Elite search-and-rescue forces from six countries came to Israel earlier this month in the military’s largest-ever exercise of its type, practicing everything from extractions under fire to evacuating civilian victims of car wrecks.
The exercise — known as “Sky Angels” — was led by Israel’s Unit 669, a special forces unit that specializes in search-and-rescue operations. Indeed, Unit 669 took part in the rescue mission to extract a group for special forces soldiers who came under fire while conducting an operation inside Gaza just over a week ago, on Sunday night.
The “Sky Angels” drill was held during the same period — November 4 to 11 — but was unaffected by last week’s flareup in the Gaza Strip, according to Brig. Gen. Nir Nin-Nun, the head of the Israeli Air Force’s Air Support and Helicopter Division.
Six countries participated in the exercise: Croatia, the United States, Canada, Holland, the Czech Republic, and Italy.
Only half of the countries were allowed to fully participate, while the other half observed, so as to allow each ground team to be made up of an equal mix of soldiers from the various militaries, Nin-Nun said.
The focus of the exercise was operations on the ground, rather than on the flying.
Among other things, the teams practiced picking up pilots who ejected from their aircraft, and rescues from inside canyons. The exercises, which included operations in Israel’s deserts and forests, as well as in urban combat scenarios in fake cities, were held in daytime and night, Nin-Nun said.
“Despite the fact that Israel is small, there are a number of difficult landscapes here,” Nin-Nun told reporters over the phone.
For the Israeli special forces soldiers, who generally work only with other Israeli troops, the exercise gave them an opportunity to learn how to work with other nations.
According to Nin-Nun, the Unit 669 soldiers were able to learn NATO protocols for search-and-rescue operations.
“We didn’t know them before. It’s something we’ve never needed,” he said.
In recent years, Israel has been increasingly cooperating with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, being recognized by the US in 2014 as effectively one level below that of a full member of the group.
According to Nin-Nun, initial feedback from the participating militaries was positive, with the potential for future “Sky Angels” exercises in the future, potentially within the next two years.
“I thought that if it went well, maybe we’d do it once every three years,” he said.
“But now I think that the next exercise isn’t so far off. Not in the next six months, but maybe in two years,” Nin-Nun said.