In the summer of 1967, during the Six Day War, Ido Nehushtan climbed to the roof
of his family’s home in Jerusalem and watched as Israel Air Force fighter jets
flew overhead on their way to bomb Jordanian targets near Bethlehem.
the 10-year-old Nehushtan, the sight of the planes and their amazing power
planted in him the seed that would lead him to enlist eight years later in the
IAF. He became a career soldier, climbing the ranks until eventually he became
commander of the IAF, possibly one of the most prestigious positions in
Nearly 45 years after watching those fighter jets in Israel’s most remarkable war, Nehushtan stepped down this week
from command over the IAF, ending a 37-year career in the military. In an
exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Nehushtan, a mixture of diplomat
and fighter pilot, radiates confidence, but at the same time concern, as he
thinks back to that day in 1967.
No one, he says, questions the existence
of other countries, such as India, for example.
“But they do question our
existence, and there are people who want us to disappear and declare that desire
publicly,” he says. “I do not believe that this can happen to Israel, and what
these people need to know is that if they try anything they will first have to
get past the Israel Air Force.”
Our day with Nehushtan begins at 8
a.m. in Palmahim, the last air force base he has come to bid farewell
from. His first event is a lecture to officers from various units – helicopter
pilots, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operators, missile defense controllers and
commandos from the IAF’s elite Shaldag Unit.
Next, Nehushtan climbs into
the cockpit of a Cobra attack helicopter. After about 40 minutes, he lands in
the middle of a field near Kiryat Gat and climbs into a Black Hawk transport
helicopter for a drill simulating the recovery of a downed pilot.
the unique characteristics of the IAF is that no matter what rank you have on
your shoulder, the mission commander has seniority in the air. In both of his
flights, Nehushtan, a major-general, flies with squadron commanders,
After landing back at the base, Nehushtan
inaugurates a new headquarters for one of the squadrons, built in conjunction
with US Army engineers. He then visits a helicopter simulator located nearby,
where the pilots surprise him and turn the mission into a flight over the
Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
While the image is computerized, one can
easily discern the infamous entrance to the camp, the barracks and the
Moved by the gesture – the simulator can run any terrain
from any place in the world – Nehushtan recalls how in 2003 he stood on those
same train tracks as the head of a military delegation to Poland and watched as
his successor IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel led a trio of F-15s on a
For Nehushtan, the simulated flight is just further
proof of his belief that the IAF plays a historic role in the State of
“We are in a region full of danger, and I do not take anything
for granted,” he says. “We need to be strong enough to protect ourselves, since
we cannot count on anyone else to do that for us.”
IN HIS four years as
commander of the IAF, Nehushtan has had to confront a number of major threats
and challenges. He commanded the IAF during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza
Strip in 2008 and invested a great deal of resources and energy in implementing
the lessons from the Second Lebanon War, and primarily in improving the
cooperation between the IAF and IDF ground forces.
There is no question,
though, that one of the issues that has taken up a great deal of his time is
Iran. More specifically, Israel’s preparations to bomb the Islamic Republic’s
nuclear facilities. The fact that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense
Minister Ehud Barak speak so openly about Israel having a viable military option
is largely a testament to Nehushtan’s work.
In recent years, the IAF has
significantly upgraded its capabilities with regard to long-range operations
like a potential attack on Iran. While the backbone of any strike package
against Iran would likely be Israel’s long-range strike aircraft such as the
F-16I and F-15I, the IAF has recently upgraded some of its older aircraft,
finding that they, too, can reach distant targets.
But while this
activity has been at the center of his work, Nehushtan – unlike other officers
and politicians – refuses to speak directly about the IAF’s capabilities with
regard to a potential military option.
The little he is willing to say,
however, gets the point across and is a message aimed not just at Iran but also
at all of its terror proxies in the region.
“I understand the missions
that stand before the IAF and we have done everything we can during this period
to create the capabilities needed to fulfill these missions,” he says. “In
general, the IAF is prepared for all of these missions.”
“I am aware of
the role the IAF plays in providing security for the State of Israel,” he
continues. “It is wide and vast and obligatory and it demands of me and the
entire IAF to be sharp, trained and prepared.”
He is also slightly
critical of others who have been more outspoken on Iran.
“I think that on
this specific issue [Iran] we should not talk,” he says. “I say this with all of
the responsibility it entails. I think that public discourse on this issue is
lacking the basic facts needed to make such discussion meaningful, and I don’t
think this is the kind of discussion we should be having.”
NEHUSHTAN might use his words sparingly, the same cannot be said of his
During his four years as commander, the IAF flew 650,000 flight
hours, including 150,000 in operations during which more than 7,000 targets were
bombed. Almost a third of the flights were carried out by UAVs.
oversaw a significant technological boost in the IAF’s platforms. He pushed
through the deal to purchase the first squadron of F-35 stealth Joint Strike
Fighters, new Hercules C-130 transport aircraft, new Italian advanced trainer aircraft, new simulators and new UAVs such as the
Heron TP, which has a 26-meterwingspan – the same as a Boeing 737.
also oversaw the deployment of the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which
has already intercepted more than 90 Katyusha and Kassam rockets fired from the
Gaza Strip in the past year.
The ongoing upheaval throughout the Middle
East alongside the entry of new surface-to-air missile systems and advanced
aircraft into the region – F-16s were delivered recently to Jordan and Iraq has
announced plans to purchase the fighter jets – have Nehushtan concerned about
the possible erosion of Israel’s aerial superiority.
superiority is under greater threat today than [ever] before,” he says. “I think
that the IAF’s capabilities are good and it can fight well and fulfill its
missions, but to retain this level we need the right investment in this
‘insurance policy’ – to keep it growing, to let it train and to remain at the
Nehushtan points to three principles that the IAF needs to
maintain to retain its aerial superiority and emerge victorious from a future
The first is the need to boost Israel’s deterrence, and
consists of three separate elements – what capabilities Israel’s enemies think
Israel has, what capabilities they known Israel has, and how determined they
think Israel is to use them. For this reason, Nehushtan lobbied hard to get the
government to approve the nearly $3 billion deal for 19 F-35s.
be like the arrival of the F-15s in the 1970s and will boost Israel’s
deterrence,” he says confidently. “It has the potential to change the future war
and its presence here will have that effect on the region.”
principle is the need for accurate intelligence, such as that which was gathered
on the eve of Operation Cast Lead and enabled “Birds of Prey,” the opening salvo
of the operation, in which 100 fighter jets and helicopters swept in over Gaza
in a number of consecutive waves, dropping more than 100 tons of explosives on
some 100 predetermined targets in a matter of minutes.
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 Israel, 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.
During the interview, Nehushtan calls himself “a
client of Iron Dome” due to the location of his home in Yavne.
that the IAF is already considering deploying an Iron Dome battery outside Eilat
to protect it from the rocket threat Israel is facing in the Sinai Peninsula. He
says that ultimately Israel could need as many as 14 batteries to defend against
“We are starting to think about that area [Eilat],
how to defend it, and we might decide to deploy Iron Dome there in the future,”
he says. “In the meantime, we will need to develop it into an area that we can
potentially defend if needed.”
TURNING TO the larger potential threat
that Israel could one day face in Egypt if an anti-Israel regime takes hold of
the country, Nehushtan recommends switching the tone.
“I don’t think we
should be in a rush to disengage from the important understanding we have with
Egypt – the peace treaty,” he explains. “The treaty is unbelievably important
and one of the most important strategic successes that Israel has achieved since
its establishment. Egypt is a large country and an important one in the
Arab world. It is also our neighbor – three reasons why we should do everything
in our power to retain these ties.”
However, after being pressed on
whether the IAF and the IDF will know how to confront a potential military
challenge from Egypt if it evolves, Nehushtan admits that some things in life
are “not under our control.”
“The IDF and the IAF exist to deal with such
scenarios” he explains. “The IAF is one of the tools at Israel’s disposal to
deal with any possible contingency.”
Another concern for Nehushtan has
been the northern front, and particularly the transfer of weaponry from Syria to
Israel is particularly wary of reports that due to the upheaval
in Syria, Hezbollah has been moving sophisticated weapons into Lebanon, such as
longrange Scud missiles as well as advanced air defense systems.
reports have claimed that Israel will attack such convoys if they are detected
carrying balance-altering capabilities, such as Syria’s chemical
“There is no doubt that from a geostrategic and military
perspective, developments on this front require our constant attention. We must
always be prepared for something like this to happen,” he says.
range of threats is what makes the IAF unique in comparison to other air forces
around the world, he explains. Here, pilots can find themselves flying in the
morning in Iran, in the afternoon in Lebanon and at night in Gaza, and on all
three fronts facing different threats and air defense systems.
requires the IAF to be ready all the time, to gather intelligence on the
characteristics of each front and most importantly to train,” he
After 37 years in uniform, Nehushtan admits that it will not be
easy to retire.
The thing he will miss the most, he says, is flying, the
giving up of which he compares to the amputation of a limb.
meantime, he has been asked to stick around for the coming year. With growing
threats on the horizon, you never know when the country might need some advice.