Most of the year, the island of Crete is an attractive tourist destination. But this March, the island was filled with dozens of Americans, Greeks, and Israelis for another reason.
From afar, it is hard to distinguish every air force and every navy. The color of the uniforms of both branches looks similar and only the color of the belt and beret indicates to which branch of the IDF a soldier belongs. But, aside from the color of the uniform, there are many opportunities to join forces in operations and exercises and find synergy between the sky and the water.
That’s how it was last March, off the coast of the Island of Crete, where many American, Greek, and Israeli “tourists” came to take part in a joint exercise. Of course, they enjoyed the white sand on the clear water beaches, but the main purpose of the visit, which was held on the beautiful island, was the “Noble Dina” exercise, an extensive international exercise that included the navies of three countries as well as the IAF.
“It’s not every day that you get to sail to Crete”, said with a smile First Lieutenant O’, pilot in the “Defenders of the West” squadron from the Ramat David base that operates maritime patrol helicopters of the AS-565 “Panther” model and that took part in the exercise. “This is one of the unique things about our squadron. No other squadron finds itself working the navy and actually sailing with it and that’s why this is such a special experience both on a personal level and on a professional level”
Between the sky and the water
Already at the start of the exercise, solders from “Defenders of the West” squadron encountered a few surprises in the water, but they were not necessarily related to their operational activities, where it is hard to surprise the thoroughly-trained pilots. As almost anyone who has ever sailed knows, there were problems adjusting to life onboard a navy ship as they made their way to the sunny island. “As pilots, we are not used to the feeling of being inside a boat”, admits First Lieutenant O’. “The seas were high, and we were stuck inside our room and, of course, there were some people who weren’t feeling well. But after we survived these two days, we got to Crete and started the exercise.
Don’t be mistaken: The mission was not that simple. Taking off from a stable runway on the ground under calm conditions is one thing. But, when the helicopter takes off from a ship on rough waters, the mission changes and becomes much more difficult and complex. As a result, in spite of the many preparations on the part of the soldiers of the air force and the navy, there can be the occasional change of plans.
In spite of the different challenges the rough waters pose, the forces were able to practice an operational scenario: The ships are on the high seas, they take a limited picture of the territory. The AS-565 “Panther” helicopters that only the “Defenders of the West” squadron flies were designed for this very scenario. The helicopters, which can stay high above the surface of the water, collect information and intelligence on the enemies nearby and they pass the information onto the ships of the navy so that they will be able to build in their minds a picture of the situation. The other navies that are taking part in the exercise also have helicopters that operate this way, but unlike the Israeli helicopters, the foreign helicopters all belong to the navies.
“We are a bit out of place among the foreigners”, First Lieutenant O’ said with a smile. “They barely see the air force, and we belong to it. But they see that this does not matter because they also have air forces that have exactly the same conflicts with the navy. At the end of the day, captains are less exposed to the restrictions we have in the air, but helicopters understand helicopters”
Like the First Time
Helicopters may understand helicopters but in this case, there were misunderstandings that the pilots had to deal with. A lot of words in Greek, English and Hebrew we thrown around in the air around the island, as each team was used to speaking in its own language during missions, but this time the teams were forced to switch to an almost unfamiliar language. “This is one of the challenges in flights with foreign armies”, explained First Lieutenant O’. “All the communication is in a different format. They talk in NATO jargon, which is jargon that even the Americans don’t usually use. But, they try to bone up on it and with time it gets better. So, depending on the time that it takes us to get used to the language, we become more proficient in it, and when we get back to Israel for the second part of the exercise, everything is a lot harder.
The language was not the only obstacle the experienced teams faced at the bases in Crete. On the shores of Israel, pilots of the AS-565 “Panther” know the sea and the ships that sail there, they know how to navigate everywhere and feel self-confident in every mission. By contrast, in Crete, they faced an unfamiliar landscape, the vessels of other navies that they had never seen before and airstrips that were different from the ones on Israeli missile boats. In addition to the differences in landscape and appearance, the flight procedures also changed: The teams were called upon to quickly familiarize themselves with the airfields on which they must land in an emergency and how to contact the soldiers who man these airfields in a foreign language.
“We have to be more careful: We’re flying according to different procedures, in a different place, in air that belongs to another air force”, First Lieutenant O’ comments on how the soldiers deal with the changes and upgrades. “So you try to link the unfamiliar to the familiar. On the one hand, the airfields on Israeli ships are among the most difficult in the world because they are so small, but suddenly, on another ship, we have a lot of space to land and it’s simpler. On the other hand, we need to confirm that we are doing this correctly and safely. You can exaggerate and say it’s like landing on a ship for the first time and everything is different, from the language to the airstrip”
Substantial emphasis was placed during the unique exercise on safety. Of course, every session of training the “Defenders of the West” undergo places an emphasis on safety and many briefings are held on this issue, but when it comes to a flight that combines foreign vessels and a different language, the emphasis is even stronger.
“From the moment that we anchor on the island and maybe even before, we were briefed to no end” explains First Lieutenant O’. “In training sessions like these, it is important, because our flight culture is different from that of the foreign forces”
Everyone in the Sea
Overall, it seems that besides the refreshing change in routine, the training is a learning experience for the teams from all the forces and countries.
“There are a lot more things that we do differently from other armies in the world. This training gave us the possibility to talk about different techniques of flying and to open our minds to the ways in which helicopters and ships from foreign forces cooperate. When everyone arrived in Haifa, we went out with them after the training, we showed them the beautiful Land of Israel and we also met people from different cultures”
And so, when the training day ends, the missile ships are converted from weapons of war to a meeting place that hosts the teams from different countries while they don the most official uniforms in their possession.
“One of the evenings, we welcomed the Sabbath on our ship”, explains First Lieutenant O’, “Everyone arrived and you could feel the really special atmosphere in the room as they experienced our culture. Other days, we went to the American and Greek ships, we tasted their food and, of course, we exchanged a lot of gifts, including squadron emblems”
As the days past, the layouts and the scenarios the participants practiced during the exercise became increasingly difficult. “In the beginning, we practiced the language used on the two-way radio and worked on cooperation with the foreign forces”, explains First Lieutenant O’. “Afterwards, we started practicing more complicated layouts. The most interesting part of the exercise for us took place in Israel, when we landed on the vessels of the foreign navies. The last time we got to do that was during the ‘Kia Green’ exercise in 2008”
The current exercise is not the first meeting in which the Israeli Navy and the Israeli Air force cooperate with foreign navies. Every year an exercise is held in the waters of the Mediterranean, during which the participants practice different layouts.
“One of the layouts we practiced in Israel, which was the most significant achievement for the squadron, was rescuing foreign ships”, continues First Lieutenant O’. “We get to practice a lot of similar layouts here, but it’s not every day that we work with a foreign ship that is built differently”
Likewise, they practiced cooperation and coordination between the forces in different situations, including search-and-rescue, maritime emergencies, and navigation.
After two weeks packed with new insights, new friends, and with the experience they gained during the exercise, everyone landed safely back at the base in Ramat David. And so ended another “wet exercise”