Murphy's Law: Consequences Over Syria


April 5, 2018: The Israeli Air Force was unusually quick to release the reason why one of their F-16Is was lost on a February 10th mission in Syria. The initial report was that an F-16I was shot down by a Russian built S-200 (SA-5) surface to air missile. It was a bit more interesting than that. The F-16I loss was but part of a very complex day. It began when an Iranian UAV (launched from an Iranian base in central Syria) entered Israeli air space and was shot down 90 seconds later. In retaliation Israel sent eight F-16Is to hit the Iranian base, especially the operations center for the larger Iranian UAVs operating over Syria. This facility was destroyed and seven Iranians were killed. Syria later reported that the base was 75 percent destroyed and the Iranians had moved out to another Syrian airbase. But how did the Syrians managed to shoot down an F-16I when they had failed so many times before? It was because a determined pilot took a chance. .

Israeli warplanes had dealt with the SA-5 for years and could destroy all the Syrian SA-5 launchers and radars in Syria if they wanted to. But Israel had an understanding with Russia, a nation that was something of a frenemy in Syria and the Russians wanted the SA-5s left alone. Even though the SA-5s were older tech they still posed some risk to Israeli (and American) warplanes and that is what happened to the F-16I. Post-crash investigation determined the cause was pilot error (not implementing countermeasures properly as first reported.) But the complete answer was that the pilot, faced with a situation where he could deal with the SA-5s but not complete his ground attack mission, decided to put the mission first and then carry out the SA-5 countermeasures. Sometimes this works but the timing was a bit off as the counter-measures were not carried out quickly enough to prevent the SA-5 warhead from going off close enough to the F-16I to badly damage it. The pilot got the F-16I across the border where it crashed in Israel and the crew of two safely ejected. The pilot disobeyed orders but is unlikely to be punished because this risk taking is one reason Israeli pilots are regarded as the most effective in the region. Whatever comfort the Iranians and Syrians took in the downing of the F-16I (a very rare event) their own pilots would put them straight and point out how this reinforced why the Israeli pilots and air force was dominant in this part of the world.

For the last decade Israel has been increasingly willing to share their methods and techniques. This was demonstrated in 2017 when Israel held its third “Blue Flag” exercises which, since 2013, have been held every two years. Blue Flag is based on the international “Red Flag” exercises the United States has been hosting since 1975. These multinational Red Flag events were meant to improve coordination among allied air forces in combat. Because of that until the 1990s nearly all the foreign air forces were those closely allied with the United States and able to practice using classified equipment and techniques. Since the 1990s some of these international Red Flag have included frenemies and thus lacked the use of classified items. Often described as more diplomacy than training these unclassified exercises were nonetheless useful, at least to let these nations get a close look at each other’s aircraft and pilots.

Since 2011 the Israeli Air Force has hosted foreign fighter pilots for tactical training using locally developed Red Flag technology. Israeli fighter pilots are considered the best trained in the world and one reason for that is the use of the best training methods available. As part of that Israel maintains a special training program, complete with pilots trained and equipped to operate as likely foes would, to train their own pilots. Initially the Israelis hosted fighters and pilots for training from Poland, Italy and Greece. This was a good source of income and also good diplomacy as these were countries that Israel was on good terms with.

In 2013 Israel began holding “Blue Flag” exercises, which are free for participants and by invitation. This became a good way to note which countries Israel could depend on militarily. The 2017 Blue Flag will have contingents from the United States, Greece, Poland, France, Germany, India and Italy. Meanwhile Israel continues to attend the American Red Flag events and recently those have included Middle Eastern nations that Israel is technically at war with (over the Palestinian issue). But because Israel and these other Middle Eastern nations have some common enemies (Iran and Islamic terror groups like ISIL and al Qaeda) and Israel is the most powerful and technologically advanced military power in the region a growing number of Arab states are openly working with the Israelis.

One reason for this change in attitudes is that the current Israeli Air Force training center is based on the one pioneered by the U.S. Air Force Red Flag program and the U.S. Navy's Top Gun training back in the 1960s. Using American aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training" began in the 1960s. The original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school was established in 1969 by the U.S. Navy in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian-trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school.

Since the 1970s the two training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone a fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare). But after the Cold War ended it became increasingly obvious that none of America's potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all.

In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not as crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR caused cuts in flying time. During that period American pilots were actually increasing their flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the game oriented combat flight simulators had some training value.

So in the late 1990s, Top Gun and Red Flag found their budgets cut. But the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. If we find that, say, China is continuing to improve its combat aviation, and gives its fighter pilots more flying time and their politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S.. Because of this trend, there will be a need to increase American Top Gun training. That is what happened after 2010 and with the new Chinese "dissimilar training" effort, the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools are being restored to their former prominence. Because Israel has been at war or under imminent threat of attack since the late 1940s Israel has developed one of the best Red Flag operations outside the United States. The Chinese effort to create a Red Flag operation is based largely on the success the United States and Israel have had with it and shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done and for many nations Israel is the nearest place to get it. What this training does not provide you with is training for those rare “take a chance” moment the Israeli pilot survived over Syria on February 10th.


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