Talya Yariv | Photography: The "Knights of the Yellow Bird" Squadron and the "Elephants" Squadron | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida
In October, two "Karnaf" (Hercules C-130) and a "Shimshon" (Super Hercules C-130J) took off for a tactical transport division deployment with the Frontal Runways Unit and the Cargo Unit.
About 1,000 servicemen and women, 100 different aircraft (such as the F-22 "Raptor" and the F-35) and for the first time a foreign force (the IAF) took part in the exercise led by the Mississippi Air National Guard.
"For us, the exercise is a significant step up in our relationship with the American forces", shares Brig. Gen Lihu HaCohen, Nevatim Airbase Commander which took part in the exercise. "Most of the exercise included mutual preparation with the Americans for the different scenarios. As a result, we enjoyed a very close cooperation which included transporting and dropping American forces, all as a part of strengthening the strategic cooperation with the U.S, demonstrating our abilities and of course - mutual learning".
Heavy Lifters in Foreign Skies
The "Southern Strike" training exercise combined aerial and infantry forces which executed about 700 sorties over the course of the exercise. The Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center was the exercises home base, but the forces deployed to other bases and the training was carried out in a number of southern states. This year, for the first time, the IAF was invited to actively participate in the exercise.
"It was the largest deployment we took part in during the past few years", shares Lt. Col. A, the "Knights of the Yellow Bird" Squadron Commander, which operates the "Karnaf" aircraft and the delegation commander. "We were invited as a designing and executing force of many sorties. We were accepted as equals to the exercise designers, we were given a place in the planning table and we carried out many mutual missions with the United States Armed Forces".
"Our previous deployments were relatively small, but the cooperation with the American forces in these exercises was strengthening every year and as a result, the professional and personal relationships with the exercise commanders deepened", says Maj. Hagay, Head of the International Cooperation Exercises Department and the planner of the Israeli participation in the exercise. "The exercise commander invited us to participate this year. Since the first exercise four years ago, the exercise layout has grown significantly every year, so it is an honor to be invited by them to participate in an exercise of this kind as an integral part of the aerial forces. I believe that this indicates the strength of the relationship between the IAF and the U.S Armed Forces".
The scenarios which were practiced were decided by the U.S Army but similarities to the Middle Eastern arena could be noticed. The four scenarios included transporting humanitarian aid, extraction of an aircrews which ejected in deep enemy territory, naval supremacy by opening sailing routes by transporting Special Forces from the air and from the ocean and extraction of hostages.
The main goal of the exercise is to strengthen the cooperation between multiple forces, aerial and infantry, therefore, the main missions of the tactical transport division: the Israeli "Hercules" aircraft executed flown supply missions to forces in deep enemy territory which included parachuting supplies, transporting equipment and combatants from spec ops units in the U.S army, extraction of injured personal and refueling combat helicopters.
Almost 90 percent of these sorties included the "Karnaf" and "Shimshon" with their cargo compartments full of combatants, equipment or both. One of the Spec Op Units who took part in the exercise and flew in the Israeli aircraft were team 8 of the U.S Navy SEALs. These missions were carried out by the IAF's tactical transport aircraft in different scenarios such as low altitude navigation flight during the day and at night and flying in mountainous and unknown territory.
One of the main elements of the exercise was mutual learning and experiencing new and never before attempted missions and scenarios. Therefore, the Israeli "Karnaf" aircraft executed their first ever aerial refueling of American "Blackhawk" and "Chinook" Helicopters, moreover, night refueling of "Karnaf" aircraft by the American refueled KC-135 were practiced.
The New Methods
The IAF's Frontal Runways Unit added two teams to the deployment, which landed Israeli and American aircraft in short landing strips and practiced transport to strips by American helicopters.
Before each landing, the teams checked the strip's fitness to receive the aircraft, marked it with means of identification for the aircrews and landed them as a part of the exercise's scenarios. The soldiers who took part in the exercise were in mandatory service and were reinforced with two reserve soldiers from the unit because of the distance from home and the need to operate with unfamiliar landing strips.
"The Frontal Runways Unit's work is very unique and when we train in foreign territory, we receive an extraordinary opportunity to bring our abilities into action and to train in scenarios similar to operational ones", shares Maj. Roei, the Unit Commander. "The number of strips we work on in Israel is limited and my teams know most of them. The opportunity to train in unfamiliar territory is an opportunity for them to learn new things about the ground and marking the strip without preliminary information".
Behind the scenes, in the aircraft's cargo compartments, the loading inspectors worked around the clock and made sure that equipment and combatants boarded the aircraft safely. One of the Cargo Unit's main goals for the exercise was to study different methods of loading from the Americans and learn new methods they could use.
The SST was the first international exercise in which the "Shimshon" (Super Hercules) participated. About a year and a half after its arrival to Israel, the aircraft made the opposite journey and the amount of sorties that the squadron executed in the exercise exceeds any exercise it took part in Israel. The squadron's technical division also deployed for the first time for a long period of time outside the squadron and was required to maintain the aircraft in a different environment.
"This is the first time that the ‘Shimshon' crosses the Atlantic this way", declared Lt. Col. Uri, the former ‘Elephants' Squadron Commander. "The squadron is still small and has a small amount of aircrews, therefore most of the squadron members took part in the exercise and it was an excellent opportunity for them to take part in a large scale of tactical training in a short period of time, which we find difficult to execute in Israel. The aircraft's abilities stood out and we felt that it enabled us to execute our missions faster and better which led to a feeling of security".
The Israeli "Hercules" aircraft's abilities to fly in formation, shoulder to shoulder, is a required operational activity, therefore, for the first time, during the deployment, "Karnaf" and "Shimshon" aircraft flew in mutual formations. "For the first time, we flew with our sister squadron", said Lt. Col. Uri. "It strengthened our mutual flight abilities and there is a very real possibility that we will need to fly together operationally. We developed the ability to see one another, to understand the differences between the squadrons and learn new things from them".
In the past year, the IAF and U.S Army cooperated in a number of large-scale aerial exercises, such as "Red-Flag", "Blue-Flag" and "Southern Strike".
The rise in the number of mutual exercises expressed the development and deepening of the relations, as will many exercises planned for this year.
"We want to continue deepening our strategic cooperation with the U.S, our most important ally", rules Maj. Hagay. "We did exactly this by proper representation of the IAF thanks to our precision and professionalism. These exercises are extremely important to us, there are numerous exercises in which we cooperate with the Americans, a fact that definitely indicates an improvement in abilities and deepening of the cooperation between us".