They have been called conceited, smug, but somehow we all still look up to them. Israel Air Force pilots. Sure, we resent their cockiness, but we look at them with stars in our eyes nonetheless. After all, they are not just our boys – they are the best in the bunch.
Or are they? If you ask former Air Force commanders David Ivry, Avihu Ben-Nun, Eitan Ben Eliyahu and Dan Halutz, that is not always the case. Well, actually, that depends on how you look at it.
"We have to stop using expressions like 'best of the bunch,'" says former IDF Chief of Staff Halutz. "It's antagonizing to some. I myself find it hard to say if the image is true. There is no question that the image exists, but I think it's less prominent today."
L-R: Halutz, Ivry, Ben Eliyahu and Ben-Nun (Photo: Amit Magal)
The four commanders will come together for a Sukkot event in Givatayim, but before the swap stories of war and heroism with the audience, they have come together to talk about the IDF that once was and the one it has become.
Coordinating such a summit was no easy feat: Halutz is currently taking his first steps in politics, Ben-Nun serves as chairman of the Air Force Assoication, Ben Eliyahu is a businessman and a defense commentator and Ivry does so many things, we would not know where to begin.
Gentlemen, start your engines
Even if not every pilot is "the best of the bunch," is it still safe to assume the Israel Air Force is the best in the Middle East, if not the world?
"Yes, it is," Ivry states. "The question is how you define 'best' and in what. The fact that only the crème de la crème qualify for pilots' training means that we are the best, human capital-wise. We have always used equipment and fighting doctrines to their utmost. So yes, even if it does sound a little cocky, we can say that we are the best in the Middle East.
"We don't have strategic bombers and we haven't been to the moon, so we may not be the best in that respect, but we are superior in our niche."
Ben Nun, however, has his reservations: "Whenever I'm asked whether ours is the best air force I say no. You can't say such a thing – no one has ever really put that to the test. We have our advantages and the most important one among them is the chance to choose the best of the best every year. That doesn’t make them the best in the world – just the best that year. We have a great air force, but it is not the best one in the world."
"I think you should avoid using the term 'the best' everywhere," Halutz concurs. "You have to remember that there are really only 10 superior air corps in the world… our greatness lies with the fact that we know how to adapt to circumstances. We keep ourselves relevant. There are bigger corps out there that lend nothing to their military."
Air Force dominance
The most recent Air Force related controversy focused on what has been called the "outrageous" price of the new F-35 fighter jet Israel purchased.
"The question of price is known demagoguery. These are not funds taken from housing budgets for young couples. They are earmarked for these things," says Halutz. "It's a jet, not a car," adds Ben Eliyahu. "Those things are expensive."
Ivry agrees: "If you manage to get an advantage, to stay one step ahead of the enemy – it's worth it. This jet is vital. The problem is that even this jet – and others – do not afford us 100% response."
But is the Air Force the most important corps at wartime?
"Our aerial reach is, in a way, the backbone of our entire defense concept, especially in critical times," says Ben Eliyahu. "We are here to create deterrence and if you look back – we've done a good job at it. Nevertheless, there is always defense establishment and public debate – a critical debate – over everything."
When a country has joint borders with other nations, ground troops are more important, Ivry offered. "Still, in the past few years, the Air Force has become increasingly more important."
Will the next war be won from the air?
"No one wins wars anymore, neither on the ground or in the air," says Ivry. The two wars fought by the US in Iraq are great examples, offers Ben Eliyahu.
"There was a virtual technological revolution between them. The first war saw massive ground forces movement and the second war, 12 years later – people realized the air force was the key and they used it to rattle the other side."
In recent years, military assumptions are no longer considered indisputable facts, especially as the media's part in military discourse is growing.
"In recent years, winners and losers are often crowned by the media," Ben-Nun states. "It's not about taking an area to defending yourself anymore, so there are no clear-cut decisions anymore.
"That was the problem with the Second Lebanon War and it will be the problem in the next war – You can no longer define victory. The media makes that decision and once it present that image – that's it. The IDF has to learn how to handle itself in the media and win through psychological warfare."
A good example of a war fought in the media, he added, is when then-IDF Spokesperson Miri Regev called then IDF-Chief Halutz a liar over an incident in which a helicopter accidently fired at a civilian vehicle, killing two Palestinians and leaving 60 wounded.
"There was a huge media outcry by foreign correspondents, because Halutz couldn’t divulge the details… But why must he reveal the type of aircraft involved? The media needed something to write about, so he was made out to be a liar."
There was heavy media involvement in the latest CH-53 Sikorsky disaster in Romania, as well.
"The use of the word 'disaster' is problematic," says Halutz. "It was an aerial accident. A disaster is when 100 people are killed. Over the last decade, the IAF has seen its lowest accident ratio ever, despite the recent Sikorsky accident.
"It's a process of increased awareness to safety that began in the 1970s, and this accident shouldn’t overshadow that. It was tragic and painful, but it doesn’t change the trend."
From the 1970s and on, added Ben-Nun, there has been a steady decline in aviation accidents in the IAF. "We've gone from 22 accidents a year in the early 1970s to one every few years. Naturally, an accident registers more powerfully when there are multiple casualties, and it differs again when you examine its social impact, but you have to learn how to deal with that."
Ivry shares the sentiment: "Obviously, you can't say that this accident 'doesn’t count as much' because statistically the numbers are good; but I agree with Halutz – you can’t call everything 'a disaster.' The IAF can proudly say it meets the highest (safety) standards."
With such esprit de corps, you must have been thrilled when one of your own was named IDF chief.
"The IDF fell a little short on that respect, organizationally-wise," says Ben-Nun.
You mean how a ground force commander is usually chosen?
"Well, that is what happens. Halutz changes things up a bit, but they quickly went back to the way they were. The IDF chief doesn't have to be from a certain corps to be the best man for the job."
Being commander of the Israeli Air Force is all about making hard decisions: Halutz was in office at the height of the military's targeted assassinations period, which – while taking out numerous terrorists – also saw numerous civilian casualties; and he was chief of staff during the Gaza pullout and the Second Lebanon War.
Ben Nun ordered hundreds of strikes in Lebanon and shot down dozens of enemy planes. Ben Eliyahu headed the IAF during the 1997 helicopter disaster, in which 73 soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided in midair. He was also one of the commanders to recommend the late Colonel Ilan Ramon for NASA's space program. Ivry's record includes Operation Babylon – the 1981 IAF strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Operation Litani and the beginning of the first Lebanon War.
Many of those tough decisions come with a serving of harsh public criticism, although a now infamous statement has undoubtedly seen Halutz bear the brunt of it: In 2002, an IAF warplane bombed a Gaza apartment building in an attempt to target senior Hamas commander Salah Shahade, killing fourteen people, including several children.
Halutz, who was abroad during the bombing itself, said in a later interview that his pilots "can sleep well at night. I also sleep well, by the way. You aren't the ones who choose the targets (and) you are not responsible for the contents of the target. Your execution was perfect."
In a later interview he said that "If you want to know what I feel when I release a bomb, I will tell you: I feel a light bump to the plane as a result of the bomb's release. A second later it's gone, and that's all."
Back then, he says, "When I spoke of dissociation, I was accused on being emotionally vain. Naturally, an emotion is an emotion, but it cannot come at the expense of the mission, where emotions can be highly detrimental."
Any decisions you still look back on?
"The decision to strike the Iraqi nuclear reactor was a very important one and there are a lot of moments of extreme, life or death decisions," says Ivry.
"Speaking of emotional disassociation – some operations are all about emotion. When we decided on Operation Moses, the (1984) airlift of Jews from Ethiopia – there was a lot of emotion involved. That was a risky operation and we did it because it was important."
"I was in office during the Naval Commando incident," Ben Eliyahu recalled, referring to tragic result of a 1997 Naval Commando raid off the coast of Lebanon, which saw the force fall prey to an ambushed and left 12 soldiers dead.
"We sent in a rescue helicopter and the team numbered as many responders as the fatalities on the ground. And we are watching the drone's video feed in the command center, seeing the explosions and gunfire, and the evacuation is taking longer then we thought, and I know that the chopper can get hit at any time.
"There had to be a balance there, between the decisions not to leave bodies behind and taking such a huge risk. That moment, when I ordered the chopper to take off was very hard," he recalls.
"You find yourself sealing fates. To this day, when the phone rings in the middle of the night, I jump at the thought of bad news," Ben-Nun Offers. "It takes me a minute to realize that I'm a civilian now, so there's a chance it's just a wrong number."
Fly me to the moon
If there is something all pilots have in commons, something they all remember to their last day, it is their first flight. The four – not surprisingly – carry vivid memories of the experience.
"My first flight was in a modern cockpit, the first one with shutters, but there was no radio, and the instructor and I had to yell the whole time," Ivry recalls. "He kept spitting on me and all I could think about was, 'when do I get to wipe this off already?'"
"My first flight was in 1966, in flight school," said Halutz. "It was a flight where all you're supposed to do is sit by the pilot and get an impression of things, enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy it so much – I was sick the entire time and couldn’t stop throwing up. It was a long 30 minutes."
"I was in the Gadna so I guess I started earlier," Ben Eliyahu recalled his days in the Israeli military's youth program. "We were given a bonus – a flight over the greater Tel Aviv area. I was so excited. It was like flying to the moon, as far as I was concerned.
"I don't really remember what came first – being born or wanting to become a pilot," he added. "My very first memory, I was five or six, is of a paper airplane I made, that landed on one of the bookshelves at home. That image is always on my mind."
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook