The Israel Air Force is prepared to counter all the threats and challenges the nation faces, including those from Iran, IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan said Tuesday amid predictions that 2011 will be a “critical year” for stopping the Islamic Republic’s race to develop nuclear weapons.

“The IAF has an important job, to be prepared for anything it might be required to do,” Nehushtan, 53, told reporters during a briefing at the Ramon air base near Mitzpe Ramon. “We are always tracking what is happening around us so we can be ready.”

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Nehushtan was at Ramon for his weekly training flight; all IAF pilots in active service and the reserves are required to fly at least once a week. His flight on Tuesday was in an F-16I – called “Sufa” (Storm) in the IAF – which he flew in a dogfight training scenario against another aircraft.

The IAF’s greatest challenge, he said, was the military buildup on all of Israel’s fronts – by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and in Syria and Iran.

“We prepare for different scenarios on a daily basis by analyzing the various fronts and thinking what the IAF can do to counter each one,” he said.

Asked about the recent announcement that the United States was selling $60 billion worth of military systems, including more than 80 F-15 fighter jets, to Saudi Arabia, and about the sale’s effect on Israel, Nehushtan said the IDF’s job was to ensure that it retained a qualitative edge in the region.

In October, Israel signed a $2.75b. deal with the US to buy 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, a fifth-generation stealth jet.

“A guiding principle for the IAF has been to ensure that we have a qualitative edge,” Nehushtan said. “To do this, we rely on our people who provide us with that edge, as well as ensuring that we receive the most advanced planes and systems that exist.”

Nehushtan referred to Hamas’s and Hizbullah’s military buildups and the possibility that in a war, missiles would hit IAF bases throughout the country.

“There have been developments in the number of missiles and rockets that are in our enemies’ hands,” he said. “We assume that in the future, IAF bases will be a target. We are aware of this and are preparing accordingly.”

At the Hatzor air base near Gedera, for example, airmen have carried out 25 drills since the beginning of the year, compared to just 12 last year. The drills included scenarios that involve missile attacks on the base’s runway, living quarters and hangar facilities.

During Operation Cast Lead two years ago, a number of rockets were fired toward Hatzor, as well as toward the Hatzerim air base, near Beersheba. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hizbullah also tried to hit the Ramat David air base in the Jezreel Valley.

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