When sensors are operated to their utmost capability and nerves are on edge, every small sign of danger gets the big apparatus called the Israeli air force moving fast and with full power.
That is exactly what happened last Saturday, when the residents of central Israel could hear the roar of fighter jets above their heads.
The air force does not normally fly over central Israel so low, especially on the Jewish Shabbat, so it attracted huge attention.
The F-16s were scrambled to intercept what was initially believed to be a “hostile intrusion” by an unidentified aircraft into Israel’s airspace.
The “intruder”, which turned out to be a flock of birds, was detected shortly before 10am. Radars identified the suspected target and in minutes the F-16s were over the Mediterranean, where the target was spotted moving slowly.
Only by eye contact could the pilots see that the target was a huge, slow-moving flock, probably on a migration path.
“When there is doubt, there is no doubt” – this is the way the air force operates. In the short reaction time the pilots have, there is no alternative.
The weak radar signal seen on the screens could have been a small, unmanned air system (UAS) carrying explosives or just a sensor for intelligence-gathering.
The air force has intercepted such UAS in the past. It shot down a UAS five miles off the coast of Haifa that the army said was collecting intelligence for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
The alert last Saturday lasted only a few minutes. Once the pilots discovered that the flying ‘object’ was a flock of birds, the F-16s returned to base.
With so much going on in neighbouring Arab countries, which are controlled not only by their respective governments, the highest alert status of the air force is not something that is about to change soon.
The fighter aircraft have only a few minutes to reach an area where something suspicious is detected. That calls for the air force to be ready for action 24/7.