by Gur Salomon
JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) -- Several Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16 Fighting Falcon jets are patrolling the skies over the Uvda Airbase on an interception mission far above the Negev Desert hinterlands. Just as they spot the enemy, lock on and ready for battle, enemy F-16s unexpectedly swoop down on their tails.
Later on, while the pilots - members of an IAF squadron on a week-long training deployment at Uvda - are concentrating on bombing a ground target, they are notified that one of their colleagues had just been shot down. Thousands of feet below, Cobra helicopter gunships are searching the sandy dunes for the downed pilot.
The dilemma for the visiting pilots is not a simple one: should they continue to battle it out with the rival jets, or peel off and provide cover for the rescue efforts?
The downed pilot is eventually rescued. His friends are now ordered to escort a fighter that had sustained enemy fire back to base. Along the way, they have to contend with more hostile jets and evade surface-to-air SAM missile batteries.
This multi-element training sortie is one of dozens flown monthly at Uvda, a typical day at the office for the F-16 pilots deployed here on a permanent basis and tasked with training their colleagues from the IAF's fighter squadrons.
But in the volatile Middle East, the war games played out at Uvda could quickly and unexpectedly become real.
Regardless of how a future war might unfold, the fighter squadrons are destined to play a critical role in ensuring the physical survival of the state. Xinhua was granted rare access to the IAF's 115th Squadron, where the most extreme war scenarios are taught and drilled on a daily basis.
CREATING A REALISTIC PLAYGROUND
A blinding sun glares off the broiling tarmac of Uvda's runways, home to the 115th Squadron. A few dozen F-16 Falcons and F-15 Eagles slowly taxi across the asphalt, and then, one by one, light up deafening afterburners and arc into the sky on training sorties.
Among them are several F-16As piloted by members of the 115th, more commonly known as The Red Squadron or, by its official name, The Flying Dragon. It's an aggressor squadron set up in July 2005 that leads the IAF's Advanced Training Center.
For the next hour or so, they will put their colleagues, pilots from visiting squadrons who deployed here for a week-long training series, through sweat-drenching combat maneuvers.
The objective of the training missions that take place at Uvda is clear: the Red Squadron role plays the enemy for the visiting pilots who are designated "Blue" or "the good guys."
In addition to emulating the specific performance capabilities of various enemy fighter aircraft and their weapon systems, the Red Squadron pilots are required to fly in accordance with the known dogfighting doctrines and tactics of enemy air forces in the region.
"The small characteristics are extremely hard to adopt," said Capt. Omer, one of the squadron's two deputy commanders.
"I learned to fly in the IAF. That's how I fly, and it's hard to change old habits. It's not so much about how to fly. It's about modifying habits and instincts," he told Xinhua.
The 115th is regarded highly unconventional among the IAF's gamut of fighter squadrons, exclusively designated to conduct training missions and exempt from maintaining interception alert 24/7. In wartime, the squadron would be dispersed, its 25-to-33- year-old pilots immediately returning to their original squadrons and the aircraft sent into real battle.
The squadron's uniqueness is also attributed to being the sole fighter squadron in the IAF that incorporates a wing of AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships on a permanent basis. There is also a ground forces section tasked with training air crews in dealing with ground-based threats, mostly advanced anti-aircraft batteries, shoulder-fired missiles and electronic warfare.
"The IAF saw that it has a lot of resources that it can put to better use," explained Capt. Omer, "mostly aircraft, live munitions ranges and ground assets that should be operated together."
According to the Flying Dragons, the visiting pilots - veterans and novices alike - find the training here particularly thrilling. They view it as a much welcomed respite from the banality of daily flying in their squadrons. Here, they get a chance to temporarily ditch the strictly-enforced safety rules and push the 70 million U. S. dollars machines to - and often over - the edge.
That "bleeding edge" flying sometimes leads to tragic results: a pilot and navigator flying an F-16I were killed during night time maneuvers, when their craft crashed shortly after takeoff from Uvda on Nov. 10.