Major general Dan Halutz has announced that his four-year term as commander of the Israel Air Force will come to an end on April 4, 2004. When he turns over the command to his successor, perhaps at 4 P.M. that day, a foursome of Phantom or F-16 warplanes will undoubtedly roar through the skies above.

The only remaining mystery is the identity of Halutz's successor. Certainly he will be a fighter pilot, as has been the tradition in the air force for the past 50 years. That, by the way, is not necessarily self-evident. In the U.S. Air Force it was not until 20 years ago that the first commander who came up through the fighting ranks was appointed. Until the generation that shot down MiGs in Korea and Vietnam reached maturity, fighter pilots were considered the equivalent of those who rode shotgun for the stagecoaches, the security guards for the VIP.

In Israel, the planes are multipurpose in character and the new ammunition is fired with high precision even from one-seater aircraft, flown by a pilot without a navigator. "Air crew" has become an obsolete term. Not everyone in the sky is a pilot and not every user of the aerial dimension for combat is a pilot. In Iraq and Afghanistan, lethal munitions are fired from unpiloted aircraft of the Predator type, at the push of a button far from the arena of combat - in a control room in Colorado - even though the aircraft itself and the intelligence and control mechanisms are airborne in the sky and in space. The operators are not conscientious objectors and never even threaten to leave the service, because they are often employees of a civilian contractor.

Not only in Colorado does this happen. The Gaza Division of the Israel Defense Forces is hiring the services of a private company whose employees operate RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles, or drones). They have recently been discharged from the army, where they learned the job. They earn about NIS 1,000 a shift, but exempt the state treasury from having to pay social security and career benefits.

It might be worth considering the possibility of transferring the management of the state and the IDF to private hands, but until then, command of the fighting aviation corporation known as the air force will continue to be given to fighter pilots, who have experience at three different levels of operation. Their permanent responsibility is that of generals - chiefs of brigades or higher at General Staff headquarters. In frequent shifts as duty officers, they serve as colonels, in command of the air force's operational control unit; and at least once a week they suit up and fly as one of the lieutenants or majors, from the briefing to the sortie and the debriefing. In this way, they say, they keep up to date with the latest innovations and inventions, know what can be extracted from the planes and the people involved, and stay in touch with the "kids" - the air crews, who are two and a half to three decades younger.

The air force has given top priority to the training of the youngsters, the new pilots. Beginning next Saturday, the middle of the month, all air force flights will be suspended until December 13, in the absence of money to purchase jet fuel. Economists suspect that this is an intimidation ploy, aimed at bringing about public pressure on the tight-fisted treasury. But even if the treasury officials take pity on the air force, it's now too late to order American fuel, which Israel gets as part of the defense aid package, and Halutz refuses to raid the local reserves, which are meant for an emergency. Only operational flights will continue, along with the training of the young pilots, to prepare them for flying advanced aircraft.

At 55, Halutz is three times the age of a new air force cadet and twice the age of a veteran wing commander. The candidates to succeed him are younger than he, and younger than one another, by half a generation in the terms of the air force: Major General Amos Yadlin, 51, and Brigadier General Eliezer Shakdi, 46. Yadlin is waiting on land, as the commander of the IDF colleges; Shakdi is head of the air force headquarters and Halutz's deputy, a position held previously by Yadlin. In theory there is also a third candidate, Brigadier General Ido Nehushtan, who is Shakdi's age (a graduate of the pilots' course before him). In practice, the chance that Nehushtan, who is an air brigade chief, will be preferred over the two others who are ahead of him in internal seniority is nonexistent, as that would mean the immediate resignation of both Yadlin and Shakdi.

Yadlin's age is both an advantage and a disadvantage. If it's decided not to appoint him, the explanation will be that it's best to skip to the next generation, which also has a new generation breathing down its neck (Brigadier General Amir Eshel, who will be an air brigade commander from next summer). And if, on the contrary, it is decided to go with him, the explanation will be that Shakdi, unlike Yadlin, can wait until the next time.

Yadlin has the image of being one of the best brains on the General Staff, Shakdi the image of being vigorous and aggressive. In the history of the air force, the latter type used to have an advantage (when Ezer Weizman was preferred over Shlomo Landau-Lahat and Mordechai Hod over Gideon Elrom), though afterward the advantage lay with those who waited in the General Staff (Avihu Bin-Nun, Herzl Bodinger, Eitan Ben-Eliahu, Halutz).

The decision will be made in a working session between Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, after their aides have been asked to leave the room. The relevant meeting was scheduled for this week, but yesterday it seemed likely to be postponed until after Mofaz returns from his visit to Washington. Both sides put out mutual feelers, so as not to encounter refusal.

A few points will go to Halutz's recommendation, if he makes one - he likes to say that every officer with the rank of brigadier general and up is capable of being commander and that all the candidates are good. Halutz likes to be loved. Ahead of his appointment he tried to maneuver his predecessor, Eitan Ben-Eliahu, into being the one to give those who were passed over - such as Brigadier General Yosef Gonen - the bad news.

The true mystery

The riddle of Halutz's successor will be solved within a few weeks, so that the next commander can conclude his present post and prepare to take over. Outside the air force, the true mystery is not who will come after Halutz, but what Halutz will be after, if and when he is appointed deputy chief of staff.

Here the rivals Mofaz and Ya'alon are allies. Ya'alon was not wild about Halutz's contesting the chief of staff post against him or about the fact that Halutz remained in the field, unlike the other contestants, Majors General Uzi Dayan and Amos Malka, who left the IDF. Mofaz sees Halutz as a future rival of his in the Likud. If Halutz is appointed Ya'alon's deputy, with the aim of making him his successor, Mofaz will have created a major competitor against himself, though only five years down the line, when Halutz will have completed his term as chief of staff, following Ya'alon. If he's not appointed and leaves the IDF in April to begin his obligatory yearlong cooling off period before entering politics, he will be a competitor in the intermediate range, but available for the next elections.

As commanders who are careful to avoid fighting on two fronts simultaneously, Mofaz and Ya'alon intend to separate the Halutz sector from the air force sector. The appointment of the next air force commander will be made and announced soon, but Halutz's future, as follows from the date of the replacement of the current deputy chief of staff, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, will not be decided until next spring, perhaps after he steps aside as commander of the Air Force. That is, unless Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Halutz's air umbrella, intervenes; Sharon has already sanctified the preferential treatment of the air arm in combat and in budget allocations.

Waiting for the decision - not always passive, but free of ugly intrigues, according to the participants - is a nerve-racking experience. As the tension rose, a senior officer came to a journalist in a hopeless effort to find a few remaining vestiges of human compassion. "When you write bad things about me it breaks my father's heart," he said. "When you write good things about me, Mofaz gets all worked up against me. Please, until they decide, don't write a word about me."