Analysis

Flooded Fighter Jets Were Bad for Israeli Air Force, the Cover-up Was Worse

While the base commander took responsibility for last month's incident which caused $9 million in damage, it seems the buck conveniently stops there

The base commander, Defense Minister Bennett, and the Air Force Commander Norkin, at Hatzor airbase in December.
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

The commander of the Hatzor Air Force Base informed his superiors this week that he would resign following the interim findings of the probe into the F-16 fighter jets that were waterlogged when the base flooded last month.

This worthy instance of accepting responsibility isn't common in the Israeli military, and even less so in society in general. But one can also assume that longtime, successful commander, whose name is barred from publication due to his sensitive position, could read the emerging situation as the investigation developed. He stepped down before he could be dismissed.

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The interim findings are indeed grave. The planes suffered an estimated 30 million shekels ($8.7 million) of damage. Five planes have already resumed flying, but three others are still undergoing complex repairs and it is unclear when they will be deemed airworthy. When the underground hangars that housed the planes flooded, a number of soldiers were trapped and needed to be rescued.

The air force now admits that the base was not properly prepared for the flooding, despite the harsh weather forecast for that week. The air force also determined that if they had taken all the proper precautions, as laid out in the regulations, the damage to the planes could have been substantially reduced, as well as the damage to other equipment stored in the hangars.

The forecast required the base to prepare for the most extreme possible weather, but nothing was done. The planes were not removed from the hangars, which flooded within hours. The pending crisis was so badly misidentified that some of the commanders were off-base on day of the flooding. Three squadron commanders – of the F-16, maintenance and flight squadrons – were reprimanded in light of the findings.

An IDF fighter jet damaged due to heavy rainfall that flooded an army base in southern Israel.

But this is far from the end of the story. The Israel Defense Force, improperly utilizing the military censor, hid information about the flooding from the public for three days. Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amiram Norkin now admits that the media policy was erroneous and that there was no justification for delaying the information on grounds of information security. The original, unjustified, claim was that announcing the loss of operational capabilities could serve the enemy.

There was another explanation for the delay. The army, the air force in particular, was embarrassed by the unnecessary foul-up, which provided clear and immediate evidence of major errors in judgment and serious negligence. Their automatic response was to try and control the flow of information, as if we were still in the 1950s.

The result was catastrophic, as could have been expected. Photos of the jets sitting in wing-high water were widely circulated on social media in the days following the flood. And when the publication ban was finally removed, the media was all over the story. As is always the case in such instances, the cover-up attempt was worse than the original mishap.

The affair has become a credibility problem for the air force, first of all within its own ranks. The officers, soldiers, air crews and mechanics, immediately knew exactly what had happened and saw no reason to hide it. They must have been skeptical of the force’s official line that downplayed the damage and promised a quick rehabilitation of all the planes, a promise that turned out to be baseless. Secondly, the air force’s credibility with the public has been undermined. Israelis are accustomed – rightfully – to viewing the air force as an epicenter of professionalism and ethical behavior, compared to the chaos that reigns in so many other vital systems.

Now, in an effort to correct the damage done, the air force is being meticulously transparent and has reported for the third time on its procedures and its findings in the case. But after the mishap and the concealment were revealed, it is harder to convince journalists of the army’s pure intentions. Moreover, the frequent updates assure that the case will have a much longer media shelf life than it might have had under other circumstances.

In a briefing for journalists this week, a senior air force officer detailed the problems that were uncovered at the base and the steps that were taken, first and foremost the resignation of the base commander (who will not be discharged from the army, but will in a few months take up a previously planned assignment abroad as an attaché). The policy failures and the late release of information were surveyed only briefly and without reference to the drawing of any personal conclusions. It seems that the buck will stop at the level of base commander, a place that is comfortable for the system.