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In the middle of the week, Brigadier General Yohanan Locker donned an olive-green uniform with blue field insignia and set out for the Golan Heights to visit one of the anti-tank battalions there. As Locker, head of the Israel Air Force's air directorate (in effect, deputy commander of the IAF), sees it, it is important for the force to examine not only the extent to which it is prepared for its own missions, but also its ability to cooperate with the ground forces. According to Locker's graph, the IAF is approaching one of the high points of a year, declared at the end of the war in Lebanon, of polishing up its level of preparedness. Another climax is already behind him, but this he and his colleagues are still not talking about: the action undertaken deep within Syria on September 6.

The IAF is now preparing for three kinds of missions: a potential war with a country that borders on Israel, an operation beyond the Green Line (the pre-1967 border) in the Gaza Strip, and actions against distant targets deep in enemy territory. For 22 years, as of next month, during more than one-third of its existence, the air force has not engaged in aerial combat. In the next war it might well be defending itself at its bases, no less than attacking. From there, rockets will be launched, families evacuated, runways rapidly put into use, as squadrons continue to carry out between four and six sorties a day in the framework of "operating under fire." The battle array now consists entirely of F-15s and F-16s, each represented by their most advanced models: the F-15 Thunder and the F-16 Storm, which afford unprecedented capability.

During Benny Peled's time, in the 1970s, the model was devised of alternating between the field (squadron, wing) and headquarters. The results are impressive. They don't like to talk about an "all-star team" in the air force, but they are proud of the abilities of the current generation.

The round of appointments in the top three IAF positions has yet to be decided. Commander Major General Elyezer Shkedy will complete his four-year stint in April. If he is offered an extension, he will be delighted. His spokesmen are denying that he has asked for a fifth year and the prevailing assessment is that the chief of staff and the defense minister will prefer to select the next commander in the near future: the head of the Planning and Policy Directorate in the IDF General Staff, Major General Ido Nehushtan, or chief of the IAF general staff Brigadier General Amir Eshel. Locker, also an excellent candidate, will not become commander of the force. Not this time, not before he follows Eshel as head of the IAF general staff, an essential waystation on the route of all the IAF commanders in the past two decades.

Eshel (back when he was head of operations directorate at the end of the 1980s) and Locker have improved the cooperation between the squadron and operational elements at the General Staff. In Lebanon it emerged that this was not enough, because the General Staff is not an effective mediator between the air force and the forces in the field. During the past year, the IAF has been working hard on forging a direct connection between the Northern Command (and the Southern Command), corps stationed in the North, the divisions and brigades. Locker speaks regularly with GOC Northern Command Gadi Eisenkot, who was head of the Operations Division last year and is aware of the problems.

Pilots without horizons

The air force lost in Lebanon. It carried out the missions that it agreed to take upon itself well, but it disappointed those who dispatched it with its limited ability to put a swift and decisive end to Hezbollah's firing of short-range rockets, which are easy to move, hide and launch. The frustrated expectations were not only the province of ground-force officers, who are not considered to be knowledgeable concerning nuances. Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, the chief of staff during the war and former commander of the IAF, repeatedly encountered the unwillingness of his successor, Shkedy, to deviate from the "envelope" of missions that had been set and to improvise solutions for the benefit of ground forces in distress. As the fighting continued, they noticed in the air force that Halutz was approaching Shkedy less and less, and preferred to wait until he was replaced by Locker or Eshel.

Halutz's resignation, under pressure from both the public and from within the IDF, was taken as a resounding slap in the face to the force from which he had soared to the position of chief of staff. It confirmed the old impression that pilots are skilled artisans in the narrow field of their specialization, but should not be allowed to administer multidimensional systems with broad horizons. Within the IDF this impression was reinforced by Shkedy's functioning, in that he behaved like a contractor implementing aerial operations - not as a member of the inner management that considered whether and what, and not only how, to carry out operations. Ezer Weizman and Peled, David Ivri and Eitan Ben-Elihahu did not behave in that way in their day.

In the complex process by which decisions are made in advance of aerial operations, Shkedy's contribution has also been downplayed and reserved for internal discussions within the defense establishment. Meetings of ministerial committees this summer were attended mostly by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who has received top marks for thoroughness, moderation and determination; his top deputy Moshe Kaplinsky; head of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin, and Nehushtan - the latter two major generals in air force uniform. Cabinet ministers who are involved in security and defense matters have not seen Shkedy and have not wondered about his absence; they are used to it.

After the recent air force attack in Syria, Yadlin was quoted, inaccurately, as supposedly saying that the IDF had managed to refurbish its deterrent image somewhat. Yadlin, who is no stranger to the history of the employment of air power in the world, knows both as an observer and as a participant that the sense that deterrence has been achieved should not be exaggerated. The attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981, in which Yadlin was one of eight participating pilots, did harm Saddam Hussein's power and affected his considerations, but it did not deter him from renewing his nuclear effort or from attacking Israel with missiles. An electrified fence that will injure the thief and cause him to dig a tunnel underneath or bring in a tall ladder, does not create deterrence - it just makes things harder for him. His intention remains, and he is spurred to think creatively.

If those who are saying that the air operation in Syria last month was aimed at hitting a joint Syrian-North Korean nuclear undertaking are correct, then this was the fourth attack on a nuclear target since the end of World War II - all of them in the Middle East and in three of which Israel was involved. Iran attacked the Iraqi reactor in October 1980; Israel destroyed it in June 1981; and Iraq aimed missiles (armed with stone warheads) at Dimona in February 1991. None of these attacks deterred the country that was attacked from carrying out its plans.

Two failed deterrents

In the Syrian context, there has been a lot of talk about a "red line" that Israel has supposedly repainted with a thick brush. This sounds impressive, especially in the context of Israeli-Syrian relations since the 1970s, when direct and indirect, verbal and violent messages were exchanged on issues of the deployment of ground forces and batteries of ground-to-air missiles in Lebanon and their operation. In effect, the red line aspires only to delineate the balance between gain and loss: It is not worth investing in an initiative like that, it warns, because we are determined to strike at it. The reasoning and the balance vis-a-vis the other side do not necessarily work in a similar way. Thus here we have neither deterrence nor a resolution - the third side of the traditional triangle of warning, deterrence and resolution.

It might be possible to call the success that was achieved "amputation." The IDF, by means of the air force, has cut off a strategic limb of the enemy. This applies to the Hezbollah Fajr missiles that were hidden in Lebanese villages, and also - if the nuclear story is correct - to Syria in September. This is an achievement that is not to be taken lightly, but neither should deterrence be attributed to it.

As evidence, there is Iran. Neither diplomatic lobbying nor economic sanctions nor military operations that embody heavy hints have motivated Iran to reverse itself. Israel has declared in every possible language that it will see a military nuclear device in the hands of a hostile Iran as a red line. Iran has heard this and thus far has not been moved. If so, a confrontation between the two countries is inevitable unless it is preempted by an American action that comes between them.

Generations of fighter pilots have been raised on the advice to "consider your enemy to be the best of pilots; prove that he is not." In the Iranian context, Israel is hoping for an American operation, but is prepared to assume that in Washington they will ultimately not have the nerve to opt for one. This is a collision course between two failed deterrents: an Iran that is not deterred from nuclearization facing an Israel that is not deterred from taking bullying action in light of a danger that it considers to be existential.

The challenge is complex: In the air force they like to note that the physical area of Iran is like that of Germany, France and Britain combined. A mission is liable to resemble the simultaneous bombardment of Berlin, Paris and London without strategic surprise. Compared to this difficulty, the sortie made in 1981 against a single, above-ground target is dwarfed. A mission would be complex, but not impossible, and - in the opinion of a clear majority at the top of the defense establishment - essential.

This is a national issue, but also a personal one, and not only in the American context by which the powers of President George W. Bush are tested prior to the elections of November 2008. At that time the six-year term of Mossad chief Major General (res.) Meir Dagan, an effective but dangerous tyrant, who has no scruples as to the means he employs, will also come to an end. Dagan is a determined foe of Iran and is suffused with the memory of the Holocaust, which is memorialized in his offices by a bleak family picture. He will not want to pass the stick - in his particular case, suffering from a bad back, he takes his walking stick with him - before Iran is dealt with. In this Shkedy, who is also the child of Holocaust survivors, resembles him. If the command of the air force is left in Shkedy's hands for additional months, after next April, it will be evidence that an action against Iran is approaching.