Security and Defense: The view from the cockpit

IAF commander Ido Nehushtan sees, through one lens, threats close to home, like Hezbollah and Hamas; and threats that are far away, like Iran.

By
August 4, 2011 21:45
Ido Nehushtan

Ido Nehushtan311. (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)

With many squadrons in the IAF, the best stories can be found in the clubhouse.

Located almost always next to the fortified operations room, the clubhouse is where the squadron’s pilots and navigators go to relax, watch a movie, play a video game or just kick back and read a book.

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Between the couches and pool tables, though, the clubhouse is also where the squadron hangs memorabilia, like pictures of aircraft flying over places like Masada or plaques for enemy planes that squadron fighter jets shot down.

Squadron 110’s clubhouse at the Ramat David Air Force Base in the Jezreel Valley is in a class by itself.

Referred to as the “Knights of the North,” the squadron’s pilots participated in two historic missions. The first can be found on a plaque in the clubhouse marking the interception of a Hezbollah-operated drone during the Second Lebanon War.

Called Ababil, the Iranian-made drone was suspected of carrying explosives.

It was shot down by an F-16 fighter jet from the squadron with an air-to-air missile over the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, in August 2006.

The second operation is memorialized by a large painting that hangs in the clubhouse and shows an F-16 dropping a GPS-guided bomb over a piece of land marked by a number of small explosions.

The painting was given to the squadron by its former commander following the Second Lebanon War, in honor of six of its jets having participated in the remarkable operation, on the first night of the war, that destroyed Hezbollah’s arsenal of medium- range rockets.

On Sunday, IAF commander Maj.- Gen. Ido Nehushtan visited the squadron and participated in a simulated dogfight with some of its pilots.

Nehushtan tries to fly at least once a month with different squadrons. It is his way of getting to know the junior pilots and staying up to date on new maneuvers and skills.

Sitting in the briefing room before the flight, Nehushtan is like any of the other pilots in the squadron. He sits and listens attentively to a young captain explain the guidelines for the flight and how to use some of the jet’s new targeting systems.

WHILE SQUADRON 110 is just one of the IAF’s many combat units, its achievements are a reminder of the type of challenges the air force will face in a future war with Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria or Iran.

On the one hand, it will need to work to destroy as many rockets and launchers as it can at the outset of the war, which will of course be the direct result of the quality of intelligence the IDF can provide. On the other hand, it will also face enemies whose capabilities range from Syrian and Iranian fighter jets and ballistic missiles to Hezbollah rockets and armed UAVs.

For this reason, Nehushtan likes to use his multifocal glasses as a metaphor for the way the IAF needs to look at the Middle East. Through one lens, Nehushtan sees the threats close to home, like Hezbollah and Hamas; through the other lens, he sees the threats that are far away, like Iran. And for all of them, he needs to ensure that the IAF has an appropriate response.

Next May, Nehushtan will step down after four years in the post. His replacement has yet to be selected, and a tough race is expected between two former deputy IAF commanders – Maj.- Gen. Amir Eshel, who currently serves as head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, and Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker, who currently serves as the prime minister’s military secretary.

Until then, though, Nehushtan has his hands full setting the IAF’s budget for the incoming multi-year plan that will go into effect in January, and preparing for a number of possible conflicts, some on multiple fronts.

Alongside Operation Cast Lead, one of the highlights of Nehushtan’s term, he will also be remembered as the IAF commander who succeeded in closing the country’s first F-35 contract, and possibly even more for laying out a road map to prepare for the uncertainty that has settled over the Middle East.

The ongoing upheaval in Egypt and Syria is part of that uncertainty, as is the entry of new advanced aircraft to the region – F-16s were delivered recently to Jordan, and Iraq has announced plans to purchase 36 such planes.

No one really knows what will ultimately happen in Egypt, whether Bashar Assad’s regime will fall or survive in Syria, or whether Iraq will one day go back to being an enemy of the State of Israel. That is why the real challenge right now is how to prepare for all of these possibilities , what new platforms to invest in and at what risk.

IN HIS talks with pilots, Nehushtan points to four key principles by which the IAF needs to abide at all times, but particularly in a period of uncertainty.

The first is the need to boost the country’s deterrence, made up of three separate elements – what capabilities Israel’s enemies think it has, what capabilities they know it has, and how determined they think it is to use them.

For this reason and despite some criticism, Nehushtan has thrown his full support behind the purchase of the F- 35 Joint Strike Fighter. He believes that the arrival of the stealth and fifth-generation plane – expected by 2017 –will boost the IDF’s deterrence, as happened when the country’s first batch of F-15s arrived in the 1970s.

The second principle is the need for accurate intelligence. This is viewed as critical today, particularly in a period of uncertainty. While war might not appear to be on the immediate horizon, the IAF needs to prepare its target banks, which IDF officers say have grown significantly in recent years.

The third principle is the type of decisive force the IAF is capable of bringing to the battlefield.

This was demonstrated by that operation on the first night of the Second Lebanon War, when the IAF struck at more than 90 targets – all of the guerrilla group’s medium-range missiles – in just 36 minutes, and again on the first day of Operation Cast Lead, when more than 110 aircraft dropped over 100 tons of explosives on more than 100 targets in just a few minutes.

“This is key, but is also a major challenge, since ideally we would want this type of capability on all of the different fronts we face,” a senior IAF officer explained this week.

The final principle has to do with defense. Here, the IAF also plays a key role in the development and operation of the various missile defense systems currently deployed throughout the country, including the Arrow, the Patriot and the Iron Dome. By 2015, the IAF will have two more layers with the deployment of the Arrow-3 and David’s Sling.

In order to prepare for the changes in the region, the IAF under Nehushtan believes it also needs to increase the number of squadrons and fighter jets it currently operates. This possibility is currently under debate within the defense establishment and is sitting on the defense minister’s and prime minister’s desks, waiting for a decision.


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