Ido Nehushtan: Eye in the sky

By David Horovitz September 18, 2009

In his first interview with the Israeli press, OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan explains how unprecedented military buildup in the region and efforts by Israel’s enemies to obtain advanced air defense systems are leading to more cooperation, both within the IDF and with the US, in preparation for ‘every possible scenario.’

OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan does not want us to worry. ‘Leave the worrying to me and my people,’ he says.

Nehushtan has what to worry about. From a potential conflict with Iran to a new round against Hizbullah and Hamas, the air force is today facing a wide spectrum of threats that require his pilots to develop the ability to fly in multiple fronts, possibly within the same conflict. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to tragic training accidents, like the F-16 that crashed on Sunday killing Capt. Assaf Ramon, son of the country’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the fatal Columbia space shuttle mission in 2003.

Nehushtan, 51, radiates confidence and reassurance even when speaking about the most dangerous scenarios. A mixture of a diplomat and fighter pilot, he brings a measured approach to his job, possibly since he is one of the only officers to have held all four of the most senior positions in the IAF.

Nehushtan graduated from Harvard University where he received a degree from the Advanced Management Program in addition to a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. His diplomatic character and impeccable English were what made him the face of the IDF in the international media during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Since taking up his post in May 2008, Nehushtan has given just two interviews, both to the foreign press.

In both, he spoke openly about the Iranian nuclear threat, something he refused to do in the two-hour exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post he gave last week except for one laconic line which he read out like a well-rehearsed statement. Why the change in policy? He wouldn’t say.

While sometimes vague in his answers, Nehushtan does feel comfortable talking about almost everything else, from justifying Operation Cast Lead against Hamas earlier this year to warning that the government of Lebanon will be held responsible in the event of a future conflict with Hizbullah.

One of Nehushtan’s main concerns is the unprecedented military buildup in the region and efforts by Israel’s enemies – particularly Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran – to obtain advanced air defense systems.

Hamas, he says, is believed to have shoulder-to-air missiles and Israel, he adds, needs to ‘make every effort’ to stop the delivery of the highly-advanced S-300 Russian- made system to places where the IAF may operate in the future.

In a few weeks, Nehushtan will oversee the largest- ever joint missile defense exercise with the United States. He says he is prepared for the possibility that the US will deploy missile defense systems like the THAAD, Aegis and PAC3 here in the event of a larges-scale conflict in the region.

Ultimately, he says, the IAF’s job is to be prepared for different types of warfare on different fronts. An anti-Israel axis, he says, has developed from Iran, to Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, and presents the IAF with the need to always be ready ‘without knowing what will happen first.’

What are the main challenges the IAF faces today?

The challenges we face are a derivative of the geo- strategic situation in the world and particularly in the Middle East. There has been a change in the Middle East and we are in the middle of it. The Middle East is today a mix of pragmatic and radical states as well as organizations and our challenges are derived from the combination of radical ideology and military capabilities that are in hands of states or organizations that operate from within states.

Namely, take the axis led by Iran that continues through Hizbullah and Syria and ends with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As we speak, there is a historic process taking place that involves this axis, which is led by radical ideology vis-ˆ-vis Israel and uses weaponry, usually rockets and missiles. It creates a challenge for us also because some parts of the axis are organizations that operate from within states and this changes the way we fight, like during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

The complete picture is the entire axis that creates different challenges for the IAF and that requires of us to be ready for different fronts, different types of fighting, without knowing what will happen first. This requires us to be ready all the time for every possible scenario.

How does the advanced military buildup in the region and particularly in the north affect this?

We see that militaries in the north are investing in building up and upgrading their military capabilities to be able to counter the IAF. The IAF, as a result, needs to retain its aerial superiority in order to effectively express itself. This is threatened by fighter planes and surface-to-air missiles. The process of increasing military capabilities among Israel’s enemies is not stagnating but is continuously moving forward.

Is there a threat to this superiority over Gaza and Lebanon?

We need to assume that there is a constant effort to minimize our superiority. We assume that in Gaza there are shoulder-to-air missiles and that the efforts to hurt or weaken our superiority are taking place all the time. There are ways to deal with this and we cannot stand still. We have to always follow what is happening and initiate things.

What about the reports about the Russian-made S-300 air defense system? There have been reports that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s alleged trip to Moscow was about thwarting the sale to Iran. Is this system really a game changer for the IAF?

The S-300 is a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system that is very advanced with long ranges and many capabilities. We need to make every effort to stop this system from getting to places where the IAF needs to operate or may need to operate in the future.

How is the IAF preparing for the Iranian threat?

Israel retains the right to defend itself and would be happy and prefers that the treatment of the Iranian issue be handled by the international community. We would be happy if these efforts are successful.

Does Israel have a viable military option against Iran?

I cannot comment on this.

Less than a year ago, you told Der Spiegel that stopping Iran was not a technical or logistical question. Is that still the case?

I cannot say anything about this.

Do you think the diplomatic efforts will succeed?

Israel will be happy if the diplomacy succeeds. The world received the Iranian proposals the other day and is studying them to see what they contain… Ultimately, the job of the IAF is to provide security for the State of Israel and we know how to do this.

Can the IAF deal with the threats that Israel faces in Gaza on its own or is there also a need for ground operations? In the 2006 Second Lebanon War there was a misconception that Hizbullah could be dealt with strictly from the air.

This depends on the objectives of the operation or the war. Cast Lead was a limited operation with goals that were supposed to severely harm Hamas and restore quiet to the Gaza-belt communities. The question of a ground operation is a derivative of the way the IDF wants to achieve its goals. Sometimes it can be done strictly from the air and sometimes it needs to be combined with a ground operation. The IAF knows how to hit targets with great accuracy from the air, but there are some things that cannot be hit from the air and need to be targeted from the ground. This depends on the goals of the operation.

Since taking up this office, I have set for myself a goal of increasing the level of cooperation between the IAF and IDF ground forces. Firstly, both branches share the same goal, and there is no such thing as a war of the IAF, a war of the ground forces or a war of the navy. There are, though, operations and wars that the entire IDF fights to which each branch brings its own relative advantage. To achieve this level of synergy, pilots and ground commanders met before the operation to get to know one another. Pilots sat in ground forces command centers to drill different scenarios to see the way they do things.

During the Gaza operation, for the first time in IDF history IAF squadrons were attached to infantry brigades. Is this something that will continue?

For the first time, squadrons were attached to brigades and there was a close relationship between them. This can be done in small and limited operations but not in every type of ground operation. This is a good idea which brought good results.

When will the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system be operational?

We are in the midst of creating the unit which is already studying the system, the doctrine and the mode of operation. The system is still in an advanced stage of development and I am very satisfied with the results of the tests. If the development continues as planned, we will see the first battery be declared operational next year.

The Iron Dome will be the first type of system that can defend against short-range rockets. If we succeed here, we will move closer to our goal of creating a multilayer system which will combine the Arrow for long range, David’s Sling for medium range and the Iron Dome for short range. We are also moving forward with development of the Arrow 3, an even higher level of defense. When all of these are operational, we will have four levels of systems that can defend against short- to long-range missiles.

This is a major revolution in protecting the skies and there is nothing like it elsewhere in the world. There is a lot of work still needed, particularly in creating the linkage between the different systems but also in creating the architecture of how to fly in skies that are full of planes and missile defense systems.

How significant is the Juniper Cobra missile defense exercise that Israel will hold with the US in a few weeks? The Americans are bringing three of their main systems here for the drill.

This is a step up in the cooperation between our militaries especially when it comes to missile defense, which is a very complicated world. The main challenge is combining the different systems. We are developing systems to create a multilayer defense and we view this exercise as a major step in that direction.

Are you prepared for the possibility that in the event of a conflict the US will deploy its systems here? Are we ready to receive them? Is there infrastructure for such a deployment?

This has happened in the past – during the first and second Gulf wars. This is something that has happened and the cooperation between Israel and the US has a strategic basis that this is part of. The exercise is all about creating the infrastructure for these systems to work together.

We see the massive military buildup in the region, particularly with missiles. What will the next war look like? More extreme than the past?

We need to assume that the missile threat against Israel exists. This is not something new and we have seen this before. The buildup by Hizbullah is something we are following all the time and we are looking at its missile developments and we need to be prepared. This is one of the developments in the region.

Do you foresee another conflict with Hizbullah?

Hizbullah is an enemy. No one thinks differently. It did not disarm itself or change its intentions vis-ˆ-vis Israel. It is an enemy.

Will Israel make a distinction in the next conflict between Hizbullah and Lebanese targets like the IDF did in 2006 or will you see them as the same in a new conflict?

Lebanon is the state responsible for Hizbullah and this needs to be clear. This has been said before and we are prepared do what needs to be done. Hizbullah is part of Lebanon – it is not right that Hizbullah will start a war with Israel without Lebanon taking responsibility for it.

What is the status of talks with the US for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?

We are in the middle of negotiations. I cannot say more than that. I do not foresee any changes in the dates and time line. This is dependent on the success of the negotiations and it is clear that we will not pay anything for this plane, but this plane is going to be the backbone of the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. It is moving forward.

Why is it so important to get this plane now?

I look at the F-35 on several levels. Firstly, I view it on the strategic level. In 1974, a small number of F-15s arrived in Israel and we became the first country outside the US to receive them. At the time, the F-15 was an advanced plane and from a new generation and was superior in comparison to the Russian planes that were in the Middle East. Until then the IAF was operating planes that were comparable to the Russian planes, but then the F-15 came and in a dogfight between an F-15 and an older Russian plane, there is no question that the F-15 has the advantage.

The moment the plane arrived it boosted Israel’s deterrence in face of the air forces that were against us. A plane that is advanced and is of a new generation has strategic significance and boosts our deterrence. It is therefore important that we are the first in the Middle East to get it.

(BOX) On Operation Cast Lead

OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan speaks for the first time on the legitimacy of the IDF’s operation, including the different targets. Some excerpts:

Do you feel that the level of force used was proportional and that the harm to the civilian population was not too severe, even when taking into consideration the enemy’s cynical use of the civilian population and infrastructure?

We did not choose to operate in Gaza. This is important to emphasize. They brought us to this place after eight years of attacks on our cities. We, in the IAF, visited Sderot the week after the operation, and you need to be there to feel and see what it means to raise kids there when all you have are 15 seconds to seek shelter after an air-raid siren goes off. There are kids who were born into this reality and have lived this way their entire lives. There is no other place like this in the world where schoolchildren need to run within 15 seconds to a bomb shelter.

We did not choose to operate in Gaza, but in the end our moral commitment to the people of Israel obligated us to operate.

Our operation was launched due to decisions made by Hamas, namely to continue attacking Ashkelon and other cities every day. For what reason? We disengaged from the Gaza Strip! We don’t have a centimeter of it.

You will not find anywhere else in the world a military that operates in an urban setting the way we did. This was demonstrated by our accuracy as well as the attention we gave to every single target, with exact planning to prevent collateral damage even by calling the people there to let them leave their homes, which in some cases were storehouses for weapons. We then kept our eye on the homes and ensured that they left. We gave this service and only then attacked.

To drop a missile and hit the right target is not a simple task. A missile, just from a technical malfunction or statistical error, can hit the wrong target. But this did not happen and we made sure to hold by the same strict procedures with each and every target.

There is no comparison to this type of military conduct anywhere in the world. There is no such thing anywhere outside of Israel like the knock-on-the-roof missile [a missile developed by Israel which works like a stun grenade, does not cause damage or injuries and was used to scare people to leave their homes]. Let’s not forget that we are talking about targets that have military value, and we were still sensitive to collateral damage and harm to civilians.

At the end of the day, though, this is an operation in an urban setting and we were facing Hamas, which cynically uses the civilian population for its needs.

There is, though, real sadness among us when innocent people are either hurt or killed. Our moral responsibility, though, is to the citizens of Israel and to defend and protect them. To understand this, you need to visit the Gaza-belt towns which have been living under mortar and rocket attacks for 61 years and this is unacceptable. What we did was out of self-defense. The accuracy that we achieved there was almost 100 percent in hitting the targets that we intended to.

What about the opening bombing of the operation when the IAF bombed Hamas police targets? This is not to say that the Hamas police doesn’t work for a terror regime but they may just be police.

We need to look at Hamas from the top to bottom. Look at the way they killed Fatah. Who do you think did that? This is how they killed their own people. We need to disconnect from traditional military concepts and understand that Hamas doesn’t work that way. They don’t come in uniforms or in tanks to a battlefield.

This is the meaning of the type of fighting that is conducted in a civilian arena. Doing this is part of their strategy since they recognize our weakness and sensitivity to operate in such places since we are very sensitive when operating there. This is why we did the detailed inspection of every single target. But they are the opposite and intentionally target civilians. This is an asymmetric conflict not just on a military level but also on an ethical and moral level.

How can we get this message out to the world? What are you doing to help clarify this idea in the public?

This primary way to evaluate the operation is by the outcome and the fact is that there is quiet that we obtained for the citizens of the South. We have succeeded in meeting this goal and retaining it. We can say that we did a good job and that this is the most important aspect of the operation.

Except for explaining to you all of the efforts we made after waiting eight years and trying other possibilities – like the disengagement and the cease-fire with Hamas which didn’t work – there is not much more I can do. Israel does not always find itself in the easiest place to explain what we are doing, and therefore you need to be here to see it. This is a dangerous place with radical people, and we sometimes don’t have a choice but to fight.

(With Yaakov Katz)

© The Jerusalem Post