during the workshop, made for a lot of radio traffic and added an element of pressure to our sorties".
The experience of the veterans is not just from routine security flights. "During the Second Lebanon war, I went on sorties in which I needed to drop bombs near IDF forces and in which I need to fly much lower than is usually considered safe in order to help the troops on the ground", recalls Major (reserve) Yochai, "When it comes down to it, it's difficult to decide how to act in a situations that don't have easy answers. What I've learnt is that the most important thing is to make a choice and to stick with it with all your heart".