The Jerusalem Post
IAF to open third F-35 squadron, focused on training
Non-operational skeleton unit will take aircraft from the other forces in order to train new pilots
The Israel Air Force’s third squadron of F-35i “Adir” stealth fighter jets is set to be inaugurated next week at Nevatim Air Base in the South.
The ceremony will be attended by IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin and other top IAF officers.
The 117th Squadron will join the 116th Squadron, nicknamed “Lions of the South,” and the 140th “Golden Eagle” Squadron.
But unlike the two other operational squadrons, which have been carrying out missions, this will be a skeleton squadron focused on training other F-35 pilots. It will not have any facilities except for simulators and a small crew.
The squadron will take aircraft from other squadrons to train new pilots.
The IAF closed the 117th First Squadron, the country’s oldest F-16 unit, in October 2020 – 67 years after it was opened. The squadron took part in the 1981 strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, known as Operation Opera, and also became the first in the world to shoot down an enemy plane with an F-16; the following year, it became the first in the world to shoot down a MiG23.
Sources told The Jerusalem Post that it is still unclear if the 117th will later become operational or if it will remain a training squadron.
The Israel Air Force currently has 27 stealth fighter jets, with the remaining jets set to be delivered by 2024. There are currently efforts to bring six planes by the end of the year, with the first three set to land in September or October.
Since becoming operational in 2018, the F-35 squadrons have carried out missions both over the Gaza Strip and as part of Israel’s “war between wars.”
They have also taken part in international exercises with other militaries flying the F-35 stealth fighter jet including the Tri-Lightning drill that ended on Tuesday.
LT.-COL. “D,” commander of the 140th Golden Eagle Squadron, told the Post that the drill was a continuation of the Falcon Strike drill, which took place earlier in June in Italy with British, American and Italian F-35 pilots.
“We flew with them to increase our shared knowledge of the F-35 and to increase our cooperation with other air forces flying the plane,” he said. “It’s a young plane that many countries are flying and are still learning about.”
The drill, which took place on Monday and Tuesday, saw the pilots practice various aerial scenarios including dogfights, dealing with advanced surface-to-air missile systems, attacking targets deep in enemy territory and combat scenarios over enemy countries.
The British and Americans flew the F-35B while the IAF flew the F-35A.
It was held in southern Israel as part of the exercise, and Israeli fighter pilots also visited a British carrier to learn how a ship-borne F-35 squadron operates.
The British and American jets that participated took off from the new British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which also participated in the Falcon Strike exercise held in Italy about three weeks ago.
“Landing on the Queen Elizabeth – not with our F-35s but with helicopters – and to learn about how they operate the jet from the aircraft carrier was really something,” Lt.-Col. D. said. “I’ve been a pilot in the IAF for the past 20 years and this was really something else. It shows how much we want to learn from each other.
According to the colonel, the pilots under his command are relatively young, with one who has flown only on the advanced fighter jet. That pilot, he said, received special training just for the F-35 and has only flown for one year.
“He’s the first pilot in Israel to have flown only on the F-35,” he said.
Lt.-Col. D, who has flown on both F-15s and F-16s, said that while the younger pilots have “less experience, when they fly from day one on the F-35 there’s a different mentality, a different culture.”
THE TWO-day-long international Tri-Lightning 2 exercise involving F-35 aircraft from the IAF as well as US Marine Corps and Britain’s Royal Air Force was designed to “strengthen strategic-regional cooperation as well as cooperation with the international F-35 community,” the IDF said.
The IAF believes that international exercises such as that one improve and strengthen its own capabilities in dealing with threats in real-time.
The drill came a month after six F-35A Adir stealth fighter jets were deployed to Italy as part of the two-week-long Falcon Strike 2021 multinational exercise.
Though all air forces have flown the plane in operations, Israel was the first to use the stealth fighter jet in a combat scenario. The Israeli jets also took part in Operation Guardian of the Walls, which broke out just several weeks before the drill began.