Security and Defense: On the cutting edge

Security and Defense On

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government appears in recent weeks to be preoccupied with two issues - the ongoing negotiations with Hamas for Gilad Schalit, and the newly imposed freeze on construction at West Bank settlements. Both issues have yet to meet their desired results. While last week, a deal to secure Schalit's release seemed imminent, this week Hamas officials are saying that they prefer to hold off on carrying out the swap until the end of the month. Needless to say, a lot can happen by then. Israel's announcement regarding the settlement freeze has also failed to achieve its goal of getting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to sit down at the negotiating table with Netanyahu. While Abbas might still change his mind, in the meantime, Netanyahu is coming under growing political pressure from within his own party as clashes intensify in the West Bank between Civil Administration inspectors and frustrated settlers. The government's frustration is twofold. On the one hand, while the release of close to 1,000 prisoners appears to be against everything Netanyahu has stood for until now, he - as well as most of the defense establishment - understands that the Schalit issue has turned from a tactical predicament to a crisis with strategic consequences. This is not just due to what it does to the Palestinian political scene - by bolstering Hamas and undermining Abbas - but also because of the effect it has had on Israeli society, on high school students preparing for their draft and, as seen this week, on some of the country's top pre-military academies, which are split over the legitimacy of the impending prisoner swap. Nonetheless, while the government and IDF appear to be busy with the Schalit deal and settlement freeze, they are still as focused as ever on what remains the greatest threat to Israel: Iran's nuclear program. While the settlement freeze is a tool to get Abbas to negotiate peace, it is also aimed at getting the international community, and particularly the United States, off Israel's back and to focus on Iran. Getting the Schalit deal done will also enable the Netanyahu government to clear its plate and give its full attention to this existential threat. "We have to make every possible effort to mobilize the international community so that real sanctions are imposed on Iran and they are prevented from continuing their nuclear weapons program," Netanyahu said earlier this week at the Eilat Journalism Conference. A week earlier, on a tour of the INS Eilat - the missile ship that led the seizure of an Iranian arms shipment to Hizbullah - the prime minister said Israel would be the first to be attacked by Iran, but not the last. "The threat that Iran poses is very grave for the State of Israel, for peace in the Middle East and the whole world," he said. Despite these few comments, official Israeli policy is currently to sit on the sidelines when it comes to Iran and to wait and see what will come of US President Barack Obama's efforts to create a united international front against the Islamic Republic. In spite of earlier skepticism, senior defense officials said this week that they were impressed with Obama's achievements so far, particularly getting Russia and China to back a harsh resolution against Iran that was passed last week at the International Atomic Energy Agency. "The US and Europe are much more determined than they were before," a top defense official said. "We need to sit back and let this process play out." The next step that Israel would like to see is the passing of tough sanctions by the United Nations Security Council against Iran if it fails to heed the IAEA censure to suspend its nuclear activity. This will likely be debated in January, when the deadline that Obama set for talks with Iran is up. Either way, Israel is preparing for a variety of possibilities, and as officials have said time and again, "all options are on the table" - including a military one. As one senior IDF officer put it: "It is no longer a question of 'can we or can't we,' but of 'should we or shouldn't we.'" This, of course, will depend on the outcome of the US-led diplomatic process. Based on the interim results, some officials believe that it may even succeed. If it fails, however, and Netanyahu decides to give the IDF the green light for an attack, one captive soldier may be the least of Israel's worries. Considering the distance from Israel to Iran, the probability of malfunctions - and more importantly, the advanced surface-to-air missile systems the Iranians already have and are still trying to obtain - the IAF would be facing a daunting mission full of risks that could lead to several downed aircraft and several pilots in captivity. Since the Yom Kippur War, Israel has gotten used to flying - except for occasional covert operations - in areas like the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, where the enemy does not have advanced surface-to-air missiles. Iran is much different. While it still has not yet received the much-desired Russian-made S300, it already has several advanced systems also made in Russia, such as the TOR-M1, which can reportedly hit planes flying at altitudes of 30,000 feet. In comparison, the S300 has a reported ability to track up to 100 targets simultaneously, has a range of about 200 kilometers and can hit targets at altitudes of 90,000 feet. The last time an Israeli airman fell into enemy hands was almost a quarter of a century ago, when IAF navigator Ron Arad parachuted into Lebanon in 1986 after ejecting from his F4 Phantom fighter jet near Sidon. With a possible air strike against Iranian nuclear installations in the works, the possibility of additional airmen falling into enemy hands is realistic. To meet the challenge, the IAF is putting extra emphasis today on mental preparation for its airmen to face the growing anti-aircraft missile threat in the region. In the coming weeks, the IAF's Air Division, commanded by Brig.-Gen. Nimrod Shefer, will be giving a seminar that will run simulations and focus on crisis management. In addition, the IAF has recently started using a virtual reality system for its pilots to practice evading heat-seeking missiles. Until now, the IAF has trained its pilots to deal with the anti-aircraft threat by activating its own air defense system - including the Hawk Missile - and having it lock on to the training fighter jets. However, this was deemed expensive as well as ineffective. Instead, with the new virtual trainer, the pilot will lift off, fly in Israeli airspace and see in his helmet's heads-up display missiles being fired at him. "We need to strengthen the human factor in the air force so they are prepared for all these different possibilities," a senior IAF officer said recently. As part of their training, pilots learn skills such as how to survive if they eject into enemy territory, and what to do if they are interrogated. For almost 25 years, not a single pilot has had to make use of that training. Depending on what happens with Iran in the coming months, that may no longer be the case, and one soldier in Hamas captivity may not compare to several pilots in Iranian hands.