Ready to Take the Risk

If you ask Israel Air Force pilots what their country should do in light of the imminent threat of nuclear armament in Iran, they will offer a clear, unequivocal response.

If you ask Israel Air Force pilots what their country should do in light of the imminent threat of nuclear armament in Iran, they will offer a clear, unequivocal response. The pilots and navigators who sit in every advanced fighter jet, whether an F-15I Ra'am or an F-16I Sufa; the crews working with anti-aircraft missiles and on helicopters; the transport people; the intelligence and communications divisions; and the aerial command and control centers - all will answer simply, each in his or her own way: Here I am - send me.

Those who will take part in a mission against Iran will be volunteer enlistees. The number of those hoping to jump into the required slots will be greater than the number of slots available.

The commanders of the air squadrons, who will determine the composition of the crews and will initially pencil themselves and their subordinates in for the mission, will be subject to massive pressure from others who will wave the banner of professionalism - or at least will give a little wink, in the hope that friendship or connections will suffice.

Those involved will not delude themselves into thinking that everyone will return from the mission.

The working assumption will be that fighter jets will be downed en route to the targets and that soldiers will be killed, or will be seriously injured while ejecting from the aircraft somewhere over the desert or the sea. Or that they will fall captive to a brutal enemy, who will cover up their tracks. This will not be a smoothly executed attack with zero casualties, like in Iraq in 1981 or Syria in 2007. The number of losses is liable to be similar to that of Operation Moked, the opening salvo of the Six-Day War.

Yet, if you ask the pilots about the threat of injury or death or captivity that hovers over them and over the future of their families, they will chillingly reply that the risk is a professional one. In sharp contrast to other realms of Israeli experience at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, these people will not be deterred by the risk. They will be happy if it turns out there is no need to take off, and if they do take off, they would be happy to land safely. Most of all, however, they are willing to risk their lives to remove this fateful threat, if it is not removed by other means.

Before approaching the pilots, those IAF officials wondering about this issue should first take a glance around their offices in Hatzerim and Hatzor, Tel Aviv and Tel Nof; the answer will be obvious. On one wall there are likely to be photographs of IAF flyovers above the extermination camps in Europe. Another wall features the air force mission statement, which sanctifies defense of the State of Israel and what is termed "the final result." There are no explanations of the difficulties, no excuses for failure: The final result is the counterweight to the final solution.

Nobody will ask the pilots which policy is correct for Israel, nor should they be asked. It is not up to them to determine this, just as it is not up to others in uniform to do so, even the chief of staff.

This mother of all questions - whether Israel can afford to bear the overall cost of an operation against the Iranian nuclear program, which would entail flouting Washington; being on the receiving end of military, diplomatic and economic sanctions; and probably suffering terrorist attacks and rocket fire - does not fall within the purview of the state's operational mechanisms.

It would be best to leave the matter to the government, to the Knesset and its foreign affairs and defense committee and, ultimately, to the public.

Yet, since assessments seem to indicate that a nuclear Iran will be a predator, not a house pet - as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no nice guy - and since the question will be to what extent Israel can succeed in the mission it will be asked to execute, it is easy to anticipate the answer from the pilots.

It will not be a shoot-from-the-hip operation, but rather will follow countless dry runs in various formations of combat jets and munitions, endless computations and careful planning of fuel requirements and aerial routes.

Today's airmen, the oldest of whom were just children in 1967, will assume the role of then-commander of the IAF Motti Hod, and of the head of squadron No. 4 in Hazor, Benny Peled, who lobbied chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin and the government - all of whom were bogged down in indecisiveness - to believe in their power to create an element of surprise and to deal a knock-out blow from the air.

This is all contingent on one critical component: excellent intelligence. If decision makers tell the pilots they are certain of where the strike has to be, the pilots will know how to execute it. And if they tell the pilots when, the latter will respond "the sooner the better" - before any hostile governmental or other organization in the vicinity equips itself with sophisticated surface-to-air defenses and precise weaponry that can hit the IAF in its bases and deny Israel the use of an irreplaceable asset.

If you ask the pilots, they will contemplate, as would anyone under those circumstances, whether such a step is necessary. But they will respond calmly and decisively that, yes, it is possible.