All the signs show the Israeli air force’s maritime patrol squadron will keep flying, despite the increasing use of unmanned air systems (UAS) for the mission.
The “Defenders of the West” are a unique squadron that mainly operate AS565 (Panther) helicopters, which land on the Israeli navy’s SAAR-5 missile boats.
A few weeks ago two operators of the type met to discuss mutual issues.
The pilots and technical staff of the IAF’s squadron, operating from the Ramat David airbase, met with teams from the equivalent French maritime patrol squadron at Haifa port for an instructional gathering.
“The French squadron is a sister-squadron of the Israeli Defenders of the West, and we’ve met with it before,” says Captain M, the squadron’s second-in-command, who is in charge of the squadron’s instructional field. “The purpose of the meeting is creating a mutual learning process and to form a base of optional co-operation between the forces,” he told the IAF website.
This time, unlike previous co-operation sessions, soldiers from the squadron’s technical division also took part in the project. “The Panther helicopter technicians have many unique and complex missions,” says Captain M. “The technical maintenance regulations are an integral part of the squadron’s development, and it’s important to learn from the aerial and marine capabilities of the French navy.”
The Defenders of the West is one-of-a-kind in the IAF, and has many designated missions that combine both air and sea action. They also often work with foreign air forces and navies. “We see great importance in learning from different forces, practicing with them and comparing work methods for the joint missions,” adds Captain M. “The main objective is to expand and improve the squadron and simultaneously tighten the IAF’s relations with air forces and navies all around the globe.”
The IAF maritime patrol squadron has taken part in many operations, but most are classified.
On 6 May 2001, a Panther participated in the capture of the Santorini, a fishing boat on its way to Gaza carrying weapons sent by the PFLP – a terrorist group based in Lebanon. The ship was spotted by the Panther crew after it left Lebanon and was intercepted by navy vessels around 150 miles west of Tyre.
On 20 May 2003 the squadron participated in the seizure of the Abu Hasan, a Hezbollah weapons ship on its way from Lebanon to Gaza. For the first time Panther helicopters were deployed on three Israeli navy missile boats simultaneously. The Abu Hasan was identified from the air by a Panther air crew, and seized south of Cyprus.
During the Second Lebanon War the squadron worked in co-operation with the navy along Lebanon’s beaches, and lost two of its crew to a missile attack on a Hanit missile boat.