A time to fly, a time to say goodbye

Outgoing IAF chief Nehushtan shares his views on Israel’s current, future threats.

Ido Nehushtan in the cockpit of a Cobra attack helicopter  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ido Nehushtan in the cockpit of a Cobra attack helicopter
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
For 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 Israel.
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.
One of 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, lieutenant-colonels.
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 crematoriums.
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 historic flyover.
For Nehushtan, the simulated flight is just further proof of his belief that the IAF plays a historic role in the State of Israel.
“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.”
WHILE NEHUSHTAN might use his words sparingly, the same cannot be said of his actions.
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.
He also 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.
He 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.
“Our aerial 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 right size.”
Nehushtan points to three principles that the IAF needs to maintain to retain its aerial superiority and emerge victorious from a future conflict.
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.
“It will 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.”
The second 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.
The final 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.
He reveals 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 short-range rockets.
“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 Lebanon.
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.
Some reports have claimed that Israel will attack such convoys if they are detected carrying balance-altering capabilities, such as Syria’s chemical weapons.
“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.
This wide 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.
“This requires the IAF to be ready all the time, to gather intelligence on the characteristics of each front and most importantly to train,” he explains.
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.
In the 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.