image Wings Over Israel: F-15, A Boomer To F-35 Millennials, In Flyby For Blue Flag 2021. Photo: IAF.

The Best And The Fightest

Even Pilots Sing The Blues

By Amir Oren

On a fall day in 1979 an Israeli visiting Manhattan ran into an acquaintance from back home, ace Air Force fighter pilot Moshe Melnik. As was customary at the time, officers sent abroad had to add an Israeli-sounding name, an edict going back to founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, born Grin, so Melnik was officially registered as Marom (“Sky” or “Heaven”), but in the fighter community he was still referred to as Melnik.

“What’s up, Melnik? What are you doing in the States?”

Melnik, who could easily pass for an earlier version of Tom Cruise in “Topgun”, broke into an impish smile. “You know about that dogfight,” he said, matter of factly. That dogfight, in June of that year, was the first in which an American-made F-15 shot down a Soviet-made Mig-21, flown by a Syrian pilot. The Israeli winner of the face-off was Melnik, a charter nember of Tayeset (Squadron) 133, the IAF first F-15 unit.

“The Americans were eager to learn everything about that battle,” he added. “The USAF debriefed me thoroughly and analysed every frame of the video. I came out with a mixed conclusion, believing our guys are the better pilots, but theirs is the more serious and methodical system for lessons learned and distributing doctrine and tactics across an entire force.”

Melnik, then a Major and eventually a Brigadier-General, went on to more exploits, such as leading the six F-15’s flying air-to-air cover for the eight F-16’s on their way to bomb Osiraq. By that time he was the Commanding Officer of 133, the most coveted spot for ever-competitive fighter pilots.

One of his most revered successors in that position, Major General Amikam Norkin (an Israeli-sounding name no longer a must), is today leading in his old F-15 a flyover launching a two-week multi-national exercise hosted by the IAF which he commands, Blue Flag 2021. At least seven Air Forces from three continents take part in the exercise out of Uvda airbase, built by the U.S. in the Negev to compensate the IAF for its loss of bases in the Sinai Desert returned to Egypt as part of the peace treaty signed between the two governments under American auspices.

It is a far cry, or supersonic boom (hats off to Chuck Yeager, who “broke the sound barrier” – there is none, of course – on October 14, back in 1947), from the condescending view of the IDF by the Pentagon before the Six-Day War. At the time, the Israeli military was considered creative and flexible, but it was proven in battle only in the 1956 Suez-Sinai campaign, when French and British forces also attacked Egypt.

In order to reassure Israel that in needs neither a Nuclear deterrent nor a conventional pre-emptive doctrine, the Johnson Administration held secret talks with Israeli political and defense officials, though it balked at forming a regular working group. If Egypt goes on the offensive, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol and his Deputy Defense Minister Peres were told, they should have no fear – the U.S. Sixth Fleet would be here. Fine, thanks, said the Israelis, but how fast? ASAP, answered the Pentagon. Sorry, regretted the Israelis, ASAP would be too late for us.

That peace initiative in the late 1970’s threw open the gates to professional Anerican-Israeli military cooperation. The U.S. reluctantly started selling advanced weapons to Israel in the 1960’s, HAWK surface-to-air missiles, A-4 Skyhawk attack planes and eventually F-4 Phantom fighters. After the Yom Kippur War it started supplying F-15’s and F-16’s, but was at first not keen to let the Israelis mingle with their opposite numbers, lest the Saudis complain. Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the Camp David process legitimised the inclusion of the IDF in planning for strategic cooperation, and even then only in the Cold War anti-Soviet framework and not in the Arab-Israeli context.

Four decades on, the IDF – and within it, the IAF – are not only welcome, they are eagerly sought as comrades, mates and potential brothers-in-arms. Whenever Air Force Chiefs meet, their Israeli colleague is always a member of very good standing. Israel’s transfer from EUCOM to CENTCOM, under the American scheme, added an Asian dimension to the NATO one long practiced by Americans, British, Italian, German, French and Greek forces (the latter supplanting the Turks, which used to be best buddies with Israel pre-Erdoghan).

In a special gesture, while Norkin’s F-15 flies alongside the IAF’s latest, an F-35, his wingman is the German Air Force’s Chief, Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, in a Eurofighter Typhoon painted in Israeli colors. Festivities over, there is a full menu of sorties until October 28. Air superiority, anti-SAM, command and control, coalition warfare. It is obvious to observers, based on reports from various sectors in the region from 2013 on, that whoever cooperated in missions in Syria, Egypt (against terror networks) and Iraq may well strike elsewhere, at least blessed by local stakeholders such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

The last dogfight was won by the IAF 36 years ago. Two generations of fighter pilots went through the system untested in that sort of combat, though they became proficient in air-to-ground strikes in which complex choreography is sometimes needed for 100 or more aircraft in very constricted space. The Melniks of the present train and simulate. They may be as good as their predecessors- better, say the elders, and more tuned to the digital age – but for most it will never really be proven one way or the other, because even the best and the fightest who following their carreers serve in the active reserve are grounded at 51 (except for Air Academy instructors), making way for youth in which it is cost-effective to invest precious flight hours.

Blue Flag is the younger Israeli brother of Red Flag, the combat exercise at USAF Nellis in Nevada, which started after the Vietnam and Yom Kippur wars. At Nellis, there are three editions – one for Americans only, one somewhat downgraded for “Five Eyes” Anglo-Saxon allies, one even less classified for other international partners. Israel is officially less reliable than New Zealand, even though it is in Israel’s interest to avoid leakage, because its own pilots would be endangered if secrets reach its enemies (presumably through defense industry deals).

In Blue Flag 2021, everyone shares, but not everything, at least not intentionally. In order to win its next war, Israel must keep some surprises to itself. Nevertheless, it is an important opportunity to welcome fighters who are friends and show them around, up and about.

Unless some sudden conflagration breaks out in Gaza or Lebanon before next summer, Blue Flag will be one of Norkin’s last major events. In the IAF’s timeline, three periods stand out, each with two commanders. In 1958-73, the Ezer Weizmann-Moti Hod era, with the 1967 victory at its apex and transitioning from the French Mirage to the American Phantom. On its heels, and recovering from the Yom Kippur setbacks, the 1973-82 Benny Peled-David Ivry era of reorganising the IAF to anti-SAM and absorbing F-15’s and F-16’s. These were the Baby Boom years of fighter pilots born just after Israel was born. Today’s planes, manned or remotely operated, are crafted with Millennials in mind.

More recently, 2012-22, the Amir Eshel-Amikam Norkin era. Two like-minded fighter leaders who ushered the IAF into the F-35 mindset, with deep understanding of the Air Force’s part in national strategy and the necessity of unjamming its bottlenecks by innovative command and control mechanisms. This is certainly fine as far as it goes, but Israel stops short of making use of their talents in the top position of the IDF, reserved for ground forces General Officers. Nor are the Norkins, once retired from the military where they excelled at implementing policy, inclined to take part in shaping it. The net result is that Israelis are more competent at waging their wars than in striving to consign conflict to their history books, next to tales of last century’s dogfighting.