March 2, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Israeli Air Force has been vital amid the war against Hamas

US Affairs: The 103rd Squadron of the Israel Air Force has helped provide Israel with vital gear during the war, drop flyers over Gaza, and supply troops at the front.
March 2, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Israeli Air Force has been vital amid the war against Hamas

US Affairs: The 103rd Squadron of the Israel Air Force has helped provide Israel with vital gear during the war, drop flyers over Gaza, and supply troops at the front.

In early December Israel’s 98th Division made a rapid assault on the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis. The advance was so fast, by the commandos and infantry in this unit, that the men now needed water to be supplied.

Luckily for them, Israel had practiced supplying troops at a long distance in drills over the past years. Supplying troops fighting in enemy territory hadn’t been done since 2006, though, so the army was now on the verge of using a unique capability, to help the fighters on the front line.

For these missions Israel turns to Squadron 103, based at Nevatim Air Force Base near Beersheba. The base is a sprawling series of runways, hangars, and buildings in the desert. It is home to F-35s and many other types of aircraft.

Among them are the gray C-130J Super Hercules. These are large transport aircraft with four propellers. When you see them in the air, they stand out. They are big, they make a kind of low humming noise, and they command respect.

The squadron is also nicknamed the Elephants. It is a historic squadron for Israel and a key to supplying the IDF and keeping the country’s supply lines open.

On the night between December 10 and 11, the IDF carried out a logistic airdrop, parachuting seven tons of water to troops fighting in Khan Yunis. The C-130Js of the 103rd Squadron performed the job. This aircraft is called the Shimshon in Israel.

It was a joint operation with the Technology and Logistics Division and the aerial supply unit of the Marom Brigade, the IDF said at the time.

The aircraft has a huge fuselage that is completely empty inside. Imagine taking a commercial jetliner and taking everything out of it so it’s totally empty, except for a floor.

On the floor in the Shimshon, there are rollers that can be used to roll in pallets or gear. In addition, these can be covered to make the floor smooth for vehicles. In another configuration, seats can be pulled down all along the sides, to pack in soldiers or to evacuate civilians. Netting along the sides can be held on to, and there is also a metal cord that runs the length of the aircraft to attach things to. It’s all very well thought out.

The Shimshon can be loaded from the back via a ramp. To drop things, you can open hatches on the side and chuck the stuff out, or you can push it out the back of the aircraft.

Israel used a precision airdrop to resupply forces in Khan Yunis, meaning the aircraft comes to a relatively low altitude and then drops the supplies, which fall with a parachute that can be guided in. The IDF calls this a guided supply system, which “is an advanced operational system that enables parachuting equipment to ground forces using precise navigational capabilities.”

Meeting with the pilot

I drove down to meet one of the pilots of the 103rd Squadron in mid-February. For security reasons, his name to us is M. He’s from central Israel. A young friendly man with a broad smile, he has been in the Air Force for several years. He joined the army in 2019 and went to the Air Force pilots course and was chosen for the Shimshon aircraft.

Israel has operated transport aircraft since the War of Independence. There were old Dakotas and then the Nord Noratlas, a French supply aircraft from the 1950s that has a twin tail and kind of looks like a flying hippo.

Israel has used the C-130 since the 1970s. This is a mainstay of US transport aircraft. The C-130 comes in many types and is used by two dozen countries. It is one of the most recognizable aircraft in the world. The US uses hundreds of them.

Israel has used two types, the older C-130H, the “Karnaf,” used by the IAF’s 131st Squadron, and the more modern C-130J, used by the 103rd.

When Israel carried out the Entebbe raid to free hostages in Uganda, the air force used several C-130s in which vehicles and men were embarked, and they had to have enough room to bring the hostages back.

The aircraft can move soldiers, gear, and water, and it can also be used to drop pamphlets, of the type Israel has been dropping over Gaza to warn people to evacuate or to offer rewards for help finding hostages.

“We can move gear, up to 24 tons in one aircraft, to the maneuvering forces…. It’s flexible; we can put in what we want; and they use us a lot to move things from abroad. We have a lot of things coming from abroad, like ceramic vests” and so forth, M. says.

When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, many Israelis were abroad and wanted to come back to join their reserve units. With airline companies canceling flights to Israel, the 103rd was pressed into service. Its planes flew into places like Larnaca, Rome, and Athens and brought back people who wanted to join their reserve units. Around 10 flights like this brought almost 1,000 people back.

“We would open the ramp and see 90-95 people waiting to join, young people who wanted to return to fight,” the pilot remembers.

The airplanes were mobilized also to bring supplies to Israel. The longest flight for M. was a trip to Germany, eight hours of flying time. The pilots flew there, came back, slept seven hours, and then were back in the air, some 48 hours of mission time and 36 hours in the air.

The pilots sit in the aircraft’s cockpit. This is accessed easily via a door on the side. You climb up, and then there is a handle, and a small set of stairs brings you up to the cockpit. It feels like you’re sitting up high, overlooking everything, with windows all around.

There is a small microwave behind the pilot’s seats. It can make food, and has a setting for popcorn. The pilots each have a “yoke” in front of them, the steering column. An instrument panel is between the two comfortable seats. Behind the seats and behind the popcorn machine, is a place for a navigator to sit and a bench to sit or sleep on.

There is also a bunk bed area for pilots or other personnel to sleep. These aircraft often have a crew of several or a half dozen to help load vehicles and equipment.

The propeller-driven aircraft has a lot of capabilities that make it better than using jet aircraft for this kind of mission. For instance, it can climb in and out of airfields at complex angles and at different speeds, and it is ideal for getting into temporary airstrips or those in locations without a long runway.

When the reservists and the cargo had been brought to Israel, these planes helped drop pamphlets over the Gaza. The pamphlets come in huge cartoons of 25,000, but they need to be dropped precisely. If one is trying to warn a certain neighborhood to evacuate, it doesn’t help to scatter the pamphlets and flyers in the wrong area. That means coming in low and dropping them in the right place.

The pamphlets have a small parachute. They are pushed out the side of the aircraft. The pilot will turn on a light that flashes green when it’s time to open a hatch and chuck them out. When that happens, if the plane is at a high enough altitude, everyone needs to put on an oxygen mask and carry around an oxygen bottle. This was something the pilot said he had to get used to in this war, as it was not usual procedure. The squadron has dropped up to 10 million pamphlets over Gaza in four months of war.

The pilot talks about a recent mission dropping pamphlets over the Zeitun district near Gaza City. This area was already a scene of fighting in November, when the 36th Division conquered it from Hamas terrorists. In February the IDF went back into Zeitun and has been fighting terrorists again to clear it of remnants of Hamas.

The 103rd Squadron and its transport aircraft have also helped with other missions. They flew members of the Nir Oz kibbutz to a burial ceremony in Ein Hashofet, southeast of Haifa. The people from Nir Oz on the Gaza border suffered grievously on October 7, and they were evacuated to Eilat. The C-130Js helped bring them to a ceremony in the North by ferrying them to Ramat David Air Force Base in the north, where the kibbutz members boarded buses for the ceremony for their loved ones.

These days the squadron continues to move gear and items from place to place in the country. It has returned to training routines as well, as the war has become less intense.

“We had a lot of reservists who had come, but now the numbers are reduced. Now we can begin to think about the future,” the young pilot says.

The pilot discusses the small, intimate group he works with and how the war has brought closer connections between the ground forces and the air force. This is especially true with the 98th Division and its commando units, such as the Maglan commandos.

We spent time touring the C-130 and marveling at its capabilities, as it sat in a hangar at the base. In the distance other planes were coming and going.

At the entrance to the base there is a kind of small museum of old aircraft. There is an F-16, gathering dust. I wondered whether it was one that took part in the raid on Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1982. Nearby there are other planes that the Elephant Squadron has used over the years. They stand as a reminder of the history of Israel and how its air force has helped the country prevail in numerous wars.

The air force is not just F-16s and F-35s. It also rests on the backs of planes like the C-130 and its predecessors here that have brought supplies and enabled this country to achieve great deeds such as the Entebbe raid.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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