Four decades of diverse covert activity: last week, the IAF’s commando unit celebrated 40 years of operational activity inside and far beyond Israel’s borders. “This unit sets the bar for professionalism and an unparalleled level of preparedness”

Nadav Shaham

Last week, the IAF’s commando unit, “Shaldag” (Hebrew for Kingfisher) commemorated four decades of activity. The ceremony was attended by about 3,000 people, an audience which included former commanders of the unit, some of whom advanced up the rank ladder and went on to complete long and decorated periods of service. One member of this elite group, Lt. Gen. (Res.) Benny Gantz, went on to become the Chief of the General Staff.

“The Shaldag unit has advanced commando ability that is an inseparable part of the IAF. For 40 years it has been living and breathing, evolving, initiating and giving the IAF a necessary dimension that makes the whole stronger”, said Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, IAF Commander, in the ceremony. “The unit sets the bar for professionalism and an unparalleled level of preparedness”.

“For 40 years you have been flying around above us and moving secretly on the ground. From Ethiopia to Lebanon. Your combat doctrine, high standard of performance, courage, modesty and the variety of missions you perform are an indication for the entire IDF of how and where to aspire. Not only the goal, but also the way”, said Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel.

"Shaldag" Celebrates 40 Years

“The unit’s exceptional operative preparedness is more relevant than ever in the volatile Middle East” | Archive Photo

The Element of Surprise
The IAF’s commando unit was established as a part of the conclusions of the “Yom Kippur” War, when the need for a unit that will mark targets on the ground for fighter jets arose. “I decided that immediately after the war, I will establish a commando unit whose mission will be performing special operations in deep enemy territory”, shared Col. (Res’) Muki Betzer, the founder of the unit and its first commander. “The name Shaldag was chosen because of the similarity between us and the bird that swoops down from the air and catches fish by surprise. Our goal is to surprise the enemy”.

The unit’s first designation was to direct attack aircraft to enemy missile batteries using laser designation. Later, the unit performed various missions, most of which are covert and cannot be publicized. “The unit was established as a result of an operational need, it began as a vision and ended up a reality”, said Lt. Col. Idan, the current commander of the unit. “The unit is required to provide a unique response and is available for missions in war and in calm”.

"Shaldag" Celebrates 40 Years

“Our goal is to surprise the enemy” | Archive Photo

Anytime: From the “First Lebanon” War to Operation “Protective Edge”
About 300 of the unit’s special operators participated in the 1982 “First Lebanon” War and attacked a large number of various targets such as Armored Vehicles, Tank hunters and infantry forces. This was only the beginning of the unit’s activity, which then still belonged to the ground forces. In 1986, Shaldag was officially transferred to the IAF as a result of the understanding that the unit’s operations are based on aerial platforms such as the “Karnaf” (Hercules C-130) tactical transport aircraft and “Yanshuf” (Blackhawk) helicopters. “The integration in the IAF took about a decade. Today, it is impossible to imagine the IAF without its commando”, added General Eshel. “The unique dimensions that the unit provides the IAF with in wars and in the ‘campaign between wars’ are priceless”.

From the second week of the 2006 “Second Lebanon” War until its conclusion, the unit’s forces participated in various operations. Among these operations, it is possible to write about covert transportation of ammo and food to the combatant forces at the front and evacuation of wounded personnel from deep territory, cloaked by the darkness. For its activity in the war, the unit received a certificate of appreciation from the IAF Commander. In Operation “Protective Edge”, the unit performed all of its missions in the Gaza strip. “The ability to covertly conduct mission is of utmost significance in the ‘campaign between wars'”, emphasized Maj. Gen. Eshel. “The unit’s exceptional operative preparedness is more relevant than ever in the volatile Middle East”.

"Shaldag" Celebrates 40 Years

“Today, it is impossible to imagine the IAF without its commando” | Photography: Mor Tzidon