This article was supposed to have been published a year and four months ago. That’s when Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin was about to conclude a highly successful five-year tour of duty as commander of the Israel Air Force. I accompanied him at the time to some of his farewell meetings with IAF units. During those visits, the air force looked the way it’s sometimes described, with a measure of envy, by people in the Israel Defense Forces’ ground forces – like a foreign army, but a friendly one.
There was something almost un-Israeli in the care taken to ensure precision, in the manifest attention paid to every detail of those farewell encounters. “Notice when the air force [personnel] enter the gathering,” one reservist officer remarked. “Not a second before and not a second after. Right on time.”
Anyone familiar with the somewhat militia-like atmosphere in other branches of the IDF – which still owe too much to the spirit of the Palmach, the strike force of the pre-state Haganah underground – will recognize the disparity. The corps that took shape under Norkin, between 2017 and 2022, in a direct continuation of the tour of duty of his predecessor (the impressive Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel), proudly fulfilled its assignment as spearheading Israel’s might in the realm of security.
It wasn’t by chance that the IAF was then enjoying an unprecedented flourishing of relations with its counterparts in Western countries, and also with some of those in neighboring Arab states. “Aerial diplomacy” was Norkin’s term for it. Of course, the Israel of April 2022, under the “government of change,” had no shortage of problems. But the country projected strength of another sort: technological, economic, operational, intelligence-gathering. The air force played a central role in that. Time and again, generals from other countries arrived in Israel to try to learn about the IAF’s organizational culture and to get a handle on its operational methods.
At the time, Norkin requested that the interview with Haaretz be put off, for his own reasons. More than a year went by, and recently we met again. Neither he, nor certainly I, could even have begun to guess in 2022 what would happen here in the interim: the clear-cut victory of the right in the election last November, followed by the formation of the new government at the end of December and the initial presentation of the plan for a radical judicial overhaul in early January.
Nor could anyone have forecast that one of the first and most significant casualties of the political upheaval would be none other than the Israel Air Force. That reserve pilots and navigators, together with hundreds of reserve officers from the IAF’s operational headquarters, would lead the protest against the coup; that at the end of July hundreds of them would declare that they would not longer report for their voluntary service, in response to passage of the law to cancel the reasonableness standard in the courts; and that Norkin’s successor, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, would spend most of his time in desperate efforts to stick a finger in the dam – to strive somehow to maintain the fighting fitness of the IAF for any possible war. If we were talking about an economic entity, we could say that the force has long since undergone value destruction – against its will.
Looking back, my notes from that round of farewell visits look like a postcard from another era. The officers and noncoms with whom Norkin spoke were occupied with a host of other matters: the delivery of new planes; attacks in Syria as part of the “campaign between the wars”; the service conditions and academic aspirations of young officers. Our conversations in recent weeks revolved around completely different subjects.
The air force, more than other branches and divisions of the IDF (apart from the navy), is a highly centralized corps. The status of its commander is exceptionally powerful. There is also a tradition of consultations: Every IAF commander keeps his predecessors in the loop through periodic group meetings. In times of crisis these gatherings become more frequent. Maj. Gen. Bar has kept up this tradition during the constantly exacerbating crisis over the reservists who are refusing to report for volunteer duty.
“Former IAF commanders meet every three months,” Norkin relates. “The current commander always presents updates. There’s a dialogue and he listens to us. There is continuity: We stand on the one another’s shoulders. What Amir Eshel built, I continued. Dan Tolkowsky, who was the IAF’s fifth commander and recently celebrated his 102nd birthday, also shows up. I became uptight when Tolkowsky would ask me questions – they were always the most relevant ones.”
Does Tomer Bar consult with you?
“The force’s commander and reservists speak with me. They have the good of the country and the good of the air force at heart. I help all I can. The IDF is contending with an event that never happened before. It’s a different kind of challenge. I never experienced anything like it. There was a new challenge in the case of the coronavirus pandemic as well; it started during my term. It was a huge surprise. It took us time to organize and develop a model for coping with it, so that the IAF could continue to function operationally.”
What does Bar say?
“That he would rather be coping with the pandemic.”
* * *
Norkin, 56, was born and raised in the Jezreel Valley moshav of Beit She’arim. He was drafted into the IAF in 1985, and two years later completed a combat pilots course as an outstanding cadet. Already then he was marked for great things; some of his buddies called him “IAF commander” even during the course. Subsequently he flew F-15 and F-16 warplanes (at the beginning of his career, he was described as the youngest F-15 pilot in the world) and commanded squadrons of both types of aircraft. During the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, he served as head of the IAF’s operations department, one of the force’s most critical roles. Afterward, among other posts, he headed the IDF Planning Directorate before going on to command the IAF.
About a month before the Lebanon war, TheMarker Magazine ran one of its projects about the country’s most promising young people. I was asked to list three candidates, from the air, sea and ground forces. After consulting with several of Norkin’s superiors, I chose him (but had to refer to him as “N.,” since names of pilots in active service may not be published) as the IAF representative. By the way, the two others were also colonels: an aide to the chief of staff, Roni Noma, and the commander of the naval commandos, Nevo Erez.
Noma, like Norkin, rose to the rank of major general. Erez, who displayed excellent capabilities during the war, criticized the commander of the navy publicly, shortly after the war, and was banished to the Mossad, where he had a lengthy career, rising to the post of division head, which parallels the rank of major general. In recent months, since retiring, Erez has been very active in the movement protesting the government’s legal overhaul. He is spearheading the protest of the Shayetet, the naval commandos, in the course of which he’s clashed fiercely with his former commander, current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Noma, too, has signed petitions in support of the reservists’ actions.
Norkin is taking a different, more cautious approach, and is not publicly expressing support of the protest. He did not join the majority of former IAF chiefs who signed petitions of solidarity with the pilots, including those who took the unprecedented step of declaring they themselves would stop reporting for voluntary reserve duty. He chose to join other initiatives, which did not take an explicit stand concerning the legislative moves of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and instead called for reconciliation and dialogue.
Over the past year, Norkin also has not given media interviews. In his conversations with Haaretz, too, he sounds cautious and very calculated, especially in regard to questions about the urgent issues of the day. That’s his approach; he apparently believes he can wield greater influence this way and mediate to reach solutions behind the scenes. But in some cases, the effort to extract a direct response from him reminded me of playing chess with a sophisticated computer program.
What happened to Israel and to the IDF between our previous meetings and this interview?
“A year ago, when you stood and raised your arm, you felt at your fingertips all the fruits of Israeli power: deterrence, technology, economy, demography – we are a young country, that’s part of our boost [the latter word, in English]. What happened is that in the meantime we have been moving away from those fruits, both because of global events and also because of what’s happened in the country – which has led to a cooling of ties with some countries and to a certain blow to deterrence.
“Our friends in the neighboring countries are looking from the outside and are surprised by the shakiness and instability here. I imagine that some of them are probably less disturbed about the threat to the country’s democratic regime, but they are troubled when it comes to Israel’s resilience. I think that all the strategic fruits we plucked haven’t disappeared from the horizon. We need to think about the day after – how we reunite and rehabilitate trust.
“I am very concerned. We must not cut the rope, the thread connecting the IDF, as the people’s army, with our osociety. We have cultivated it for 75 years. What worries me most is the rift in Israeli society and the hostility that is liable to develop between the different communities. Cohesiveness and commitment are a condition for continued flourishing and existence.”
There are some people who deliberately make trouble. After all, the situation affected the IAF internally, when people drove an intentional wedge between the air crews, on the one hand, and mechanics and technicians.
“In my 37 years as a pilot, I have put my life in the hands of the technical crews. They have never disappointed me. When a pilot enters the cockpit, his life is in the mechanic’s hands. There are attempts to cause trouble. But the air force is a single organ; it’s a chain with a great many links, and there must be trust between them at all times. Headquarters assigns us a target to attack. Sometimes you’re not familiar with it. You need to rely on the intelligence person [to ensure] that the target is not the house of a family; on the technician who primed the bomb’s fuze so it will work at the right time; on the mechanic who prepared the plane for you; and on the controller who gave you the coordinates and the right altitude. You rely on a great many people so that the orchestra will play a tune that doesn’t grate. Harming the cohesiveness of the air force is risky.”
The hundreds of IAF reservists who have decided to protest the government’s program are taking very heavy flak. The right-wing camp posted a video clip, depicting what is supposed to be a pilot abandoning an infantryman in the field, because he suspects that the infantryman supports the overhaul legislation. There are manifestations of open, fierce hatred toward IAF personnel.
“These reservists are civilians who do reserve duty; they are not the [standing] army. It’s necessary for them to have trust in the system, which expects them to go on risking their lives. Now they feel that their sense of trust has been damaged. I still think the situation can be repaired. We need to see ourselves surviving this upheaval, while reducing the cost it is exacting. We must not cut the rope with the reservists. We have to stop using words from the far edge, because after the edge there is nothing. There has been a significant blow to the air force, stemming from what is happening in the country.
“But even so, in the latest operation in Gaza, in May, all the reservists were in the cockpits and in the control centers. The outstanding cadets in the pilots course receive their wings from the prime minister. I know what he says to them, how much he esteems them, from when he sits next to me on the stage at the ceremony. He also calls at 3 A.M. to ask whether all our pilots returned safely from an attack in Syria. We are operating a large air force at half the budget of Western forces of comparable size. That marvel rests on using reservists, who do dozens of days of reserve duty a year and maintain a high operational level. This morning [August 7] the foreign media reported that an attack took place last night in Syria. If it’s an attack by us, I assume that half the people in the cockpits were reservists.”
Yet cabinet ministers are calling them “contemptible wimps.”
“I find it very difficult when elected officials use words that should not be uttered. We need to be worthy of our positions. The way we speak is the country’s shop window. It trickles into the street, the school system. We see that people are allowing themselves to speak in an extreme, violent, unworthy way, because they see that it’s permitted. It projects something that I wouldn’t want the youth of this country to absorb. It will affect them in the future; it will take a long time to correct it.”
* * *
The dispute over the measures taken by the pilots not only spurred campaigns against them, along with attempts to entangle them with the ground crews. It also sparked ideological and political arguments, which are part of the stormy debate over what are referred to as the First Israel and the Second Israel, meaning, privileged citizens vs. socially and/or economically disadvantaged ones. For years it was claimed that the IDF discriminated against the latter, among them people living in the country’s geographical periphery. Few residents of those remote locales landed prestigious assignments that would pave the way not only to a promising professional path in the army, but also opened the door to well-paying jobs in civilian life.
This phenomenon seemed particularly evident in the air force and in some units of Military Intelligence, notably the technological division (Units 8200 and 81), which constitutes a superb entryway into the world of high-tech. In contrast, recruits from the periphery filled the field units, where service entails no small risk but very few collateral benefits.
MI started to deal with this disparity at a relatively early stage, starting two decades ago, and lately an attempt has been made to expand recruitment conditions and classifications, to ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity. The air force identified a similar problem in regard to women in pilots courses. Indeed, the intervention of the High Court of Justice in the case of Alice Miller in the mid-1990s, led the IAF to see the error of its ways, albeit late in the game. In recent years there has been a concentrated effort, with partial success, to get more women to the opening stage: the start of the selection process. No special, similar effort has been made, however, vis-à-vis the geographical periphery, although the air force has long operated an extensive and impressive network of secondary technical schools (in the present fraught atmosphere, naturally, that effort is being criticized for “tracking the Second Israel”).
Recently the debate concerning the IAF has taken on a different tone, which dovetails with the current political crisis. There are now allegations of a “bias favoring the privileged.” Preliminary examinations for potential pilots are supposedly tilted toward those who have a broader background in mathematics and sciences from high school, many of whom come from affluent communities. This is ostensibly exemplified by the fact that many new pilots and navigators are the second generation of air crew personnel.
This may be a legitimate debate, but some voices on the right have added an extreme allegation: Because the periphery is discriminated against, and, they claim, the pilots are a privileged group whose success in the course is almost guaranteed in advance, we are getting a uniform air force that is not sufficiently diversified. And that, according to the same reasoning, has political ramifications: One camp has ensured that its members will be classified and trained as pilots. As a result, the “left” can now leverage its monopoly over the air force to threaten the government and dictate a halt to the overhaul legislation. Members of the deranged fringes on the right even claim that pilots are no longer risking their lives today and that in any case they are not the decisive factor in wars. Who needs them, anyway?
Norkin, like most of his colleagues in the top IAF brass, past and present, thinks this is total nonsense. This is the only subject in our conversations that elicits a somewhat emotional response from him (in his terms, of course: on an emotional scale of 1 to 10, If Norkin were to be compared with Likud MK Tally Gotliv, who has lambasted the pilots, if Gotliv scored a 10, Norkin would be at 1).
“Every draftee undergoes exactly the same classification tests for the Israel Air Force,” he says. “There is no difference in anything. There is no gram or percentage point of preference for any reason – other than the sole parameter of the professional examination process. If we aren’t professional when it comes to classification, we will pay a price in human life. People who are not suited to sit in the cockpit will end up sitting there and being killed, Heaven forbid. And in the cargo hold of a Hercules [transport aircraft], the pilot may take another 80 people down with him [in a crash]. There is a strategic decision by the government of Israel that gives the air force the right to vet draftees according to a precise empirical scale that reveals attributes that are needed among air crew combatants. If you don’t do the classification correctly, you get a different air force.”
But is there a place for better pre-recruitment preparation in the periphery so that people will have a better chance of being classified for a pilots course, comparable to what Military Intelligence has done?
“Yes. That’s also what we did in regard to encouraging women [to apply to be pilots]. But it would not be right to have people do the course according to ethnic origin or place of residence. If we do that, we put their lives in danger. If they are not suitable, they will simply be killed. Manning a cockpit is not the same as undertaking a job in MI.”
After the surprise elicited by the pilots’ protest, there were demands from the right to stop relying on reserve pilots, because they are “refusers.” Some ministers and MKs suggested dropping the reservists and training more young career pilots.
“If we want to change the structure of the IDF, it will have to be a change at the state-policy level with budgetary implications. It will be far more costly. Today you have reservists with the same fitness level as young people, and without having to pay them a salary. We could be like the United States, where all the combat troops are in the career military.”
Norkin favors the present mix in the IAF: regular, career, reserves. Today, he says, “The average age of two-thirds of those serving in the IAF is 19. Technicians of that age prepare F-35s for flight, air defense personnel are present in the Iron Dome war room. That military model is what makes us a start-up nation. The service imbues these young men and women with a feeling of capability and independence. They contribute to society, to the economy and to the GNP far more than other people of their age in other countries. We must not forgo compulsory service and the reserves, and replace them with a career army. The present model is part of Israel’s DNA.”
How much time will it take before there is a significant decline in the force’s fitness? When does this crisis have to end in order to safeguard the IAF?
“We have until no later than the end of the year.”
* * *
In an interview Maj. Gen. Eshel gave Haaretz in the summer of 2017, at the conclusion of his stint as IAF chief, he revealed for the first time officially that the IAF had carried out many hundreds of attacks within the framework of the so-called campaign between the wars – the CBW – mostly in Syria. In the six years that have elapsed since then, that framework has only expanded. The means initially aimed at convoys smuggling arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, were subsequently employed to thwart attempts by Iran to consolidate itself militarily in Syria and to deploy Iranian experts, Shiite militias and advanced combat means on Syrian soil.
Israel continues to maintain a certain level of ambiguity about the details of the attacks, but no longer bothers to conceal the campaign itself. On the opposite side, there are experts, such as Ofer Shelah and Carmit Valensi, from the Institute for National Security Studies, who in a recent detailed paper on the subject, argue that the CBW is close to being played out. Military activity below the war threshold, originally intended to keep an all-out conflagration at bay, may actually, unintentionally ratchet up the danger. Despite everything, Hezbollah is succeeding in smuggling hundreds of precision missiles into Lebanon, and perhaps also in manufacturing them there; moreover, the militant Shiite organization is “paying Israel back” with its own campaign between the wars – such as by smuggling an explosive device into Israel and detonating it in the Megiddo area last March.
Norkin, who was involved in shaping the strategy for the CBW from the outset, says that it evolved “from the understanding that you don’t want to sit on the chair, guard the border and see processes that worsen our situation underway in the country’s surroundings, without doing anything. You want to act, but on the other hand not get into a situation in which the action you take leads to war. That was the crack the army started to enter, with the chief players being the air force and MI. The army is operating in unprecedented scope [beyond Israel’s borders] – in might, in frequency.
“The number of times antiaircraft missiles are fired at us is more than any other place in the world. In the five years of my tour of duty, more than 1,000 missiles were fired at Israel. Unfortunately, in one case we made a mistake, we behaved in a way that was not sufficiently professional and a plane was downed.” (An F-16 aircraft was shot down over Israel during an attack on Syria in February 2018; the two crew members, who activated the ejection seats, were wounded, but brought to safety.)
“If we hadn’t take action,” Norkin observes, “within a few years we would have found Iran 10 miles – instead of 1,000 miles – away from us. Without a doubt we have a significant success here. It’s not a zero-sum thing; there’s no filter that blocks everything. But it clearly improves our strategic situation, and as long as that is the case, it’s correct to continue to implement the CBW. It’s being examined constantly.”
However, there are claims that the CBW is adversely affecting the IDF’s preparations for war. It’s clear that Hezbollah possesses hundreds of precision missiles. And it’s impossible to ignore the fact that in the past few years there has been a change in the policy of flying over Lebanon. Hezbollah has succeeded in deploying advanced air defense batteries there, with the aid of Iran, and has effectively eroded Israeli air supremacy over Lebanon.
“There is a difference between the various fronts. What applies to Gaza doesn’t apply to the Golan Heights or to Lebanon. The situation must be examined individually in each arena. Comparisons are irrelevant. If you carry out attacks in Gaza as part of a campaign between the wars, the chance of rockets being fired at Israel is far greater, but on the other hand, air defense [there] is primitive. I can recall two-three times when there was a Red Alert in the wake of a CBW attack in Syria. Our interest is for the citizens of Safed to go on sleeping at night when the air force operates. If they wake up, the CBW is erring in its mission.
“You are constantly operating at the level of the below-war threshold. It’s not certain that dragging the country into a war is in its strategic interest. We operate in light of the goal. In Gaza the goal is to create ongoing quiet, not to conquer and rule. That’s why all the operations in Gaza have been [essentially] aerial ones during the past decade. The latest operation, in May this year, which was executed very well, is an excellent example of the capabilities we have developed. Lebanon is in a different situation from Syria and from Gaza, so the parameters of the activity need to be adjusted [accordingly]. You always have to remember which means you’re setting aside to use as part of the CBW, and which cards to keep close to the chest, despite the great temptation [to do otherwise], for use during a period of combat.”
Norkin places special emphasis on the issue of precision weapons. “The world is becoming more precise,” he says. “Today you wear a watch that is on GPS time, far more accurate than what you had years ago. We navigate using Waze. The transaction time in the stock market is more accurate. Capabilities that used to belong to superpowers are now [available] in the civilian market. We can’t put a complete stop to a global trend that exists around us. Precision weapons are a significant threat. A great many offensive and defensive actions have been carried out [with them]. Some of them did not succeed. We will have to address that threat in the years ahead. There are places where we can say that we succeeded less – but we succeeded nevertheless. I have air supremacy and I want to maintain supremacy in precision as well, and I think we are still doing that. The question is what technological capabilities Israel is developing in order to have greater precision than its enemies.”
In the wake of Hezbollah’s deployment of advanced air defense batteries in Lebanon, beginning about three years ago, an argument sprang up among the political decision makers and in the security establishment about whether to initiate a strike against them, despite the risk that entailed of a slide into war. Norkin is willing to say a bit about the pros and cons raised in the deliberations – which ended without Israel attacking – but conceals far more than he reveals.
“The possibility was examined of attacking the surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon. I thought it would be the right thing to do; I still think it would have been right to take action. Extraneous considerations weren’t taken into account here. There were worthy considerations, such as priority that was given to developments in Gaza, or the prospect of escalation in the north,” he says.
“In the past 10 years,” he notes, “all those around us understand the strength of [our] air power and our advantage, and see this as the number-one threat to them. Hezbollah understands it, too, especially after the 2006 war in Lebanon. And even though we have civil war around us [among Israel’s neighbors], countries are collapsing and there’s budgetary distress, they are continuing to invest in air defense. The president of Syria, Bashar Assad, went on buying air defense batteries, even though he didn’t have money to feed his citizens.
“Today this is the densest and most advanced space in the world in this realm. It’s a significant challenge. Accordingly, dealing with it has to be the army’s number-one mission. Because without ensuring air supremacy it’s impossible to execute a ground maneuver. Ensuring air supremacy has two goals: It’s a condition for carrying out every other activity, and it strips the enemy of their defense. It makes the enemy feel they are naked and that it’s worthwhile to stop the war, otherwise all their assets will be degraded.”
And is this gap being maintained in Israel’s favor?
“That capability tops the air force’s priority list. I think we’re in a good place, [albeit] not without gaps, problems and additional needs. Now, with the IDF embarking on a new multiyear plan, that [air supremacy] needs to be at the forefront of the plan, because otherwise the freedom of action of the entire IDF is liable to be affected.”
In the past year and a half, the IDF, like other armies, has been analyzing the lessons of the Russia-Ukraine war. The move that the Russians hoped to complete within a few days has cost them a blood-drenched confrontation in which they have not succeeded in achieving their goals.
Norkin, from his perspective, focuses on the lessons of the air campaign. “To begin with, we learned that air supremacy is very important. The Russians did not succeed in creating air supremacy above Ukraine at the start of the war. In fact, they are coping with [that challenge] to this day. Cleansing the skies of threats and succeeding in being present above the regions of combat, gives you a tremendous advantage. That didn’t happen [for the Russians] because of problems in intelligence and in execution.
“Second, for years there has been talk about assault drones. We [the IAF] were a lone voice shouting into the megaphone: ‘Threat, threat.’ Now what is happening in Ukraine is stirring countries to cope with a new layer of threat; in addition to rockets and missiles and cruise missiles, there is here a relatively cheap precision weapon that flies fast at a low altitude and is difficult to detect, with a small body that’s difficult to find, and it strikes at strategic targets. It’s a threat the whole world will have to contend with.”|
Last year, a fraught political argument broke out between the prime minister at the time, Naftali Bennett, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who was the leader of the opposition. Bennett maintained that upon taking over as prime minister he found neglect – at the most basic, “spiderweb” level – with regard to the operative plans to attack Iran. Netanyahu had encouraged U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018, but didn’t at the time prepare Israel for the possibility that things would go awry, that Iran would begin enriching uranium again and the planes would have to be readied once more for the attack option. In 2021, the Bennett-Yair Lapid-Benny Gantz government in fact directed the IDF to resume the preparations. Netanyahu vehemently denied Bennett’s accusations. At the same time, this year the new Netanyahu government budgeted large sums of money for training and preparations.
Norkin, who was head of the IDF Planning Directorate under chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, says that “the multiyear plan that Eisenkot put through in 2015 stipulated a clear order of priorities for the army and was approved by the government. The nuclear agreement that was signed with Iran in that year was termed a strategic turning point, and occupation with Iran’s nuclear project became a lower priority. In the face of the country’s challenges in those years, that was definitely a worthwhile move. I think that the supplementary move that should have come into being was to build a plan of a decade forward, to accumulate capabilities for the long term. There was an intention to develop a plan like that, but it wasn’t implemented.”
Because of budget considerations or due to other constraints?
“The force-building process suffered from delays and differences of opinion. The order of priorities didn’t change even when Aviv Kochavi became chief of staff [in 2019], until it was revised in 2021, at his recommendation. It was then that the air force received an official directive to return to training and to building a capability for Iran, and that is what was done. Today it is being led by the IAF commander as top-priority.
“The army is not independent, and the air force does not act on its own. The succession of elections and the fact that we operated here for a few years without a budget, created great difficulty on a day-to-day basis in operating the air force, which is based on long-term maintenance and procurement contracts. It’s difficult to operate on the basis of a monthly budget. And of course, the Covid period created great difficulty in terms of routine activity and also in delays in procurement for the whole army. We see it now with the delay in the arrival of the tanker aircraft [aerial refueling planes, essential for an attack, that Israel purchased from the United States]. We wanted them to arrive in 2023; they will arrive only two years from now.”
In the meantime, Iran is creating defense with advanced antiaircraft systems, decentralizing and dispersing its nuclear project among different sites and moving some of its elements deep underground.
“I strongly suggest not being dismissive of our enemies. When we look at what’s happening today in Iran, as compared with 10 years ago, the situation is different in terms of the scale of the targets, level of protection, air defense and detection capabilities. The whole picture has changed. It would not responsible – as Kochavi and I have stated – to assume that we can operate in Iran and it’s not liable to result in a war. Accordingly, when planning an operation in Iran, you need to prepare for a multi-arena war. That is what’s needed from the personnel and that is the approach today. We don’t just ask ourselves whether we have the ability to attack target A or B, but if the capability exists to attack a broad range of targets a number of times, and whether we have the ability to conduct a war simultaneously in additional arenas. That is the cardinal question.”
When Norkin talks about a multi-arena war, he also knows what can be expected to happen in the civilian rear as a result of a confrontation with Iran or in a war that will ostensibly be a little smaller, with Hezbollah. The air force will be required, for the first time, to cope with a massive threat of missiles and rockets, a few thousand a day on average, targeting the rear. And its planes will be taking off from bases that will come under heavy fire, some of it precise.
Norkin confirms that Israel’s “air force bases are part of the enemy’s arsenal of strategic targets,” adding, “I surmise that they will be attacked during the fighting. The goal has to be for the air force not to stop attacking, to continue to take off and land. We need to see that we have enough active bases, runways, the ability to take off on part of a runway, rapid repair capability, the ability to defend all those elements.
“I hope that the plan to intercept missiles and rockets via laser will continue to move forward. In addition to the existing systems, from Iron Dome to Arrow, that [lasers] will constitute a dramatic change in defense capability, and afterward also in our offensive ability. It will make defense better and cheaper, and will also transfer interception to the enemy’s territory. Today, with the existing systems, we’re successful in achieving an interception rate of more than 90 percent, but large segments of the population are required to enter a state of emergency and stay in a protected space. But if you execute laser-based interception above the enemy’s territory, the population [in Israel] doesn’t even go to the shelter. We need to bring the fighting back to enemy territory, including rockets, by attacking in their territory and by intercepting [rockets and missiles] above their territory, with the laser in the forefront of that vision.”
In the past two years, the United States has begun to talk about establishing a regional air defense in which Israel will share information, radar and interception means with friendly Arab countries.
“Those are without a doubt the seeds and saplings of the regional defense plan. It bears practical significance and should continue to be cultivated. At the end of the road I see systems scattered across the Middle East. There is growing and improving cooperation with the countries that we’re at peace with. That enables us to assist each other in defense. We will need to reach a situation of joint exercises, of building trust that will slowly allow for a regional air-defense program, in the full sense of the term, to be created.”
The development that will move this ahead is meant to be another normalization agreement, this time between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration is working on this vigorously, but the Saudis will request advanced weaponry as well. Can Israel compromise and forgo the American commitment to maintain its qualitative military edge?
“If a normalization agreement is signed with Saudi Arabia, in continuation of the Abraham Accords, which were signed with the United Arab Emirates and with Bahrain, it could be a development that changes our strategic reality. Saudi Arabia is a bigger drama than the UAE, because of its place in the Arab world. The IDF’s qualitative edge needs to be maintained, with the help of the agreements with the United States, irrespective of [other] accords. If the Saudis receive advanced aircraft [Norkin is referring to F-35s], we will need to find a way to obtain other advantages from the Americans. Today we are the only country in the Middle East flying the F-35. At some point the United States will want to change that situation. It’s not a matter of our having to choose between an agreement with Saudi Arabia and preserving a qualitative edge.
“I think that the peace agreements and relations we have with Egypt and Jordan, together with the very significant event of the Abraham Accords, whose potential we are only beginning to scratch, enable us to create a regional security response, not only an independent one. We will never forgo our independent capability, but regional capabilities expand our strategic depth. If you are coping with a threat that is hundreds of kilometers from the border, you have created strategic depth for yourself. That’s why the peace with Jordan and the ties with that country are so important.
“The good relations that have developed were manifested in the fact that there were commanders of Arab air forces present at the ceremonies in which the new air force commander was installed. Very significant relations of trust have been forged here. Our air supremacy created a regional bridge and is the basis for regional stability. When intelligence provides our friends with strategic assets, when the air force does so, a bridge is created for the political decision makers to act, in Europe and also in the Middle East.”
In the meantime, voices from both major parties in the United States are casting doubts on whether continued military aid to Israel to the tune of $3.8 billion a year can be justified. A new agreement will come into effect in 2028, but it’s usually signed two years ahead of time. According to Norkin, “It’s not on automatic pilot. The negotiations on the next agreement need to be launched as early as possible. What is agreed upon will have a dramatic influence on the IDF and on the military industries. The United States has an interest in maintaining our security strength, because its significance is preserving a more stable Middle East.”
During the interviews, Norkin emphasized several times the importance of the international ties that the IAF has forged. “There is understanding in the air force, dating back 25 years, that we need to develop our relations [with other air forces]. In recent years the IAF has become a global player, thanks to exercises, mutual visits, joint learning processes. The F-35, which Israel was one of the first countries to acquire, is a significant engine in this regard. Thanks to the readiness of the U.S., we were part of the NATO community that operated the plane, even though we are not a member of the organization. Our operational, maintenance and instructional experience helped European countries. So in our region, as well as in Asia and Europe, the air force has become a significant player. The dividends are reaped at the diplomatic level, in procuring military equipment, in cooperation with other air forces and in the legitimacy acquired by Israel and the IDF.
“A case in point is the connection that moved ahead with the German air force. There is a German drone squadron that is permanently based at Tel Nof [an IAF base]. We sell them drones and instruct them in their operation. The reason that Germany has now decided to acquire the Israel Arrow 3 missile interception system, is that they wanted its proven ability in combat, even though their partners in Europe wanted them to buy French systems. Those billions will go to Israel, not to European industry. When we look at threats and opportunities, there are also a great many opportunities. We must not focus exclusively on threats. This is an extraordinary opportunity.”
Norkin’s impression is that these international ties also produce more professional understanding, at least on the part of the personnel of the air forces, for Israel’s need to employ its air power in the Gaza Strip, despite the fierce criticism this has generated from Western governments. “You hear less about [other] armies making comments about operations in Gaza. They have a better understanding of the process, they know us, are aware of our standards, appreciate us professionally. That trickles down from the air force to the political decision makers in those countries.”
In November 2019, the IDF carried out Operation Black Belt in the Gaza Strip – the assassination of a senior figure in Islamic Jihad – which led to a few days of blows between Israel and Gaza in the form of aerial bombing and, from the other side, rocket fire. By chance, on the evening before the operation started, the commanders of 10 foreign air forces arrived in Israel to take part in an international air exercise.
“They left the hotel in Tel Aviv in the morning on the way to visit the exercise,” Norkin relates. “When they got to the bus, there was a Red Alert in Tel Aviv, rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, and Iron Dome intercepted them above the heads [of the visitors]. It wasn’t planned. They continued with the visit as scheduled. Ten years earlier, they would have returned to the hotel before taking off back to their countries. That’s a small example of the improvement of trust on their part. It’s happening because we share with them the process a target undergoes before being attacked, the number of eyes that look at it. Together with the experience they themselves have accumulated in fighting terrorism, a completely different level of trust is created.”
Still, in a possible war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, things will look completely different. Israel will employ a great deal of destructive force.
“That’s true. But we need first of all to justify everything in our own eyes: Are we basing ourselves on our morality, on our Jewish heritage? What is the right way to operate against the enemy? First of all, we have to ask ourselves. If we offer a good response and are able to explain it, we will be able to explain it to the world, too. Without a doubt, in high-intensity combat in the country’s north, the degree of aggressiveness will be far higher. It will be right to explain that before the war, both to our people and to the world.”