Security and Defense: Requesting permission to land

The legacy IAF commander Elazar Shkedy leaves behind may be needed more than ever, if Iran isn't stopped.

shkedy 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shkedy 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In November, OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy came to the head of his history department, Lt.-Col. Moti Habakuk, with a strange request. Usually tasked with preparing lectures and slide shows on the air force and its various missions and wars, Habakuk was asked by Shkedy to write a research paper comparing public remarks made by Adolf Hitler in the 1920s and '30s to those made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the past three years. The results were shocking, with both leaders voicing similar declarations regarding the Jewish nation, Zionism and race. Here is one example: In 1922, Hitler said, "If I am ever really in power, the destruction of the Jews will be my first and most important job." In 2005, at a conference called "A World Without Zionism," Ahmadinejad said, "Israel must be wiped off the map." For Shkedy - the son of Holocaust survivors - the conclusion was clear: Ahmadinejad cannot be allowed to continue developing nuclear weapons. As a result, the IAF is not taking seriously the US National Intelligence Estimate claiming Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and believes that Ahmadinejad is doing everything he possibly can to obtain a nuclear bomb. "We need to be prepared for this threat," a top IAF officer said this week. "We cannot close our eyes to the way Ahmadinejad speaks and to what he says. When a person believes he speaks directly with his God, there is nothing really holding him back." Iran today poses not only the greatest strategic threat to Israel but also the greatest challenge the IAF has ever had to deal with, overtaking by far the long-range missions it has flown throughout its 60-year history, including the rescuing of hostages in Uganda or the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad. This makes recent news reports regarding the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles from Russia to Iran of even more concern to the senior staff at IAF headquarters. "The region is getting more and more complicated," the senior officer said. "Nevertheless, in the air force we need to be prepared for every challenge and any mission we might be asked to do by the chief of General Staff or the defense minister." IN APRIL, Shkedy will step down after four years as IAF commander, and will probably resign from military service. Three officers are vying for his position - OC Planning Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, Deputy OC Air Force Brig.-Gen. Amir Eshel and Brig.-Gen. Yohanan Locker, head of the Air Division. Shkedy will be able to sum up his tenure with satisfaction, particularly when it comes to air strikes in the Gaza Strip. In comparison with 2002-2003, when half of the casualties from the air were civilians, in 2007, the number dropped to just 2 percent of those killed in air strikes. In December, the IAF killed more than 40 terrorists without wounding a single civilian. When Shkedy took over as IAF commander, he placed this issue at the top of his agenda, stressing the importance of accuracy, so his top brass would understand that when civilians are killed Israel loses legitimacy for its operations, and - as was demonstrated this week with the accidental bombing of three civilians in a Gaza airstrike - that there is also no such thing as zero collateral damage. The dramatic drop in civilian casualties has to do with a number of factors, mainly the development of more accurate munitions and better success at collecting pinpoint intelligence. It also has to do with the strong relationship Shkedy has forged with Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and Mossad chief Meir Dagan. SHKEDY'S PERCEIVED lack of toughness and charisma is made up for in what is considered his intelligence, morality and strategic long-term thinking. Since he took command in 2004, the air force has grown tremendously, from both an operational and a technological standpoint. In a revolutionary step, Shkedy more than a year ago invited OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant and his senior staff to visit the branch's operations center underneath IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. They spent hours watching how the air force combined the three necessary elements for an air strike: intelligence, available firepower and technology. Galant then returned to the South and set up his own operations room, together with the Shin Bet and the IAF. Another monumental achievement was the IAF's performance during the Second Lebanon War, particularly the air strikes deep inside the Bekaa Valley and against Hizbullah infrastructure in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut. Its accomplishments also included intercepting, for the first time, an unmanned Hizbullah aerial vehicle laden with explosives on its way to Israel; and destroying the guerrilla group's entire long-range missile array on the first night of the war. "These are things that have never been done before by any air force anywhere in the world," a senior officer explained. During Shkedy's tenure, the use of UAVs (Unmaned Aerial Vehicles) has grown tremendously, and they are regularly employed for operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During the Lebanon War, UAVs were instrumental in tracking Katyusha rocket launch squads. Last year, Shkedy warned of a future battle in another arena. "Battle in space is on our agenda, whether we want it there or not," he said at an aerospace conference in Herzliya. "We need to understand how to develop and protect our space assets, since there may be those who will seek to harm our forces in space." He believes the country can become a leader in the development of "tactical satellites," as it is in tactical UAVs today. Indeed, the IAF's official title is the "Israeli Air and Space Force." And though it has yet to obtain practical responsibilities over space-based assets, a plan is currently being formulated for that to happen. In 2006, Shkedy was appointed head of the "Iranian Front," a position he will bequeath to his successor. According to intelligence assessments, the coming year will be one of "engagement" vis-à-vis Iran and will see a flurry of Western diplomatic activity to stop its nuclear program. If all else fails, stopping Iran will be left up to the IAF Shkedy is leaving behind. And this is what most concerns the IAF today. Israel's September airstrike on what foreign media reports say was a nuclear facility in northeastern Syria may have signaled that the IAF is at least capable of doing this. And, as Shkedy has been known to tell his pilots, "Nothing is impossible."