Israel received its first anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) during the Passover holiday of 1948. The first guns were Swiss-made, 20 mm cannons which arrived by boat, hidden among sacks of potatoes. An air defense school was formed at Herzlia under the guise of a factory. Most of the instructors were Israelis who had served with the British during World War II. Their students included high school pupils and newly arrived Holocaust survivors. AAA gunners registered their first victory by downing an Egyptian Spitfire as it attacked Sde Dov air field north of Tel Aviv.
In January of 1950, the Air Defense Forces were formally organized under the command of Boris Senior, a veteran IAF pilot. Initially, the AAA was independent of the IAF and directly subordinated to the IDF Vice Commander. The Air Defense Forces continued to grow throughout the Fifties, adding radar-directed guns and establishing reserve units and control facilities. The argument over who should control AAA raged on.
When the first Hawk missiles arrived in 1965, IAF Commander Ezer Weizmann succeeded in placing this sophisticated air defense system under Air Force control. The working relationship between the Air Defense Forces and the IAF continued to improve … and so did the results. Air Defense Forces shot down three aircraft during the Six Day War and fifteen during the 1969-70 War of Attrition. Finally, in December 1970, the Air Defense Forces were officially incorporated into the Air Force.
During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Air Defense Forces rose to the occasion, downing forty-three Egyptian and seven Syrian planes. Towards the end of the war, Chaparral and Red-eye missiles and 20 mm Vulcan cannons were added to the service. Captured Soviet-made 23 mm guns and shoulder-launched SA-7 missiles joined their Western counterparts in the IAF and were used against their former owners.
In 1982, Air Defense units advanced along with the ground forces inside Lebanon. A 20 mm Vulcan unit managed to shoot down a Syrian Mig 21 after engaging surface targets during a fierce battle with terrorists. A Hawk missile helped bring down a high flying Syrian Mig-25, marking the first time the Soviet-built Mach-3 fighter had ever been hit by a surface-to-air missile. Reserve units were equally effective, hitting a Syrian fighter with a Red-eye missile.
Today the Air Defense Forces continue to play an important role in protecting Israeli airspace and working closely with the ground forces, especially along the volatile northern border.
By far the most important recent development in air defense was the acquisition of Patriot missile batteries during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Israeli crews mastered the system under the pressure of live combat. U.S. Army and IAF personnel worked side by side to protect Israeli cities from Iraqi Scud surface-to-surface missiles.