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Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Amir Eshel appointed Israel Air Force commander

Key points

  • Major-General Amir Eshel was appointed earlier this week as the new head of the Israeli Air Force (IAF).  He has had a distinguished career as a pilot and commander in the Air Force as well as recent valuable experience in the IDF ground forces
  • Eshel will play a key role in preparing the IAF for major operational challenges, and advising the government on important security decisions, including whether to resort to military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.
  • The appointment was the subject of some media interest in Israel, with speculation that Prime Minister Netanyahu may insert his military secretary, Major-General Yohanan Locker, another well respected air force officer, into the role.

What is Eshel’s background?

Major-General Amir Eshel was appointed the 17th commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF) on 6 February.  He has a long and distinguished career as an elite fighter pilot. He has served in a variety of command positions in the Air Force including commander of F-16 and Phantom squadrons and head of prominent Air forces bases. He is credited in part for the success of Operation Specific Gravity at the beginning of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, which destroyed the capacity of Hezbollah to launch medium and long range missiles. At the time he was serving as the Air Force’s chief of staff, and was already a candidate for Air Force commander. Eshel is also known for leading three fighter planes in a symbolic flight over Auschwitz death camp in 2003.  Eshel is widely admired for his skill as a pilot as well as his personal integrity and is considered a strong team player.

He was overlooked last time round for the top job in the IAF in favour of Major General Ido Nehushtan, who he now replaces. With Eshel contemplating retirement, Defence Minister Barak and then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi persuaded him to remain in the military, included with a gentlemen’s agreement that he would be next in line. In the meantime he was promoted to head of the IDF Planning Directorate, where he gained ground forces experience and played a pivotal role in relations with the Egyptian military, as part of the strategic dialogue with other foreign governments, and in building the IDF’s multi-year strategic planning.

What has been the response in Israel to his selection?

Following major controversy over last year’s appointment of Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, senior military appointments are receiving high profile media coverage in Israel.  This particular appointment had an added political dimension as one of the other leading candidates was Major General Yohanan Locker, who along with an impressive background in the Air Force, currently serves as the Prime Minister’s Military Secretary. The media sought to turn the appointment into a test of whether Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz would withstand pressure from his political superiors and choose his own man.

The selection has been warmly received by former senior military commanders and leading defence commentators.  Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, told Haaretz, “He takes initiative, and he takes a broad view. He possesses extraordinary integrity. He will tell the prime minister the right thing and not be afraid of the consequences.”

What challenges does the Israeli Air Force face?

Among security analysts, the IAF is considered in excellent shape, credited to outgoing commander Nehushtan, who is leaving a strong, professional and disciplined corps with comprehensive and up to date operational plans. Nonetheless, there are a number of serious challenges that await the incoming commander.

Iran

Israel faces a major dilemma in the coming months over whether to resort to military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This constitutes one of the toughest decisions faced by any Israeli government. The professional assessments of the senior military officers will play an important role in influencing the decision made by the political leaders.

From the benefit of a variety of senior command positions, Eshel is familiar with existing thinking and planning. In his new role, his stature will grow as one of the most senior professional consultants. According to Hanan Greenberg, writing in Ma’ariv,  “Eshel is just the type of person that the chief of staff needs at his side.  On one hand, he will prepare the IAF for any mission, near or far, and on the other hand, when Gantz has something to say, Eshel will probably join him. Together they can undoubtedly serve as a counterweight, if the political echelon should wish to launch a complex operation with weighty consequences.”

Hamas

Eshel will likely have to contend with demands for a major operation in Gaza. Senior Israeli military figures have threatened an operation to re-establish deterrence against rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, which has eroded slightly since Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009.  Although considered measured and level-headed, and far from trigger happy, he will be aware that the improved capacity of Hamas and other groups with longer range missiles will likely need to be challenged at some point.

Hezbollah and Syria

There is growing concern that advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems have recently been acquired by Syria and Hezbollah. This threatens to severely challenge the existing ability of the IAF to fly over southern Lebanon and monitor Hezbollah planning and preparations.

Maintaining qualitative edge

Eshel will need to ensure the IAF continues to enjoy its qualitative edge in an ever changing and constantly arming Middle East. This includes finding a solution to missiles that may compromise Israel’s air superiority and phasing in an array of new systems including F-35 jets, new trainer aircraft, mid-air refuelling and transport planes and unmanned aerial vehicles. He will also take over command of the IAF in an era where cyber war is an increasing potential threat to his command and control systems.

Budget cuts

With the defence ministry and IDF as a whole becoming the focus of budgetary cuts to pay for new social spending, the IAF will certainly be in the treasury’s focus. The strategic threats Israel faces have long been a huge drain on resources. He will be keen to hold on to his budget or be forced to reassess plans, training and procurement.

Conclusion

Maj. Gen. Eshel will play a vital role as one of the most senior and significant voices among the General Staff of the IDF. Alongside Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Head of Military Intelligence, he will be a key figure advising Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz as the Israeli military navigates though the anticipated turbulence of the years ahead.