Analysis

Why Flooded Israeli F-16s Do Not Bode Well for an Iran War

The havoc wreaked by winter storms last week raises questions about Israel's readiness

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

With war against Hezbollah and Iran being mentioned as a real possibility, albeit not inevitable, it’s always worthwhile to pause to reflect on the damage such a conflagration would cause. In a speech last month about the danger of war in the north, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi tried to prepare expectations among the Israeli public when, for the first time, he described in detail the price massive missile and rocket fire would exact from the civilian population. In such a scenario, we would absorb fire such as we’ve never experienced in the past, the chief of staff admitted.

As it happened, Kochavi’s words were illustrated by the damage inflicted by the weather during the past few weeks, which underscored the flaws in the authorities’ ability to cope with potential disasters. This became clear in three different events related to recent heavy rains: the excessive flooding in Nahariya, the drowning of a couple in Tel Aviv when an elevator filled with runoff from torrential rains, and the serious damage caused to F-16 warplanes at the Hatzor airbase.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Haaretz

In the Nahariya area, the intervention of officers, combat soldiers and engineering machinery from the 91st Division in Galilee was required to help rescue dozens of people trapped by the raging waters. For two days a large number of forces, under Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, were occupied with that mission. But in wartime, this 91st will be on the front line facing Hezbollah attacks, which will likely include commando raids and massive firing of short-range Katyusha rockets at civilians and IDF bases alike along the northern border fence. The dependence of town governments and local councils on the IDF, which is obvious in extreme climatic conditions such as those recently experienced, will be far more acute in a war. The IDF’s various territorial divisions will probably be too busy to help out. It will be the Home Front Command which will have to attend to both the front and central parts of the country.

In Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, neighbors of the couple trapped in the elevator complained about the slow deployment of firefighters at the scene. It later turned out that despite the tempestuous weather, which had been predicted (though the force of the storm was not entirely foreseen), only three people were available to take calls at firefighting headquarters. It was later explained that about 100 calls an hour can be fielded, but at the height of the storm, some 2,000 calls came in within an hour and a half, causing critical delays.

For two decades, the country’s firefighting services have been described as the weak link, in terms of deployment on the civilian front, in a war of missile and rocket attacks. The trouble with complex systems, such as civil defense, is that frequently the strength of the chain depends on its weakest link, which is liable to snap under pressure. The State Comptroller’s Office – in periods when those who headed it did not see themselves as cheerleaders for the prime minister and the cabinet – issued devastating reports about the preparedness of the civilian front in the Second Lebanon War (2006) and harsh follow-ups about the state of firefighting forces.

Weekend banner.

The all-out war being waged in recent years between the firefighters’ labor representatives and management is certainly not contributing to their functioning today. If the emergency phone system collapses under the burden of 2,000 calls in a storm, how will it function in the event of a war of missiles, especially if it begins with an attack that was not anticipated by intelligence? In such circumstances, it’s not enough to change their name from “firemen” to “firefighters.”

But where the IDF is concerned, the most serious incident during the recent spate of storms occurred in its own backyard, in the underground hangars of the Hatzor air force base, where flash floods caused damage estimated in the millions of shekels (at least) and left eight F-16 warplanes temporarily out of commission. Haaretz has already written about the mistaken judgment that caused an unnecessary delay – both in the IDF’s report to the public about the event, and in the media reports that were published – due to restrictions imposed by the military censors. (Publication of the report was delayed for three days; photographs of the submerged planes for four days.) In the meantime, the air force commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, has appointed an investigative team to examine the incident. The air force, which takes pride in its splendid culture of investigations, can be trusted to get to the bottom of it.

Still, a few comments are in order. To begin with, the flooding did not come as a complete surprise. Meteorologists expected a storm, and the air force has detailed procedures, which have been in place for years, for removal of planes and other equipment from low areas on its bases that are likely to be affected by winter weather. Another case of flooding occurred at the Hatzor base itself in 1992; its aircraft were removed from the subterranean hangars. Similar cases of flooding, which have necessitated moving airplanes, also occurred in Tel Nof and other bases.

An IDF truck evacuates people trapped in the flooding in Nahariya, January  2020.
Rami Shllush

The fact that only some of the warplanes in the two flooded hangars were damaged indicates that some of the air force planes were removed at the last minute. In other words, the air force’s belated reaction (owing to faulty deployment) was responsible for the damage done to the rest of the planes.

Also disturbing is the force’s statement – initially at a briefing by a senior officer to reporters and afterward in a communiqué issued by the IDF Spokesman’s Office on behalf of Maj. Gen. Norkin – that the planes would be back in action within a few days. Experts who spoke with Haaretz were very skeptical about this. The photographs show planes deep in water. That extent of flooding can cause damage, short- and long-term, to engines, to the landing gear, and to the safety systems and the ramified electrical wiring in every aircraft. Getting the planes back to full operational capacity requires cleaning, repairs and repeated tests. It’s unlikely that this process can be completed within a few days.

Accordingly, it might be better if the commanders were less occupied with the implications the blunder has for their public image and more worried about the way the force is viewed from within. The Israel Air Force is a vast organization, which stands out in terms of the highly professional and moral level of its activities, during periods of calm and war alike. Over the years, a genuine effort has been discernible to ensure that the trend of improvement will continue in the force. But the chain of events at Hatzor – the blunder itself, the belated report, the dubious claim about the planes’ quick and full return to operational fitness – is not entirely consistent with the culture of openness and trust that the air force seeks to foster among its personnel.

If such announcements undermine the credibility of the system in the eyes of air crews and technical crews, who know what goes on from the inside (and this is apparently what happened) – this marks the start of a slippery slope. There is probably no one in the country who doesn’t grasp how far their security depends, to a large degree, on preservation of the high-quality professional and operational capabilities of the air force.