IDF, IAF, At Year’s Turn
By Amir Oren
Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who died on Pearl Harbour Day, December 7, two months shy of his 98th birthday, was universally recognized as the epitome of the lone ranger in the sky, the fighter and test pilot who shot down enemy planes in war and shot up to fame in peace when he advanced hunan knowledge about scientific and technological limits, in his case the so-called sound barrier which turned out to be a marker rather than an obstacle.
In his USAF career, Yeager was revered by the aviation community, but did not reach the highest positions in the uniformed hierarchy, where the Chief of Staff and almost a dozen of his fellow General Officers wear four stars. He made do with command of squadrons and wings – flying and fighting units, not winged bureaucracies – eventually being honored by promotion to Brigadier General, a mere one-star rank, somewhat akin to Christopher Columbus or another world-class maritime explorer getting the rank of a Rear – rather than full – Admiral.
The Israel Air Force used to have its share of Chuck Yeagers, pilots of the World War II and War of Independence generation and their younger brothers, hot-shots who flew Mysteres and Mirages and later Phantoms and F-16’s and F-15’s, besting the Egyptian and Syrian Air Forces in dogfights and air-to-surfaces operations. But the heyday of aerial duels, in which the fastest and boldest see, plan and draw first, hit accurately and become Aces at five kills, is long gone. The last encounter between an IAF flight and a hostile formation ending in a fight took place 35 years ago, in November 1985 above the outskirts of Damascus. An entire generation of Israeli fighter pilots has gone through flight school, training, operational assignments, release into the active reserves and service until their early 50’s without seeing a Mig in their helmet gunsights, or head-up display.
It was during those last days of Yeager-like military flying that Amikam Norkin, born December 1966 on a farm in Northern Israel adjacent to a busy Air Force base, became an Air Cadet, then swiftly rising to ever-growing responsibilities and being groomed to his current position of IAF Chief, the most important and coveted spot in the most powerful and admired arm of the Israeli Defense Establishment, indeed the Jewish State’s ultimate insurance policy. Major-General Norkin’s term is supposed to last some five years, 2017-22, and he is already considered one of the most innovative leaders in IAF history.
His challenge is much more burdensone than Yeager flying alone or with a wingman. Norkin, who planned some of the IAF riskiest operations, including the 2007 destruction of the Syrian-North Korean Nuclear Reactor (the problem was to take out the target without unleashing an all-out conflict, or as the CIA put it, “No Core, No War”), now has to contend with a changed landscape of Military, Technological, Budgetary and Societal features.
Last night, in a short speech befitting this stock-taking time of the year celebrated by certified public accountants, Norkin addressed the Israeli Friends of the Weizmann Institute, the country’s premier scientific research institution. There are acknowledged similarities between the house built by the country’s founding President – whose nephew, Ezer Weizmann, led the Air Force in the transformative 1960’s – and Norkin’s organization. The two are considered “islands of excellence” in an ocean of mediocrity. But when Norkin was expressly asked to refer to this fact, he surprised his audience.
It was not false modesty, but rather methodical introspection. Norkin chose not to list his service’s successes – many of them are highly classified, anyway – and started by stating that it had its share of failures and glitches this past year, culminating with the recent fatal crash of an instructor and a cadet on a vetting flight. In the Air Force’s wild youth, it was a common occurrence – there were years when every other week an aircrew died in training due to collision or disregarding altitude instructions. The very rarity of the accident is a testament to the striking improvement in safety. But for Norkin, this is not enough, and as is customary in debriefings following every sortie (in which a visiting General never pulls rank on the Captain leading the formation that day), one begins by pointing out one’s own faults, otherwise they will all be doomed to repeat them at great risk.
Turning to the IAF’s goals and missions, Norkin summed them up by two words – dominance and continuity. The Air Force strives to always dominate its adversaries, near and far, airborne and ground-based and even underground (where technics were perfected to destroy tunnels with pinpoint accuracy, including targeted killings in terrorist manhunts). Because airbases top the target lists of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the IAF is on constant alert to take off and move out to secondary locations with little to no harm to its offensive operations.
The manned fighter – versatile, flexible, multi-theater, multi-mission, day and night – is and will remain the IAF’s mainstay. While UAV’s, which Norkin insists are not unmanned but merely remotely manned, the equivalent of Zoom classes instead of the interpersonal touch of attending school, occupy a growing share of missions and flight-hours, they will not replace the cockpit-led fighter force, only augment it, though in additional and more creative ways.
The same goes for missiles. There is a vocal lobby in Israel for surface-to-surface conventional missiles releasing the flying Air Force from part of its duties and authorities. Norkin dismisses such talk as amateurish. Missiles are cumbersome and one-dimensional, expensive and for a single shot – use it and lose it – while an F-35 can be launched and retrieved thousands of times over decades. Chuck Yeager could not have put it better. The premium put on maintenance of advanced systems, which Israel is unique in training 19-year-olds, male and female, to take charge of, also means that regional Air Forces will lag behind, with their reliance on foreign contractors who may leave when war starts.
This argument can of course be put on its head regarding Iran’s ballistic arsenal. As long as the warheads are conventional, Israel should not be overly concerned by them, especially since it has several layers of missile defense. As for short-range rockets and missiles, the IAF – there is no Army Aviation in charge of anti aircraft and missiles fire – managed through its Iron Dome batteries to maintain a 93% intercept record. Of 176 launches out of Gaza, 90 were plotted as impacting in open spaces, so Iron Dome left them alone to explode rather than waste expensive Tamir missiles on them. Of the rest, 80 were intercepted, which means that out of some 30 rocket launches altogether, only one has a realistic chance of hitting a structure or street in Israel. Not a perfect defense, and no panacea to the anxiety raised by alarms, but very good protection to the civilian population. At the Southern border, a new Spectrum Warfare Battalion of the Digital and Cyber Defense force, where women serve along men, jammed hundreds of drones making their way out of Gaza on reconnaissance and attack sorties.
Strangely enough, despite – and perhaps because of – the Covid-19 crisis, with its capsules and lockdowns, which affected Israel’s neighbors, too, 2020 was one of the best years in memory for the Israel Defense Forces. By every measure, the Gaza, West Bank, Syria and Lebanon fronts were successfully defended, with hundreds of attacks and penetrations foiled, while deeper inside Syrian territory dozens of Iranian and affiliated targets were struck by IAF, artillery and Special Forces.
Cooperation with American, European, Asian and Arab – Jordan, UAE – Air Forces was greatly improved in recent years. Emirati pilots did not wait for the unveiling of the cozy relationship between the governments to train with Israeli counterparts in Germany. The IAF has no limits as it flies around the Middle East to various destinations on missions overt and covert.
The real problem for Norkin snd his General Staff brothers-in-arms came from within. Israel ‘s political crisis is now entering its third consecutive year, with no permanent government and no national budget. The military cannot plan and allocate rationally. The Air Force is in particular need of firm acquisition decisions backed by commitments in US dollars and Israeli shekels. The helicopter fleet, for example, is not only aging – it is ancient. When he turned three, the 54-year-old Norkin told the Friends oif the Weizmann Institute, CH-53 helicopters joined the IAF, and with a lot of refurbishment and retrofit some of them are still flying a full half-century later – barely. A decision on their replacement is long due.
The leadership crisis in Israel’s body politic generated a loaded question to Norkin: Ron Huldai, a former Air Force fighter pilot who retired as Brigadier General and the Mayor of Tel Aviv for the last 22 years, has earlier this week entered the political fray, announcing a new center-left party, “The Israelis”, but rarely does an IAF leader join his ground-forces comrades into politics. Why?
Norkin evaded the sensitive issue as easily as he trained – alas, with no enemies to fight – to evade Migs, perform a barrel roll behind them and come on top. He still has almost two years to serve and then a mandated three-year cooling-off period before he is eligible to enter electoral politics. (His successor will be one of two Major Generals currently seconded to the General Staff as branch chiefs, and the next one could be Huldai’s son-in-law, if he is willing to wait until mid-decade). If Israeli politicians were measured by merit, Norkin would have surely made an outstanding contribution. But right now he seems more like an Air Force version of his friend and former colleague Gadi Eisenkot, the much-courted previous IDF Chief who yesterday decided to stay out this Knesset campaign, and unlike Eisenkot’s successor, current IDF chief Aviv Kochavi, for whom politics looks like an unresistsble force.