The internal turmoil sweeping through Israel has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Left-wing protesters are demanding that the Israeli government scrap its planned reforms and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Most significantly, an increasing number of military reservists – the foundation of the Israel Defense Forces – are refusing to fulfill their obligations and intended missions as the crisis rages on.
The only IDF unit operating the Israeli F-15I fighter, the famous 69 Squadron, also participates in the protests. Earlier this month, 37 of the elite unit’s 40 reserve pilots and navigators refused to report for scheduled training exercises. The squadron, nicknamed the “Hammers,” operates the F-15 fighters from the Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel.
The squadron conducted the operation that bombed the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 and has participated in other missions since then. Israel relies significantly on its fleet of F-15I jets, which makes the protest by the elite unit particularly alarming.
A brief history of the F-15I “Ra’am
The Jewish state’s desire for a long-range attack airframe arose in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUD missiles hit Israeli cities.
The IDF required air defenses that could deter future missile attacks. The American choices evaluated were the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle, and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. The Israeli Defense Forces ultimately chose the F-15E Strike Eagle combat platform. The Israeli government acquired 25 F-15I variants in 1995.
The F-15 Eagle variant has been a mainstay of the Israeli Air Force since the late 1970s, well before the Gulf War. The F-15I Ra’am “Thunder,” however, marked numerous improvements to Israel’s aerial capabilities.
Israel Aerospace Industries collaborated with Boeing to create a specially modified variant of the Strike Eagle. The F-15I can carry more weaponry and ammo than the F-15E Strike Eagle because of its wider frame.
In addition, the Israeli variant features a number of self-made capabilities, such as a mainframe computer, an Elbit sight and display helmet, and an APG-70 radar with terrain mapping capabilities.
The sophisticated radar system gives the pilot a sharp image that quickly locates targets regardless of weather conditions. The Ra’am also carries the Eagle’s internal M61A1 Vulcan 20mm autocannon and can carry approximately 18,000 pounds of ammunition and fuel.
The strong track record of the Ra’am
The Israeli Air Force routinely deploys its Ra’am fleet because of the F-15I’s superior capabilities. The history of the F-15I with the FAI is rich and illustrious. It participated in Operation Pillar of Defense, the Gaza War, and the 2006 Lebanon War.
More recently, 69 Squadron pilots have been involved in hundreds of strikes against Iranian assets in Syria. The IDF military chief even awarded the revered squad a citation in 2018 for its role in those successful operations.
What makes the F-15I special?
Perhaps most significantly, the F-15I can carry more fuel and weapons than Israel’s F-16 and F-35 close-range combat platforms. As tensions between the Jewish state and Iran have escalated in recent months, the risk of conflict is high.
This means the Israeli Air Force will have to rely on just one Ra’am squadron in the future. More reservists and pilots going on strike might spell disaster for Israel if the political situation there continues to deteriorate.