Israel Now Has Two Combat Ready F-35 Squadrons

With a storied past, 116 Squadron becomes the second combat-coded “Adir” unit in the Israeli Air Force.

Israeli Air Force/Amit Agronov

Israel has declared its second squadron of F-35I “Adir” Joint Strike Fighters combat-ready. The 116 Squadron, the "Lions of the South," has become fully operational after a six-month period of intensive workups. It clears the way for the unit to join frontline operations alongside sister unit, 140 Squadron, or the "Golden Eagle Squadron," at Nevatim Air Base.

“The operational fitness inspection provides an official seal of approval for the operational capability of the 116th Squadron to carry out all the missions of the ‘Adir' division,” explained a senior IAF airman, identified by the service only as Major Edi. “The squadron’s tasks include its management during routine [operations] and periods of war, as well as maintaining functional continuity.”

“The inspection simulated the operational arena and the current regional tensions. Several scenarios led to a simulated war on all fronts, and aircrew members took off for missions in all of Israel’s regions,” another IAF member identified as Major G, a member of 116 Squadron who was in charge of the inspection, added. “Various personnel from different departments in the IAF’s HQ came to the squadron to examine us. The next significant milestone will be our first operational mission. We are still a small squadron, and will continue to recruit new people and aircraft in the coming months.”

The news closely followed the arrival of four more F-35Is in Israel on August 4, including one bespoke aircraft for the domestic Flight Test Center at Tel Nof Air Base. The unique aircraft (AS-15) is the first dedicated test F-35 aircraft outside the U.S. and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) says it will be used for trials with “emphasis on munitions, advanced operating systems, and more." It adds: “The aircraft was designed with signal- and information-collection capabilities with specific equipment. It is a significant milestone for the IAF and provides a new ability to conduct unique test flights with the 'Adir' in the present and future.” You can read more about this aircraft here in this previous War Zone feature.

Israeli Air Force/Amit Agronov

A 116 Squadron F-35I with live GBU-31/B Joint Direct Attack Munitions in the foreground.

The IAF first inaugurated its second squadron of F-35s — the local name “Adir” means “Mighty One” in Hebrew — on Jan. 16, 2020. At the same time, the unit gave up its previous “Defenders of the South” name and received the revised title “Lions of the South,” together with appropriate new tail art.

Founded in 1956, 116 Squadron initially flew P-51D Mustangs at Tel Nof and was originally known as the “Flying Wing” Squadron. The veteran Mustangs had already seen service with other IAF units, but were thrown into action in the Sinai Campaign the same year. When fighting commenced on October 29 of that year, the Mustangs were first to cross the border into Egypt, tasked with cutting telephone wires between Sinai and Cairo. This unique mission was undertaken using a weighted steel cable dangling from the P-51’s tail. Once the Mustangs’ cables became severed, the pilots resorted to using propellers and wings to finish the job.

The Mustang soldiered on with the unit – the IAF’s last piston-engine fighter operator — until early 1961 when it switched to the jet-powered Mystère IV. While a monumental advance over the Mustang, these French-built fighters were also hand-me-downs from other units. The squadron was heavily involved in the June 1967 Six-Day War, its 269 operational sorties including 49 attacks on Arab air bases. Official IAF combat records confirm one Jordanian Hawker Hunter shot down by the unit and the loss of five Mystère IVs — three to ground fire, the other two possibly to enemy fighters.

Israeli Air Force

An Israeli Air Force P-51 Mustang, a type previously flown by 116 Squadron.

The “Flying Wing” Squadron was the IAF’s last Mystère IV operator and took the type into combat again during the War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970. The jets flew 1,320 operational sorties — mainly attacking Egyptian ground targets — for the loss of three aircraft.

By July 1971 the last Mystères had been withdrawn, being replaced by A-4E Skyhawks. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, the squadron was in the process of converting from the A-4E to the more capable A-4N. Both variants flew 823 operational sorties during the campaign, most of them hazardous raids against Egyptian air defense sites. Five Skyhawks were lost in the process. 

The 1982 Lebanon War saw 116 Squadron fly yet more air-to-ground missions, this time without loss. Soon after, the unit became the first active squadron at Nevatim Air Base, where it arrived in 1983 before taking responsibility for the Operational Training Course two years later.

The Skyhawks remained active in their training role until 2002 and in March 2003 the squadron received F-16A/B fighters, which were used in the same role as well as flying operational sorties in Gaza and Lebanon. Later known as “The Defenders of the South” Squadron, the F-16 unit was disbanded in 2015 before being reactivated as the second “Adir” formation. 

Israel plans to induct at least 50 F-35I models, broadly equivalent to the F-35A, but incorporating an increasing proportion of Israeli-made technology and weapons. On Dec. 12, 2016, Israel became the third country to receive its own F-35s on home soil — beaten by Italy by a few hours — as the first pair of fighters arrived at Nevatim.

In early 2017 the IAF undertook its first night missions followed by in-flight refuelings with IAF Boeing 707 “Re’em” tankers and dropped munitions in training sorties as well as forward deploying to other IAF bases. During the first week of December 2017, and following a significant inspection, IAF commander General Amikam Norkin declared the initial operational capability for the “Adir”, making Israel the first F-35 export nation to do so.

Israeli Air Force/Amit Agronov

Significantly, during the first week of May 2018, IAF head General Norkin confirmed that “Adirs” had in fact deployed weapons twice in combat operations. With a second squadron of F-35Is now ready for battle, it’s likely only a matter of time before these aircraft, too, are committed to action in one of Israel’s military operations. 

Contact the authors: jamie@thedrive.com and thomas@thedrive.com