For all the glitz and glamour of its high-tech sector, Israel is a small country with limited resources, still forced to devote a large chunk to the military. One reflection of that down-to-earth reality is up in the sky.
The Israeli Air Force has to make every dollar count, especially as the cost of the best warplanes and defense systems skyrockets. The air force’s aptly named Extension of Life Division helps keep costs down by keeping old planes up.
The division is located at Air Force Base 108 in central Israel. Its mission is to ensure that Israel’s planes and avionics systems keep up to date and competitive with the latest technology. That means getting creative with old stuff — refurbishing and upgrading planes of all types and ages, some of them 40 years old or more, and retooling them to match the capabilities of the top aircraft from the US, Russia, France, and other advanced aerospace producers.
That effort, said Colonel E, who commands Base 108, consists of two approaches — upgrading navigation, avionics, communications, radar, and other electronics systems to the latest standards, as well as refurbishing and replacing the materials used in planes. For example, a 1970s vintage F-15i “Baz” (Falcon) plane is turned “into a plane that can carry out modern missions as well as advanced planes that are available today,” said E.
In an age where the culture of disposability — if it doesn’t work, just throw it out and get a new one — has permeated even the deepest recesses of defense establishments the world over, Israel has a good reason for going its own way. “It’s a lot cheaper,” said E. “We save millions, if not tens of millions, by fixing up old planes. When you realize that a single F35, the state of the art combat plane, costs between $120 and $140 million, this approach makes a great deal of sense.”
In line with military regulations, the colonel’s full name cannot be disclosed, and the faces of his soldiers cannot be shown in news photographs.
E’s base deals with the electronics in planes, which requires getting deep into the guts of components, transistors, fuses, and more esoteric components, which in some cases went out of production long ago. It’s not easy. In many manufacturing centers — defense plants included — the original specs for the electronics and power of individual components are filed away deep in sub-basements, collecting dust for years, even decades. The components are automatically built by robots on assembly lines, engineered to work together with other components to make up a system. When the system malfunctions — for example, when radar equipment breaks down — the manufacturer generally just ships another component.
But what if that component — or even the whole system — is no longer in production? That’s when the dozens of engineers and techs in his division go into action, said E. “We often have to do deep analysis and tedious repair on the insides of power supplies, soldering wires and reconnecting fuses that have burned out. In many cases, even the manufacturer no longer has the specs for this — even if the part is still being made, which it often is not,” he said.
“In the civilian world, it just isn’t worth fixing things on such a micro-level, because mass production makes things cheaper. In the world of military equipment, it’s just the opposite,” said E. “The newer the system, the more advanced it is, and the more expensive — especially in the aviation field.” Among the planes E’s division works on are French Dassaults, American F15s/16s, Israeli Kfirs, drones, training planes, and more. “Believe it or not, we still have a good number of Douglas A-4 Skyhawks,” a model first built in the 1950s that has long been retired, said E.
Just how much money has Base 108 saved the state? “We’ve never actually done a study of that, but we have been able to do major upgrades using just two or three of our staff, with the parts costing several hundred thousand shekels,” E said. In some of those situations, the Air Force has sought estimates from private contractors for the same work — and the estimates amount to tens, if not hundreds, of percent more than what E’s people can do. “You can extrapolate that by the number of projects we have done, which number in the thousands,” he said.
Another mission of E’s electronics division is upgrading planes — expanding the capabilities of planes by either enhancing the capabilities their systems use, or replacing them altogether. “Here we can’t give too many details, because a lot of what we are putting in is advanced,” said E. “You could imagine, though, that given the country’s development in areas like avionics, vision technology, radar, communications, and more, that we are using some of these advanced systems here.”
In fact, E said, top Air Force brass at this point prefer working with equipment that is not necessarily brand new. “Obviously if the US offered to buy us a fleet of the most advanced planes, we are not going to say ‘no’. But the truth is, we would probably upgrade new equipment anyway, and we are very comfortable doing that with the older models we have here.” The division does about 100 major projects a year, in addition to countless “small” repairs on existing equipment, E noted.
On the other hand, the soldiers under his command are not miracle workers, said E. Could a refurbished 30-year old plane reach the capabilities of a new, modern jet fighter? “It’s pretty unlikely,” said E. “However, we are very satisfied with the mission capabilities of the planes we turn out here, with specific planes and models in our fleet quite capable of carrying out any mission the IAF is assigned,” he said.
“We don’t, and couldn’t even if we wanted to, compete with companies like Elbit and Israel Aircraft Industries, not for contracts and not for personnel,” said E. “Those companies are working in advanced systems development, with newly developed systems built from the ground up. We are working with the internal components of, in many cases, ‘forgotten’ equipment. The work we do can’t be done on an assembly line as the defense contractors do. Each system we upgrade or plane we refurbish is a custom job.”
The number of people working at Base 108 is classified (E said he could tell us that it’s more than 100), but the division gets about 500 applications a year from prospective recruits. Altogether, between 20 and 30 new soldiers are admitted to the division each year. “We have a very rigorous selection process,” he said. “We want only recruits with the top skills and top motivation.”
The unit’s biggest problem is money. E said he can’t pay the people he would like to hire more than the IDF allows, and that’s not much. “All our staff are engineers or advanced tech workers who went through special electronics training,” he said. Those skills are very valuable in an advanced high-tech economy, and E can’t afford to compete with the private sector. “So I offer them something else — the opportunity to be at the front lines of defending their country.”
In other words, motivation and commitment. “The top monthly salary offered for soldiers who commit to doing five years of service is NIS 5,500 — a pittance compared to what they can get on the outside,” he said. “We’ve found, though, that there are a lot of idealistic people in Israel. My job is to keep them focused on the mission, which is one of the most important in the entire IDF.”