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A Man with The Answer

Israel, Ma'ariv

By Ofer Shelah

...on the operational level, IAF commander is to determine the answer far more than the chief of general staff, definitely more than defense minister and prime minister.  

 

Translated by Viktoria Lymar

Edited by Steven Stenzler

 

11 May 2012 

 

 

Major General Ido Nehoshtan is wrapping up a relatively quiet term. The answer to a question occupying, in fact, the whole world, will supply his replacement, Amir Eshel.

 

On Monday this week, on the Air Force base in central Israel, there will gather senior defense officials in order to mark the shift of the air force commanders. After four years, Major General Ido Nehoshtan will finish his job and retire from the IDF1, and Major General Amir Eshel will become the 17th Commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF). 

Moreover, Eshel will become the man on duty – perhaps, the last in the chain – who’ll have to give the answer to a question, The Question, around which the security debate has been turning in Israel over the past decade. 

The Air Force is where the largest portion of the IDF budget flows to, and the branch on which an increasing part of the current warfare, and of any outline of the future combat, is imposed. This is a process that has been greatly accelerated during Nehoshtan's tenure, and not only because of the development of the weaponry. 

The anti-aircraft arm, once a step-sister of the Blue Force, became in his days the Israeli Air Defense Command – operators of the Arrow and Iron Dome and the rest of the defense systems – when in the future war, they are likely to assume way more important roles than armored divisions. 

But since the beginning of Eliezer Shkedi’s2 days eight years ago, in the public consciousness, the IAF commander is primarily the person whom one day, all of the State of Israel’s top echelon may ask a question. This is a national question, argued fiercely over by people who have been in the discussion rooms and those who have not. But at a certain stage, after the [crucial] decision falls, the answer to it is going to be his responsibility: he is to plan it, to command over it, to return it to those asking only upon its ending. 

We’re talking a super professional mission, complicated at a level we never knew before, that in the closed world of the Air Force, it’s doubtful if anyone from outside can truly judge it. The answer of the IAF commander will be the only answer.

 

A Great Burden Is to Be the Man with the Answer

 

Before Eshel’s appointment, rumors spread that the Prime Minister prefers over him his military secretary Yohanan Locker, since his position on the principal issue was more convenient for Netanyahu. 

This is an absolute nonsense that does injustice to the both. In any case, the personal answer of the IAF commander to the big question whether it’s worthwhile or not, right or wrong, is not important. I don’t know Nehoshtan’s personal opinion. 

As for the professional answer, after so much time and preparations – I don’t believe that any IAF commander is capable of deciding the dispute by saying: “Sir, we can’t carry it out.” But on the operational level, the IAF commander is to determine the answer far more than the chief of general staff, definitely more than the defense minister and prime minister. The future and the implications for the entire country depend on it. 

This is a great burden, to be the man with the answer. For almost ten years the [Air] Force is prepping for it, with an investment and effort that the little known about it cannot be detailed. In such a situation, can an IAF commander really consider what stands before him? Can he give a true answer even to himself? Starting Monday this week, this is Eshel’s problem…

 

No Operations

 

In Operation Cast Lead [Gaza War], Prime Minister Olmert visited one of the squadrons. The Air Force, he said, is a place where the distance between what I ask to achieve in the use of force and the reality being performed in the field is the smallest. 

This is the corps that Nehoshtan sought to see during his years in command, this is something this system is dealing with daily: reducing the distance between what is requested to achieve and the performance in reality. I doubt if any of the pilots, the commander and the staff, can afford asking what it is that the captain would really request on the day when The Question is to be presented. 

…Over time, the Air Force has turned from an auxiliary corps to the main force of the campaign. The war changed, the means became more sophisticated, the strong became stronger, and the weak gave up on an attempt to cope with him in the area demanding resources, technology and people knowing how to employ it. 

And still, Nehoshtan points out the relevance as the No 1 objective of the corps: to be always important in any kind of combat. In his eyes, when the one using force looks at the army, he should see the Air Force in the center. Otherwise, there is a danger of the corps turning into an expensive piece of furniture, and afterwards, a museum exhibit. In his mind, nobody has to explain why land force is needed; air force must provide an explanation for its need, for its cost, every day.

Our operational problem, a squadron commander tells me during my visit, is that there are no operations. It’s not that the Air Force is not doing [them] – it is doing a great deal, but this is clear what he means: exactly because in the IAF, you can create almost accurate simulations of combat situations, exactly because at the height and through the devices, much of the fog dissipates – the mental gap between the training and so-called military “reality” comes into focus. 

Not long ago, I attended a discussion held by a helicopter squadron, on the question of the unplanned. In recent years, this question disturbs the air force commanders: how their fighters are going to proceed when the precise planning goes wrong, when the routes are under fire and people are killed in an attempt to fix them, when from a flight of four fighters, God forbid, all four are not coming back. In land forces, a never orderly and unknown world is a [given] basic state; the air force is trying to simulate it – and still doesn’t feel like its managing.

 

Not Keeping Pace

 

In this field, not only are defense against missile attacks and action under fire important, but also maintaining the absolute superiority in the battlefield the Force enjoys since destroying the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in June 1982. 

Inevitably, technological development in the domain of SAMs will reach our arena as well. In the end, it can’t be that some means advances so much while the countermeasures lag behind. 

This might be a decisive factor, in a situation where Israel strikes government and infrastructure targets of the enemy which in his turn strikes the home front, and the goal is to shorten the duration of hostilities. If the air force needs a few days just to start working efficiently, the fighting will not be shortened. So far, they say in the force, we’ve made progress from the standpoint of theory when it comes to the new battlefield; building of the force does not always keep pace. 

Which brings us to two things: money and professionalism. Everybody in the IDF complains about the budget, but the IAF’s complaints have a special meaning. In order to raise the class, the force should fly a lot; every decision on the matter has a weight which is much heavier of the similar decisions as to land [troops'] training. 

Nehoshtan is not satisfied. You’ve never seen a commander pleased with his budget, and most of the other generals would be happy to have his problems. The thing is that as far as it concerns the blue kingdom, it’s doubtful whether somebody from outside can indeed judge the stuff.

 

2030 Is Not Too Remote a Destination

 

Pilots’ lifestyles, he says to men under his command, are not always suitable for professionalism. This is a force whose people are in demand in the civilian world, and contrary to land troopers, they can be both inside and outside: you can be a hi-tech guy, and a day in the week of the reserve – leading a quartet of fighter jets with a significant role in emergencies. 

The regular servicemen also sometimes resemble people who have a job at a well running factory. It’s very easy to get caught up in the appearance and clean performances of the existing operational tasks. Throughout his whole tenure, Nehoshtan felt the need to fight for preserving all of that, on the one hand – and on the other hand, cease not to probe whether it would be the same on the crucial day. 

About The Question – Nehoshtan is not talking, of course. He didn’t think to stay on duty longer: 2012 was called a “year of decision,” but so was also 2011 prior to it and probably will also be 2013 after it. 

Eshel, who served in all the necessary posts in the Force, is going to need to learn what has changed there over the four years he was on the outside – but at his disposal, there’s a real good system. In the Air Force, the year of reference at the moment is 2030: the F-35 will be assimilated, the unmanned devices will multiply. 18 years ahead does not look to be too far a destination. 

For his farewell flight, from the base where he says he served the longest, Nehoshtan is taking off in the Apache helicopter. They are staging a video brief for him, professional enough and a little amusing, with quite a few internal jokes among fighter pilots and helicopter ones. After that the thing lifts off into the desert sky, impressive like in the movie, serene and self-confident. A regular flight, on a regular day – like there’s no Question in the world.

 

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The above constitutes a special edit of the larger original Hebrew article

“The Outgoing Air Force Commander Leaves Behind Him a Question Mark”: http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/366/801.html

 

Notes:

1. Israel Defense Forces, lit. "Defensive Army for Israel"

2. Former Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force