Israel Air Force Opens Window on Secretive Shaldag Commando Unit

In demonstration for the media, soldiers simulate seizure of strategic facility in an unnamed Arab state.

Gili Cohen
An exercise carried out by Shaldag commandos in a rare display for the media.
An exercise carried out by Shaldag commandos in a rare display for the media.Credit: Amit Elkaim, IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Gili Cohen

Forty years after its official establishment, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the commando unit of the Israel Air Force has drawn back the curtain from some of its special operations. The fighters of Shaldag (Kingfisher) recently demonstrated for representatives of the media the takeover of a “strategic facility” in an unnamed Arab country.

To that end, a mock-up of a specific site in the target state was built at Shaldag’s training base at Palmahim. After a sniper team “hits” two kaffiyeh-wearing guards from a distance, soldiers descend from the helicopter by rope into the facility. A third force is assigned to gather intelligence, to take computers and electronic gear and to take and question prisoners.

Some of the soldiers’ M16 assault rifles are fitted with silencers; some of the soldiers also carry pistols. They demonstrate the seizure of a locked area: First, a dog from the army’s Oketz Unit is sent in. Next, a robot is dispatched, and only after that do soldiers enter. One soldier comments on the irregularity of photographing the training exercise.

Shaldag’s 40th anniversary was marked with a ceremony at Palmahim attended by veterans of the unit. An officer in the force ties the new willingness to expose some of its activities to that milestone, while noting that most of the units’ missions, not least in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon, remain classified.

Shaldag commandos during a training exercise on display for the media at Palmachim Air Force base.Credit: Amit Elkaim, IDF Spokesperson's Unit

In its early years, Shaldag focused on providing forward air control to the IAF, such as marking targets, using laser guides or flares, in order to increase the accuracy of airstrikes. Today the unit engages mainly in combat and in intelligence-gathering. Sometimes it carries out arrests in the territories, and in the past it also carried out “targeted assassinations” of Palestinian terrorists.

Members of the unit recollected incidents during special operations in the 1980s and ‘90s, such as the time doors were removed from Lahatut helicopters (McDonnell Douglas MD 500 Defenders) taking Shaldag fighters deep into Lebanon, so the soldiers could lean out to mark homes for attack. They were shot at and escaped under cover of a combat helicopter.

Shaldag commandos rappel down from a Black Hawk helicopter to their target during an exercise on display for the media.Credit: Amit Elkaim, IDF Spokesperson's Unit

In another mission, a force infiltrated a Hezbollah facility, conducting observations. Then another group of soldiers raided the area, and laid down land mines and bombs, which were set off — with a delaying mechanism to enable their own escape — by the first group of soldiers.

“A lot of the missions are secret, and shouldn’t leave any marks before and after,” says one Shaldag officer in the reserves.

The unit’s milestones include the 1982 conquest of the Beirut museum (“we turned this fortress, that had been considered one of the most difficult and dangerous, into a nonissue,” Shaldag commander Giora Inbar said at the time). During the first Gulf War, Shaldag fighters were alerted every time a Scud missile fell — including in western Iraq, according to “The Great Scud Hunt” in Time magazine.

Shaldag commandos on the march during a military exercise on show for the media.Credit: Amit Elkaim, IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Members of Shaldag say sniper teams from the unit were embedded with Israeli ground forces during the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2014. Shaldag forces carried out some attacks and helped to locate tunnels dug from the territory into Israel. During the Second Lebanon War, Shaldag carried out about 150 combat missions, including ones targeting missile launch sites.

One Shaldag mission in that 2006 war that made headlines at the time was a joint commando raid on a hospital and some homes identified with Hezbollah in Baalbek, Lebanon. The purpose, an officer now says, was to hit Hezbollah in its home and, he adds, they should have carried out a dozen missions like that, in his opinion, albeit with a smaller force. At least, afterward, the army was less worried about special ops deep in enemy territory.

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