The Israel Air Force chief who might need to order a mission against Iran

For Norkin, the people are the real strength behind the IAF. This is not only about its platforms or weapons, it’s about the team behind the machines: the pilots and technicians.

The team behind the machine: Profiling Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin (photo credit: ISRAEL AIR FORCE)
The team behind the machine: Profiling Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin
(photo credit: ISRAEL AIR FORCE)
It’s not every air chief who regularly flies with his troops.
For Norkin, the people are the real strength behind the IAF. This is not only about its platforms or weapons, it’s about the team behind the machines: the pilots, technicians, troops in the air control towers and ground crews.
“Above all, in the next few years the IAF will nurture its personnel, and deepen their feelings of belonging, ability to make a difference and sense of satisfaction from their work, because the people of the IAF are the true source of power,” Norkin said when he assumed command of the IAF from his predecessor, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amir Eshel in 2017.
Under Norkin’s leadership, the first women to lead IAF squadrons have taken command, including the first female commander of an operational squadron of transport planes, the first woman to be responsible for ground-based operations in the IAF, the first woman in charge of the IAF’s operational command and control unit, and another woman appointed as deputy commander of an F-15 combat squadron.
“Congratulations to our first female commander of an operational squadron in the air force. We’ve been waiting for you for 71 years,” Norkin said at the appointment of Lt.-Col. G. in September.
For Norkin, it’s the IDF’s duty to use the full potential of women in the military and the air force, but he knows that’s still far off.
While soft-spoken, Norkin has a commanding presence, a necessary character for a man who leads the tip of Israel’s spear of operations far beyond its borders.
With tensions at an all-time high between Israel and Iran, Norkin might be the one to lead an attack against the Islamic Republic. It would be an operation on a level similar to Operation Opera (the Israeli attack against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981); Operation Wooden Leg (against Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters near Tunis, Tunisia, in 1985); or Operation Outside the Box (against Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007).
But an attack against Iran is something Israel has been working hard to prevent.
NORKIN, BORN in Beit She’arim in Israel’s North, often shows off photographs of his grandfather and tells the story of his family’s contribution to the State of Israel.
“Look,” he says. “Here’s [military leader and politician] Moshe Dayan,  [Palmah commander and an IDF founder] Yitzhak Sadeh, [Palmah commander, IDF general and politician] Yigal Allon and my grandfather in Kibbutz Hanita, 1938. My grandfather fled from the Russian military when he was 21, and came to Israel via Italy and built the village where I grew up.
Military leader and politician Moshe Dayan,  Palmah commander and an IDF founder Yitzhak Sadeh, Palmah commander, IDF general and politician Yigal Allon and IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin's grandfather in Kibbutz Hanita, 1938. (Wikipedia)Military leader and politician Moshe Dayan, Palmah commander and an IDF founder Yitzhak Sadeh, Palmah commander, IDF general and politician Yigal Allon and IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin's grandfather in Kibbutz Hanita, 1938. (Wikipedia)
“My grandfather protected this country with his horse, and I protect it with our jets.”
The air force wasn’t Norkin’s first choice. He was drafted into the Armored Corps in 1984 and followed in his father’s footsteps before switching gears and graduating from the prestigious Air Force Academy, receiving his wings in 1987.
But Norkin loves to fly, especially the F-15, a jet he’s flown countless hours in since 1988 when he was assigned to the “Knights of Twin Tail” Squadron and became the youngest F-15 pilot in the world.
Throughout the years, he climbed the ladder of position and rank, including commanding the Knights of Twin Tail Squadron before he was appointed to establish, integrate and command the IAF’s first F-16I Sufa Squadron in 2004.
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Norkin was head of the IAF’s Operations Department, and from 2009-2012 he commanded Tel Nof Air Force Base, before he was appointed head of the IAF’s Training and Doctrine Division.
Two years later he was appointed chief of Air Staff before being promoted to the rank of Major-General and appointed head of the IDF Planning Directorate, where he was responsible for the IDF’s strategic planning, military force buildup and organization.
On August 10, 2017, Norkin reached the highest rank in the IAF, and replaced Eshel as commander of the Israeli Air Force.
THE BIANNUAL Blue Flag drill, which this year for the first time saw the participation of F-35 stealth fighters from Italy and Israel, is a major component of Norkin strategy for the air force.
For him, the ability to increase the ties between the Israel Air Force and foreign forces is paramount. International partners not only allow pilots to learn new techniques and form lasting bonds, but they strengthen Israel’s strategic depth.
“Over the next few years the IAF will integrate advanced technology, expand its jointness and continue strengthening its relations with other air forces,” Norkin said in 2017 when he assumed command of the IAF.
The Magazine had the opportunity to fly down to Uvda Air Base several weeks ago as part of Blue Flag 2019, the most advanced air drill the IAF has ever carried out.
The sun was just rising as we took off from Hatzor, a hop, skip and a jump some 40 minutes away from Uvda, just north of Eilat where an estimated 800 technical and administrative personnel from five different air forces were taking part.
After landing at Uvda, we sat down for breakfast with several officers and pilots before heading into a pre-flight briefing, where pilots from the five participating countries were told of the various challenges facing them during their morning exercises.
In the room full of pilots from across the world, Norkin sat front and center taking everything in.
Following the briefing, the air chief made his way to an F-15 hangar, where he and a young pilot inspected the jet before taking to the air during the drill. Like every pilot flying under his command, he needs to make sure everything on the jet is thoroughly checked prior to lift-off.
As the canopy closed over the pilots, with Norkin in the front seat, a thumbs-up was given by the young female technician. The engines began to roar as the all-clear was given and the jet rolled out of the hanger onto the tarmac. Moments later they were in the sky.
During Blue Flag, air force commanders from the United States, Greece, Germany and Italy all landed in Israel and toured the drill, including US Air Force Commander Gen. David Goldfein.
As part of Goldfein’s visit, the two generals not only spoke about regional issues, but took to the air in the F-15, flying together over the Israel’s capital Jerusalem. It was the first time such a flight took place.
Norkin also met with the German Air Force head Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz during Blue Flag, 81 years to the day since Kristallnacht, and with smiles and laughter stressed the strong friendship between the two forces.
“As a young pilot I flew in an exercise where I had a jet on one side with the Star of David. And when I looked over my shoulder and saw that jet, it was amazing. It touched me emotionally,” Gerhartz said.
“This is not only a partnership between two operational air forces, it’s a friendship,” he continued, adding that “being part of Blue Flag, one of the most advanced exercises in the world, is really important for us because training together with the Israel Air Force – which is definitely the most capable air force in the world – is excellent for our training.”
Speaking in front of a Eurofighter alongside Norkin, Gerhartz said that the dangers posed by evolving threats in the region have led the pilots to take the exercises in Blue Flag “a step ahead,” as “the air war that we have to fight today is complicated. It’s of utmost importance to train as realistic as it could be.”
Norkin praised the Germans for their strong and well-organized air force, saying the two forces are flying and training shoulder-to-shoulder.
“For us to see a Eurofighter with a Luftwaffe sign in the Israeli shelter is a special event, especially this week, when 81 years ago the Nazi government burned all the Jewish books. And now we are friends and working together very hard for the future, because we always remember the past. We work for the future, our children, the next generation.”
Norkin, who was in Germany as a guest of Gerhartz several months ago and flew in the backseat of the Eurofighter – which he considers to be a very powerful airplane with a lot of capabilities – announced that the IAF would take part next year in Germany’s international air exercise, the equivalent to Israel’s Blue Flag.
THE NEED to hold joint training exercises, especially with forces involved in operations in the region, is critical for the IAF.
But every week Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin visits a different squadron around the country, dons his flight suit and takes to the skies with the men and women under his command.
Norkin understands how complicated the neighborhood is, as the threats posed by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas as well as the deployment of advanced missile defense batteries like the S-300 have the Israel Air Force always on high alert and always trying to adapt to all new operational challenges.
Israeli pilots need to learn how to deal with these threats because the IAF continues to carry out thousands of operations on all fronts, many of them as part of what the military calls in Hebrew mabam, or war-between-wars campaign to stop Iranian entrenchment and weapons smuggling to Hezbollah.
During the first few years of the campaign, Israel denied having struck targets in war-torn Syria, preferring instead plausible deniability in an attempt to prevent any retaliatory attacks by Iran or its proxies like Hezbollah.
But Israel started claiming credit and Tehran began to respond.
In February of last year Iran launched a drone armed with explosives from the T-4 airbase in the Syrian province of Homs to carry out a sabotage attack in Israel before it was spotted by Israel and intercepted near Beit She’an by an Apache attack helicopter.
Following the infiltration, Israeli jets took off to strike the launch site of the drone as well as the drone-control vehicle which guided the drone into Israeli territory, and were met by massive Syrian anti-aircraft fire. More than 20 missiles were launched toward the Israelis jets from SA-5 and SA-17 batteries.
One of the Israeli F16 pilots ejected from his jet, which crashed in the lower Galilee after being hit by shrapnel from the Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
It was the first time in 30 years that an Israeli jet was lost in a combat situation.
According to former senior air force officers, the silence that characterized the first years of Israel’s campaign was the proper course of action.
“As a military man you prefer activities over words,” former IDF Aerial Defense Division commander Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Zvika Haimovich told the Post in a recent interview. “You cannot fight or win fights with words. You can win with activities and missiles and keep it silent and under the radar and public media. You will have many more advantages than when it’s all over the press.
“I prefer the old silence,” he declared.
Another former senior air force officer well-versed in the campaign told the Post that there were two phases with Israel’s war-between-wars campaign. The first one, which was quieter and under the radar, dealt with Iran’s initial deployment to Syria; in the second phase, the clash between Israel and Iran became more public.
“When Israel strikes and sends verbal messages, we do so to communicate that Iran will pay the price... it’s communication through words and missiles, which should create a leverage on the main players to do something,” he said.
In 2017, when Norkin was the outgoing head of the Planning Branch, he said the effect of the campaign defined the current period facing Israel and that it “actually prevents the next war. It influences our enemies and causes them to not want to fight us. This has become increasingly influential within the military.”
While the campaign began under his predecessor, under Norkin it has expanded exponentially to countries including Iraq, according to foreign media reports.
Israel is in a direct confrontation with Iran.
“There are rules clearly stated by the prime minister,” the former top IAF officer said. “Iranian targets have been struck and destroyed, and in every case, what Israel has done since 2016... is a direct conflict but both sides are trying to keep it in a box to handle it but it might escalate, that’s for sure.
“Both sides don’t want an escalation. But we cannot accept their threatening presence in Syria. This campaign will continue.”
Despite Israel’s campaign against Iran, which the retired officer said started in 2013, the Islamic Republic will continue with its aspirations to be a regional superpower, the retired officer said.
“They will continue, there is no question about it,” he asserted. “But the question is how steep the trajectory is. Right now they don’t want to initiate an adventure which would lead to more unrest in neighboring countries and their own country. We hear the sound of war drums all over but I think it’s a way of communicating their intentions.”
Nevertheless, Iran, he noted, “hasn’t stopped and they won’t stop. They are patient and they want to continue.” And with that continuation, “a miscalculation is a real thing in the Middle East. Because of us or them,” he added.
According to Haimovitch, “Norkin is working 24/7. It’s not easy.”
But in the Middle East there’s no rest for the weary. It’s a never-ending race.
“And in this race, when you see the Iranians and proxies in the region, you don’t have a choice. You need to win,” Haimovich said. “We need to improve our skills and doctrine every day. And you need to see the changes in the region and always upgrade your systems to match. Our forces today are much better than they were, and they will continue to improve as time goes on, otherwise we will lose the future conflict.
“We don’t have the privilege to stop and say we are satisfied. There’s not time to rest, we need to always improve,” the retired commander added.
As for Norkin, he’s taken an oath to guard and protect Israel. And with his plate of responsibilities overflowing, he isn’t resting.
He worries so that Israelis don’t have to.