Israel Gets a Government, the Budget Is Taking Shape and the Air Force Is Going Shopping

Ordinarily, this article would have to begin with something like this: “According to foreign reports, the Israel Air Force has stepped up its alleged attacks against Iranian targets, Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah forces in Syria.” But on Sunday evening Channel 12 News reported on a discussion IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin conducted over Zoom with representatives of the Israeli Air Line Pilots Association, in which he publicly took pride in the escalation in attacks during the months of the coronavirus crisis.

The fact that Norkin’s chat with the pilots ended up on the most widely viewed news broadcast in Israel and became an item, further reveals the degree to which the defense establishment and the military censor use ostensibly clandestine information to serve their own interests. If the IAF commander or the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff had not wanted the information to become public, it wouldn’t have. Unfortunately, the only people who are censored in Israel are the journalists. Ministers, government officials, and IDF officers can blab, when it serves their purposes, and without oversight.

Norkin’s revelations mean to serve the purposes of the air force, the IDF in general and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Their objective is to goad the government into reaching a decision on the defense budget, from which the multi-annual plan “Tnufa” (Momentum) for 2021-2026 will be derived.

Tnufa is the sequel to “Gideon,” which was drawn up under the previous Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Work on Tnufa bogged down because of the political crisis; now following the coronavirus crisis, new priorities are in order: health care, education, social welfare, dealing with sharply higher unemployment, and handling a deficit that ballooned to about 50 billion shekels ($14.5 billion). By the nature of things, the army has less room to maneuver to get what it wants compared to the past.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi wants a more “lethal” army with better terrestrial maneuverability and greater firepower; an army that can connect the dots of information and intelligence transmitted at lightning speed over networks, ending in powerful precision attacks on the targets. These are worthy demands, but absent sufficient means, they can’t all be met.

The biggest demand, requiring the most cash, comes as usual from the air force. Norkin would like to speedily replace the outdated fleet of Lockheed-Martin Sikorsky (Yasur) transport helicopters. They had been purchased in the 1960s and 1970s and have had their shelf lives repeatedly prolonged. But a report from the watchdog State Comptroller determined that using them beyond 2025 could cost lives. Years ago the IAF had two squadrons of about 40 Yasurs, since which time some have crashed, some have been damaged and some have gone out of service. There are much fewer now and their operational fitness causes problems on a daily basis.

Coronavirus patient being evacuated in an Indian Air Force Chinook CH-47.AFP

The air force plans to purchase 18-20 transport helicopters at a cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, and is trying to decide between two models. One is the Sikorsky CH-53K, and its great advantages lie in the fact that it is familiar to the pilots and its carrying capacity is two and a half times that of the old model. Its disadvantages include that it has yet to go into service in the U.S. Marine Corps – to date only Germany and Japan have expressed an interest in it; and mainly, it’s very expensive. A single helicopter costs about $87 million. The second option is the Boeing Chinook (CH-47). Its disadvantage is its relatively small carrying capacity, but it has two main advantages: an attractive price of about $50-$60 million per helicopter, and the fact that it is used by many air forces worldwide.