ABOUT UNIT 669
Unit 669- Introduction
Unit 669 is the Combat Search and Rescue Unit of the Israeli Air Force and is one of the premier Special Operations Units of the IDF. Founded in 1974, the Unit’s original mission was to recover ejected IAF Pilots who had been shot down from behind enemy lines. Today, Unit 669 is responsible for the rescue and evacuation of all Israeli Defense Forces personnel. From ground forces, to naval commandoes, and the Airforce, the unit’s squads are ready for action to save lives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year.
Additionally, 669 serves Israel’s entire civilian population in their darkest hour, no matter where they may be. Whether it be mass casualty accidents, terror attacks, car accidents, or stranded injured hikers. Unit 669 has saved thousands of lives in its 40 years of existence.
The Unit is divided into three major divisions: combat fighters, who are trained extensively in high angle rope techniques, water and scuba diving skills, medical training and aerial rescue methods. The Medical Division is made up of Israel’s top doctors and paramedics who have a history of combat training and are trained in administering the best care in the most difficult of circumstances. In order to support the unit’s operational capabilities, the Logistics Division ensures that the needs of the Unit are met with the utmost professionalism.
The Unit participates annually in many missions, either domestic or beyond the borders of Israel, civilian or military, Israeli or foreign.
Unit 669 – Background
669 (Yechidat HaHilu’tz VeHaPinu’i Behethes, 669; English: Airborne Rescue And Evacuation Unit 669) is the Israel Defense Forces heliborne Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) extraction unit, subordinate to the Special Air Forces Command of the Israeli Air Force. It is considered one of the IDF’s premier elite units. The Unit’s logo is a winged, slinking, green-eyed, black cat. The Unit’s warriors are subsequently sometimes referred to as “Cats” or “Flying Cats”.
Unit 669 was founded in 1974, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when an ad hoc medevac unit made some 5000 extractions. Its initial mandate was to extract and provide initial medical treatment to downed (and possibly injured) pilots beyond enemy lines. However, in later years the unit also participated in extraction of soldiers of other arms of the Israeli Defense Forces, especially Sayeret (Special Forces) fighters in operations beyond enemy lines and seamen in distress. Due to the unique specialties and high proficiency of 669, the unit may also accept various other special operations missions depending on the needs of the Air Force and IDF.
Training and Special Operators
Due to the possibility of having to fight their way to casualties beyond enemy lines, unit soldiers are highly trained in special forces tactics and become highly efficient ground soldiers in addition to their high level of medical training. Their training and selection lasts 18 months and is considered to be among the most physically and psychologically demanding of the IDF. Courses that candidates must pass include:
• Basic training with the IDF Paratroopers
• Special operations combat medics’ course (select soldiers continue on to paramedics’ course).
• Advanced land warfare including jungle warfare, desert warfare, and urban warfare.
• Counter-terrorism course in the IDF Counter-Terror Warfare School.
• Scuba Diving course and Rescue Diver course.
• Rappelling and high angle rescue course.
• Advanced helicopter infiltration and exfiltration tactics.
• Rescue under harsh conditions.
• Parachuting course in the IDF Parachuting School.
• Advanced solo navigation.
• Commanders’ course.
Upon completion of their training, unit soldiers are expected to sign on for an extra 18 months of service in addition to the standard three-year mandatory service.
The defining factor of the soldier in 669 is the ability to make difficult decisions under pressure. Due to the small-team nature of the unit, every soldier is expected to be a leader. All unit combat soldiers must pass a commander’s course during their training. This is unlike typical IDF infantry units, where only minorities of the soldiers are recommended for the commander’s course. After the 18-month training pipeline in 669 and once the soldier has collected combat experience, an additional advanced commander’s course is required. This intensive course is entirely mission-based, and instructs advanced command and control methods and leadership. The advanced commander’s course also functions as a selection process: the soldiers with the highest scores are chosen to be the next generation of small-team rescue commanders of the unit.
The demands on these small-team commanders are great, including the ability to manage radio communications and issue orders simultaneously to pilots, ground forces, doctors, and their subordinate rescue soldiers. This must be done from inside the helicopter on the way to the target and on the ground after landing. Difficult decisions that can mean the difference between life and death must be made under fire and under severe time pressure, with imperfect information and no pre-mission preparation. Due to the emergency responder nature of the unit, the type of mission, time of day, and location cannot be anticipated. Therefore, these commanders and their soldiers must know all specialties from their training perfectly (diving, rappelling, etc.), because there is no time to review them when the mission siren goes off.
A typical rescue team from 669 consists of a mix of 669 specialized warfighters and doctors. Combat and support-staff jobs are multi-ethnic, and non-combat jobs are coed. The unit itself is composed of three branches:
• “Extraction”: The “extraction” branch (Hebrew: חילוץ, Hiluz) has a company of advanced and specialized infantrymen. These soldiers have passed the 18 month 669 training regimen, and have a fundamental medical background as well as the tools to execute complicated rescues on land or at sea, in peacetime or under fire.
• “Evacuation”: The “evacuation” branch (Hebrew: פינוי, Pinu’i) has a company of airborne doctors, paramedics, and nurses. These medical personnel are critical to the mission by bringing advanced and specialized medical knowledge and experience to the injured, both in the field and in the air on the way to the hospital.
• Technical support group: The largest branch, the technical support group is composed of non-combat soldiers who assist in logistics for the unit.
Unit 669 has been credited with hundreds of rescues. Below are some of the more high profile mission engagements:
• On September 15, 1997, the Shayetet 13 Naval Commandos sent an assault team to conduct a raid in Lebanon. The team encountered an improvised explosive device (IED) and was ambushed by Hezbollah in what has subsequently been called the Ansariya Ambush. 13 of the naval commandos were killed and 3 were injured. Unit 669 responded by sending a team to evacuate the injured commando team, while taking heavy enemy fire. For bravery and performance under fire the 669 team received a formal citation.
• In 2003, 669 rescued ten Turkish seamen when they were caught in a heavy storm in the Mediterranean Sea. Under these severe weather and sea conditions, the 669 soldiers rescued and evacuated the sailors from their ship at sea.
• During the Second Lebanon War (2006) and Operation Cast Lead (2008), Unit 669 made dozens of high profile rescues of injured soldiers under enemy fire.
• During the 2014 military campaign Protective Edge, 669 evacuated hundreds of casualties. These rescues, often under fire, earned the unit a formal citation award from the Chief of Staff of the IDF.
Domestic – During peacetime, the unit often helps rescue civilians injured during various catastrophic incidents. The unit has also served as a civilian medevac for hikers who have gotten lost or stuck and need extraction from Israel’s deserts or canyons. These civilian operations, while expensive, help train the unit fighters for their wartime roles. There is an ongoing debate whether extracted hikers should be forced to pay at least part of the extraction cost, especially in cases of hiker negligence or improper call for extraction.
Foreign – Unit 669 soldiers, including reservists, were among the IDF personnel sent to Nepal in late April 2015 to take part in search and rescue efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake and subsequent avalanches. In 2012, 669 sent soldiers to Bulgaria following the Burgas bus bombing which targeted Israeli tourists. In a matter of hours after the attack, the 669 soldiers were already en route to Israel with 32 of the wounded for treatment in Israel. Missions like these are unexpected, unique, and present great logistical challenges that must be overcome in extremely short time frames. Therefore, the culture of 669 requires multi-scenario planning in advance and the ability to be dynamic and adapt quickly to any situation.
Former unit commander (1978-1980) Dr. Efraim Sneh, rose to become a Brigadier General in the IDF. In his post military career, Dr. Sneh was a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party between 1992 and 2008 and served in the following government ministerial roles:
• Health (1994 – 1996)
• Transportation (1999 – 2001)
• Deputy Defense Minister (2001 – 2002 and 2006 – 2007)