A long-scheduled interview with Israel Air Force chief Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, timed for the IAF's annual "Air Force Day," happened to coincide with this week's "Operation Summer Rains" offensive in Gaza, launched after the killing of two soldiers and the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit near Kerem Shalom.
Seated behind a completely clear desk in his office in the "Kiriya" military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Shkedy, who was appointed to his position two years ago, radiates a palpable sense of calm and reassurance, even when discussing the most acute challenges facing the IAF. During the more than an hour he spent with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, the Gaza offensive was developing, and his pilots had hours earlier targeted bridges and power installations in the Strip. Yet he was entirely unruffled throughout, and at no point interrupted our conversation to hear an update of external events.
The air force chief, who is married with three children and turns 50 next year, had drawn up handwritten notes on some of the subjects he suggested we might want to cover. But he was readily amenable to other areas of discussion - proving notably forthcoming on the dilemmas faced by his hierarchy in the war on terrorists in Gaza, given those terrorists' increasing "cynicism" in surrounding themselves with civilians in the hope of thus ensuring immunity from air attack.
While such cynicism was making it ever harder for the IAF to hit alleged terror kingpins without harming civilians, Shkedy said, the IAF's solution was emphatically not to relax its own limitations on when to open fire. It was, rather, to constantly refine the capabilities and accuracy of its weapons systems to better pinpoint the targets.
What is the air force's role in what's happening in Gaza now?
We are truly in a very complicated war against terror. In many respects, I think we are trailblazing for the world in fighting terror from the air. Not long ago, hitting terrorists form the air was very marginal. Lately, the overwhelming majority of hits on terrorists has been from the air. It's a dramatic change, achieved through the development of intelligence capabilities, planning, control, accuracy of fire and more.
For the State of Israel, in principle, going back into Gaza has great significance - political implications, military implications. IDF soldiers potentially being hurt on the ground and people being hurt on the other side, too. And therefore any such move requires weighty consideration. We're talking today after soldiers have been killed and a soldier captured, and this is one of the possible alternatives: whether to go in on the ground and, if so, how to go in and how to get out...
But we have now gone back into Gaza with some ground forces?
Yes, but that's still entirely different from in the past when we stayed there and Israeli settlements were there.
The hope was that we'd never have to do even this.
Correct. Anyway, what I was saying was that such decisions are extremely weighty. And in this situation, air power has tremendous advantages. You can carry out a range of different actions, with differing force, without remaining in the field. You carry out the action and then you return. Just to underline this for you, in the last nine months, we have carried out more air actions of the various kinds than we had over the previous five years.
Specifically, what is going on now in Gaza?
Activities stemming from the kidnapping of the soldier. But other things have also happened recently: We've had hundreds of Kassams fired at Israel. And we've just intensively attacked the bridges between the south and north of the Strip to prevent the movement [of those responsible]. We hit a power station. Intensively. I assume you've seen the pictures. The government of Israel has decided on a complex action. As regards scale, well, for years we haven't attacked the bridges. Now we've hit the three central bridges in the Strip. As for power stations, you know the idea had been raised in the past a few times and it was decided not to do so. This time, the decision was yes.
While the imperative is primarily to get the soldier back, is there also specific anti-Kassam activity?
That goes on all the time, because they're firing at us all the time. We act to prevent the fire or hit their laboratories or their transfer routes or the terrorists themselves who were going to fire. That connects with what we're doing now.
Is this going to be similar in scale to Operation Defensive Shield [in the West Bank in 2002], an effort to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure?
I wouldn't define it like that. Gaza is very complex. It can develop in all kinds of directions. There's a group of terrorists there and fighting them can develop into directions that are far from simple. Things can stay at the level they are now or develop into things of great weight. Of course, that's a decision for the political echelon. When ground forces go in with the air force, it's a matter of a [political] decision as to what level the state wishes to go to in this struggle.
We're truly making great efforts to find this soldier and bring him home, but this is an ongoing war [against terror] in many fields that is currently coming together. It has been going on for years. The air force is working every day, day and night, 24 hours.
Can you guarantee that his captors won't be able to smuggle him out of Gaza?
I can't say that now.
But we're doing the maximum to prevent that?
You've mentioned the increased capability of the air force to hit terrorists from the air. Why has there been a spate of misses of late? Is there a specific reason?
We carry out a follow-up analysis of every operation, successful or unsuccessful. We reexamine everything on a weekly basis. And every now and then we have a deeper investigation - what can be improved, which improved capabilities do we need. Overall, if you look at the big picture, there has been no change [in the proportion of success].
We are operating so intensively. [Air strikes] are more or less the central force acting in Israel to protect your children, to protect all of us. These actions are inside-page news these days, because everyone assumes they're going on. We only make headlines when we hit people who are not involved in terror.
As a human being, as a father and as the commander of the air force, I can tell you that we are truly making superhuman efforts to hit terrorists and not to hit people who are not involved. We succeed at this, but still, this is war. War with live fire. And I don't know anything more complicated than what we're doing in Gaza today.
They know that we're fighting them. They change their lifestyles, their work methods, how they work, where they develop their weapons, how they travel, where they fire from. They "cloak" themselves in women and children and families. There can be a situation where for days we know a terrorist is in a certain place and we don't attack him. For hours, we may feel that he's in a place that could be problematic.
There are at least 10 operations we don't carry out for every one that we do. At least. It may be 20.
There's a very small command group that I appointed, with vast experience, each of whom has commanded dozens of operations, if not hundreds. No other air force fights terror in the way that we do.
I meet with my colleagues from around the world and beyond the normal dialogue, what interests them and fascinates them from a purely operational point of view is the question of "how do you do it?" Because this [pinpoint air strike capability] is not something we came up with overnight.
Ten or 12 years ago I was head of air force operations. We've developed this in stages. I remember in the past how much more complicated it was... Of course we're always trying to improve.
First of all, morally, I want not to hit innocent people. And there's an operational value as well to that.
Have you ever seen Gaza from the air? I've flown over Gaza several times recently. You look at the population density, and see how complex it is to identify where you want to hit. It is so complex, even for the most well-developed network. And, of course, things can go wrong: technically, the navigating system may be problematic; once in a while there can be human error, an error in identifying the target, finding a house in the middle of such crowding.
So we reexamine, we ask what happened, why did it happen and what we should do differently next time. And I stress again, we do this reexamining even after a successful operation.
In one of the recent incidents there is no picture anywhere in which you can see those who were not involved being hit, and yet it happened. Terrorists and those not involved were hit. So, you're showing a film, you see you hit the terrorists and then you're told you hit people you didn't intend to hit and you start to break your head. What? How?
So, in short, in each of these cases you look and analyze and if there are technical things to improve, you try to improve them and if there are human errors, you try to identify the errors so you can do it differently the next time. In some of these recent cases, there were technical issues and in some of them issues of human error.
But there is never a situation where somebody deliberately fires at those who were not involved [in terrorism]. There never has been and never will be such a situation. No one in the air force has done or will do such a thing ever.
How many seconds pass from firing a missile from the air to impact?
Of course it depends on the weapons systems, but about a minute.
And a lot can happen in a minute.
Do you have control of the missile once it's been fired?
In some cases. And there are cases where you have control for a certain proportion of the time.
Every three months we try to develop an additional capability. The [terrorists] are behaving in a certain way? How do we need to grapple with that? But I can't go into details. This war is so complex. They are always trying to figure out what we're doing; they adapt to it. I would love to be able to tell the people of Israel what we are doing new to protect them. They'd be proud to hear it. But the moment I make something public, the other side will adapt. So telling the public actually harms my efforts to protect the public.
You say that they "cloak" themselves in civilians. What do you mean?
You see their cynicism in that they put their laboratories in a building where every other apartment is full of civilians. They choose not to place the laboratory [away from civilians]. They "cloak" themselves in the most appalling sense of the word - to protect themselves because they know we act with the highest morality. They surround themselves with women and children.
The terrorists are capable of putting their own children in the car when they set off to fire a Kassam at the State of Israel. They can take their own children to terror training bases. Cynicism is firing missiles from the yard of a house, a meter from the house, where it's obvious that if we hit back, we hit the house.
We are always grappling with these dilemmas. All the time. Understand? I am very proud that we are moral people. This just underlines how complicated all of this is.
If they are making themselves ever harder to hit, the chances of hitting only them...
Are becoming ever more complicated.
So, are we relaxing our limitations in determining when to fire? When we see his son in the car with him, that's it, we don't fire? Or do we say, "His son's always with him." And he's firing at us every day.
The question is very appropriate and no, we're not relaxing our limitations.
Instead, we're improving our accuracy?
Our answer is to create a situation where you hit within a meter, a meter and a half. If we know that [the terrorist] is holding his son's hand, we do not fire. Even if the terrorist is in the midst of firing a Kassam, and the Kassam is aimed to kill. We do not fire. You should know that. And that's a fearsome thing.
So we open the door to him to keep firing at us?
Yes. And that is the kind of dilemma we live with every day and I'm very pleased you asked me about it.
I'm very proud of what we do. I think it is unprecedented. I'm proud of our morals. I'm proud of our operational capabilities.
Maybe in the end we'll kill more people because we weren't ruthless enough at the start, because we encouraged them to become bolder? Maybe we're too moral, for our own good and theirs?
That's a very interesting philosophical question, with practical consequences. And yet I'll tell you something...
(Shkedy pauses here for a full 20 seconds.) Ultimately our strength is not solely our military power. That's part of our strength. The strength of the Jewish people in the State of Israel and the Land of Israel is first and foremost our profound moral strength. Everything stems from that.
If we were to lower our standards, not to find a solution that meets the highest ethical standards, that would be a mistake with far more, immense significance for us as a nation and a state and as people than the operational error.
That's the great strength that I believe in. That's how I educate the people [in the IAF], and that's what the air force does. And, still, I'm aware that this is war, with live fire, and things will happen that I don't want to happen. Because to protect your child and my child, that can happen.
That's some answer. But to ask again, though, solely from the moral perspective: we may end up being less moral because in the end we have to...
You always have to look at the overall picture. In accordance with the specific situation, in the context we are talking about with the Kassams, mine is the right answer. In extreme situations, you behave in extreme ways.
Ultimately you have the norms that you live by, the moral standards, and each issue has to be judged on its own basis.
If we were to have hit the house with the yard from which they are firing the Kassams two months ago, they might have stopped firing the Kassams?
This is interesting, this conversation. Interesting for me. This really isn't an interview.
Look, a similar question is whether ground troops would foil the Kassams. The fact is that when we were there on the ground, they kept firing, as they do now. The Kassam is an asymmetrical weapon from the military point of view. The Kassam fire may stop, but not because it is no longer technically possible for them to fire. Rather, because they'll decide it is not in their interest to fire. Setting up to fire from a backyard has not been a problem for them and won't be a problem for them.
Let's change the subject: What can you tell us about Iran?
There are three indisputable aspects: Their leader, President Ahmadinejad, talks of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in terms that no other world leader would dare use.. You recall his conference on "The world without Zionism." Then he moved onto the Jews, to Israel.
Two, he is trying to develop capabilities to deliver his attacking capabilities - land-to-land missiles with ranges to reach central Europe, Russia, China, India, certainly Israel. Missiles from planes. Planes that can carry this weaponry.
Third, he is trying with all his might to reach a nuclear capability. There's no argument about his intentions. The nature of the centrifuges that he is producing is incontrovertibly not for peaceful purposes.
This combination of thinking, capability of delivery and nuclear weaponry can come to constitute an existential threat to Israel and the rest of the world. It is no coincidence that the president of the US speaks as he does about Iran, and other world leaders do, too.
My job is to maximize our capabilities in every respect. Beyond that, in this case, the less said the better.
In terms of incoming ground-to-ground missiles, the people of Israel should know that the world's most developed system is the Arrow and the Makam Hagana (early warning radar), an Israeli development, operated by the IAF.
Has the pullout from Gaza made things easier militarily?
The Gaza pullout was not a military decision. It was the state's decision. They continue to fire on us and that's not good and the state cannot be reconciled to that. As a state, we must fight it. How? As the state decides. There are stages where air power is used. And stages where it is decided that this has gone too far, and other alternatives are used - as now.
The other side has to understand that there is a range of alternatives. Because we choose one for a long time doesn't mean there aren't others. That's what's happening now.
Is there some kind of crisis with the US over the Israeli desire to put Israeli equipment into the F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter? Might we buy more F-15s instead?
The Joint Strike Fighter will come to Israel, I hope in the middle of the next decade. It is a very serious fighter plane and fighter planes have great significance for the state of Israel. That's why decisions on fighter jets are always taken between the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States - from Phantom, to F-15, to F-16, all of them. This relates to the state's deterrent capability; its ability to prevail; its readiness to cope with complex situations - immense significance.
We are working with the Americans, cooperating. Always, we buy platforms and include special Israel systems in them - offensive, arming, defense systems. That's our uniqueness. And we do intend to do that with the JSF, as we do with all our F-15s and F-16s and helicopters. We introduce Israeli systems. All that, and the excellent people, is what gives the IAF its excellence. So we are discussing next-generation Israeli alternatives. There's no crisis.
You mentioned deterrent capability: The Entebbe rescue exactly 30 years ago and the raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak 25 years ago created the impression that there was nothing that Israel couldn't do. Are we still considered in that same near-invincible light? Or are we no longer capable of what we once could do?
Entebbe was an operation almost beyond comprehension. The attack on Osirak prevented an existential threat to Israel and the world. Israel chose to face up to it. Think of the kind of Iraq the Americans might otherwise have had to come to. The raid resonated over the decades.
Let's look also at the Lebanon war and the breakthroughs there. The air force faced up to land-to-air missiles. We developed a unique operational idea and we hit the entire Syrian ground-to-air system. Incidentally, the Americans were part of that development process. We also changed our approach to air battles which ended, exceptionally, with us downing dozens of Syrian planes without losing a single plane ourselves. (Shkedy shot down two himself.) Here, too, we blazed a trail for much of the Western world. Finally, our progress in the use of air power in fighting terror will have repercussions for decades worldwide.
Let's look at the big picture. It's extraordinary what's been achieved [since the foundation of the state]. In 60 years, less than a human life span, we've established a state with these astonishing defensive capabilities, offensive capabilities. The world recognizes this. Throughout our modern existence, we've had to deal with ever-changing problems. And we've prevailed every time.
Our deterrent capability, our existence? I intend for us to be here until the end of time.