IAF pilot dressed up as a Syrian pilot Sept. 19, 2010 Nir Kafri
A Squadron 115 pilot in a Syrian Air Force uniform Photo by Nir Kafri
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Squadron 115, based far from the major bases of the Israel Air Force, in the Ovda airfield north of Eilat, borrows pilots and jets from other squadrons, doesn't take part in combat operations and gets grounded if a war breaks out. The mission of the "Red Squadron," also known as Flying Dragon, is a different one: to simulate the enemy.

A year ago, as part of a course to mentally prepare pilots for combat, a squadron was selected as the Reds' first victim. One after another, the training monitor told pilots over the radio that they had been "downed" by the enemy and were requested to return to base immediately.

"That evening they called us to ask what they had done wrong, how we got them," said Red Squadron commander Lt. Col. Eyal. "We told them not to call us anymore and to talk to their squadron commander. We only meet up in the air, we told them. You have to draw your own conclusions, just like in war."

Squadron 115, which effectively serves as the operational branch of the IAF training department, runs that department's Advanced Training Center. It was established in its current form five years ago, in a controversial move by the previous IAF commander, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy. Recognizing that the air force was lacking something crucial in its training, the decision was made to allocate planes and pilots for enemy simulation.

The last time the IAF downed an enemy airplane was in 1986. Generally speaking, the Israel Air Force has not fought an army with air defense and fighting jets since 1982. The last time the IAF fought an intense campaign in which airplanes were downed on a daily basis and pilots were killed or captured, was during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

At 36, Eyal does not see a great disadvantage in the fact that pilots from his generation have never fought in an air war.

"In the Yom Kippur War, they said at first that someone who hadn't flown in the Six-Day War couldn't fight, and it turned out that the young pilots fought just as well as the veterans," he said. "When I was a young pilot I also flew with pilots who had combat experience, and I can't say they were any better or worse. It's not even clear if the lessons from the old dogfights are still relevant today, when we're using much more precise ammunition."

The Syrian scenario

The Red Squadron pilots are trained to create scenarios as close as possible to situations in which pilots just out of flight school might find themselves in a war. The word "Iran" won't be mentioned in any on-record conversation, and even the abstract "outer-circle missions" term is no longer used, due to censorship and information security rules prohibiting pilots and commanders in the air force from discussing operational plans.

But there's an enemy closer to home about whom it is permissible to talk; as part of the Red Squadron routine, flying suits are marked with Syrian flags and their names are replaced with Arabic ones. They even exchange a few words in Arabic with the control tower as they set off, to get into the mood.

As part of preparation for combat, pilots who are "downed" by the Red Squadron don't return to their base for a routine debriefing. Instead, they are taken on an exhausting all-night march which ends, at best, with a helicopter rescue or, at worst, with simulated captivity - a more sophisticated version of the captivity training undergone by pilots and elite groups.

"We take the squadron through a kind of a failure and crisis process over two days," Eyal says. "Along with the base psychologist, we take pilots through difficult scenarios. Then we rebuild the squadron through success up in the air."

As all IAF airplanes lost in both Lebanon wars were downed by ground fire, the Red Squadron also operates a team of Cobra helicopters and a ground force. When the Reds are training other helicopter squadrons, the Cobras move quickly from place to place, using flares to simulate shoulder missiles used by Hamas and Hezbollah.