Ties between the German Luftwaffe and Israel’s Air Force have increased so tremendously over the past five years that it was the German Air Chief Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz who gave the speech at the reception for outgoing IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amikam Norkin.
“It was really emotional,” Gerhartz told The Jerusalem Post following the ceremony that was held Monday evening at Tel Nof Air Force Base. “They gave me the honor to give the speech at the reception to honor Gen. Norkin, my friend. It was really special for me.”
Gerhartz, who began his tenure in 2018, has visited Israel several times in order to strengthen the relationship between the two air forces.
“It was always my vision – and that is why my first visit when I took over the air force in May 2018, was to Israel,” he said. “To show that, for me, the most important partner is Israel. And I immediately felt that Norkin had the same vision to push our operations – that was already good in the years before – to the next level.”
That next level not only included joint drills such as Germany’s participation in two Blue Flag exercises in Israel and training of German pilots on Israel’s Heron TP drone, but also saw Israeli and German pilots fly wing-to-wing over concentration camps and the Knesset.
“What we did in 2020 when Israeli fighter jets came to Germany and touched German soil for the first time in history was really special. Then we flew over the former concentration camp. Can you believe it? I was sitting in an Israeli jet next to Gen. Norkin. We had Israeli fighter jets to our left and German fighter jets to our right, and we were flying over a place where we had such a bad history,” Gerhartz said.
“Last year, when Norkin invited me to come to Israel, we had a Eurofighter colored with German and Israeli flags. I flew over the Knesset and Jerusalem with Norkin and it was such a strong symbol – to fly over the symbol of democracy – it was breathtaking.”
Those flights had such an impact on Gerhartz that he even spoke about it during his speech on Monday.
“Amikam, we both wrote history when we flew side by side over the former Dachau concentration camp and with the eagle star here in Israel over the Knesset,” he said. “Both symbolize the deep relationship of our air forces but also of our true friendship.”
The relationship between the two officers and their respective country’s air forces has also had an impact on Berlin’s choice to procure the F-35 fighter jet to replace older jets such as the Tornado.
Norkin, Gerhartz said, “really pushed it more than anyone else. He’s really been leading the F-35 community in using the most modern aircraft.”
While there are now 14 different air forces flying the F-35, it was the IAF who first used the plane in operational missions. It was also Israeli F-35s that carried out the first interception of drones, intercepting two Iranian ones that had been attempting to smuggle weapons to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
DURING HIS numerous trips to Israel, Gerhartz and Norkin “talked a lot about the advantages of the F-35 and what it means if we are a user as well. We will be able to have interoperability on another level.”
According to him, while former German chancellor Angela Merkel did not want to buy the stealth fighter for various reasons, current German Chancellor Olaf Sholz wanted the most modern aircraft.
“Even before the Ukraine crisis, I reported to Sholz, who asked ‘why don’t we buy the most modern and capable aircraft?’ I said yes, because I know the plane from the experience of the Israeli Air Force.”
In addition to choosing the F-35, according to Gerhartz, the German Bundestag will also approve the arming of the Heron TPs made by Israel Aerospace Industries currently flown by the German Air Force.
The nine-year agreement between the German and Israeli defense ministries was signed in June 2018 at a cost of $600 million for the leasing of a number of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as well as training, operational support and maintenance for the duration of the agreement.
German media has reported that following the invasion of Ukraine and the increase of Germany’s defense budget, Berlin wants to order 140 missiles from Israel to arm the drones – 60 for training and another 80 for operational use. There will also be an order for additional equipment and weapons training.
Germany’s NTV reported that the total scope of the possible order is estimated at €152 million ($166 m.)for 2022-2026.
Thirty-five teams of two Germans each have been undergoing training with their Israeli counterparts at a special compound at Tel Nof With the expected approval, the teams will now also be trained on the weapons systems of the drones.
“We are very grateful to extend our training from normal flying to using it as a weapons system as well,” Gerhartz said.
The Heron TPs are IAI’s most advanced UAVs with a 40-hour endurance, maximum take-off weight of 5,300 kg. (11,685 pounds) and a payload of 999.7 kg. (2,204 pounds). They can be used for reconnaissance as well as combat and support roles and can carry air-to-ground missiles to take out hostile targets.
FOR BOTH air chiefs, aerial superiority is not only critical for maintaining regional superiority but a way to build bridges between peoples.
“We showed everyone that we cannot and should not forget history but we must look forward – and air forces can build bridges among people,” Gerhartz said about the flyovers in Germany and Israel.
Noncommissioned officers from the IAF will come to Germany, he said, and in 2023, German NCOs will visit Israel.
“It is ongoing,” he said. “The headline is really people meeting people.”
Gerhartz, who will continue as air chief until at least 2026, congratulated IAF Head Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar on his appointment, telling the Post that “we share the same mentality about our operations.”
And about Norkin, who Gerhartz considers to be a true friend, “even outside the cockpit, you will remain what you always were: a true airman with 4,000 flying hours and more than 4,800 sorties,” the German air chief said in his speech.
“I render a profound salute of respect,” he said in conclusion.