Israel's Air Force Chief: Iran Threat Real

(CBS) If any country takes the words of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad more seriously than the United States, it is Israel. And that's not surprising: Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran could be two years away from having a nuclear weapon.

Correspondent Bob Simon got a rare look inside the organization that may well be called upon to do something about it. The Israeli air force has over the last 60 years been the country's most powerful protector.

It is also one of the most secretive organizations of its kind. So in return for access to its planes and personnel, 60 Minutes had to agree to rigorous censorship. We cannot identify the bases we visited, nor the young pilots we interviewed. In addition, the video 60 Minutes filmed inside their facilities had to be examined by military censors. If the Israelis blow their secrets, they insist, they'll lose the next war.


Asked how he characterizes the threat from Iran, Major General Eliezer Shkedy, the commander of Israel's air force, tells Simon, "I think it is a very serious threat to the state of Israel, but more than this to the whole world."

Shkedy says Iran's threats against Israel cannot be ignored. "They are talking about what they think about the state of Israel. They are talking about destroying and wiping us from the earth," he says.

Shkedy not only commands the air force, he also heads the Israeli task force on Iran. And these are only his desk jobs - every week he flies with the pilots he may send to the next war.

"Here you are, a key member of the defense establishment of the state of Israel. Is it a little bit risky to have you flying once a week in different war planes?" Simon asks.

"Risk is part of my job," the major general explains.

Risk is part of his job as it is for all Israeli pilots, who maintain a constant state of alert. The call can come at any time and with no warning. We can't tell you how long it takes the pilots to get to their planes - we can tell you it's really fast.

Israel is a tiny country in a tough neighborhood; Beirut and Damascus are less than 15 minutes away. They still train for dogfights, but it's been a generation since pilots had to fight one. For 60 years, the Israeli air force has ruled these skies.

"We spend a lot of time and a lot of effort in training and being prepared for the worst. We can not lose a single war. The first war we lose, Israel will cease to exist," explains Col. Ziv Levy.

The censors allowed 60 Minutes to show Col. Levy's face because he's the commander of an air base where rookies and combat veterans hone their skills together. There's very little time for saluting, very little ceremony, and a lot of time is spent on critiquing each other.

"When I go to fly with the other pilots, ranks don't matter. I am the base commander and the youngest pilot can be the leader. And I expect him to tell me what he thinks about what I did. What were my mistakes," Levy explains.

Mistakes are ultimately unacceptable because the country is so small and the stakes are so high. In the U.S., you volunteer for the air force and if you have the right stuff you become a pilot. In Israel, everybody has to serve in the military. The air force, by law, gets to select the nation's finest - whether the chosen want to be in the air force or not.

"When you were a kid, did you always want to be in the air force?" Simon asked a captain.

"No. No. My dream was to go to the special forces of Israel," the captain replied.

"But the Air Force wanted you," Simon remarked. "You don't say no to the air force."

"That's right," the captain acknowledged.

And once they make it to the flight academy, only one in 40 cadets actually become jet fighter pilots.

Many cadets used to dream of flying fighter jets but that has changed: while a jet pilot may fly one or two big missions in his career, helicopter pilots see action every day.

In six months, 21-year-old Shira, who is about graduate as a pilot, will be flying a Cobra, one of the most lethal helicopters in Israel's arsenal.

Shira says there were 17 girls in her cadet class to begin with, but that she's the only one left in the course.

"You must be proud that you made it," Simon asked.

"Yeah, I'm feeling lucky," she replied.

The Israeli air force may take the best and the brightest in the country; it may fly the finest American warplanes; and it may be so powerful that none of Israel’s historic enemies will fly against it. The era of the dogfight is over. But in this new era, the air force is facing new challenges - challenges which may prove more difficult than anything it has faced until now.

And the challenges come from enemies that have no air force at all. Lebanon doesn't have one, nor does Gaza, where Islamic militants have launched thousands of crude homemade rockets into towns in southern Israel. Once the rockets are fired, Israelis have only seconds to take cover. Simon flew above Gaza to have a look.

For the last two years, Capt. Omri has been hunting down militants in Gaza from his Apache attack helicopter.

"But you still can't take out all the people who are firing rockets at you?" Simon asked.

"They are working from very crowded, populated places and they shoot the missiles from there. And they're shooting near children. And when you are taking your weapon system and looking at the launcher, you see children running near it. It's unbelievable," Capt. Omri said.

"And you retaliate," Simon remarked. "They fire rockets. You hit back. They fire more rockets, and you hit back in a bigger way. And it just gets worse and worse."

"Yeah, I agree," Omri said.

It's a classic guerilla war - $50 rockets made in the back alleys of Gaza against Israel's $50,000 missiles. The Israelis will tell you that kind of expense buys precise weapons which limit collateral damage, but it also gives the air force the capability of assassinating their enemy’s leadership. The Israelis call this "targeted killings;" the Palestinians call it "murder."

(CBS) Asked if he has hit any "targets," Capt. Omri told Simon, "Definitely."

"People? Men who were wanted?" Simon asked.

"Yeah," Omri said.

"I must tell you, your face, your manners, your demeanor, you don't look like a killer. And yet, what you do a lot of the time, when you're over Gaza, you're killing," Simon remarked.

"I agree. I don't think I'm a killer. When I look at my face in the mirror I don't see a killer," Omri replied.

Israel's pilots will tell you that blowing up buildings and cars in crowded cities are not the kind of missions they dreamed of when they joined the air force. But those are the missions they are flying today in Gaza, sometimes with devastating consequences. Scores of Palestinian civilians have been killed this year alone.

Asked what the air force is doing to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza, Col. Ziv Levy told Simon, "Anything and everything we can."

"And yet civilians are getting killed. Children are getting killed," Simon pointed out.

"And yes, sometimes, unfortunately, civilians are getting hit. So it's a very difficult moral dilemma, what to do," Levy said.

Things were a lot clearer back in 1967, when Israeli war planes decimated the air forces of three nations in just two days. Or in 1981, when the Israeli air force was given the mission to stop Saddam Hussein from building a nuclear reactor -
a mission that today is taking on new significance now that Iran has its own nuclear program.

Back then, eight pilots and eight planes, each armed with two one-ton bombs, were readied for their flight to Baghdad. Then after years of planning, they flew into history.

Flying 100 feet above the ground, they dodged Jordanian and Saudi radar. When they finally crossed the Euphrates River, the dome of the reactor appeared in their sights. One by one, they dropped their bombs.

"You could see, my mask was not on my face, you could see a big smile. Okay, I've done it now, but now, it's the get out from here, you know?" remembers Doobi Yoffe, who was one of the pilots.

The bombs hit their target.

"And you didn't have smart bombs back then. Did you?" Simon asked.

"We didn't have smart bombs, but we had smart bombers," replied Relik Shafir, who was also on that mission.

Iraq's nuclear program was blown apart and all the pilots returned safely home. Iftach Spector was one of them.

"When you got back to Israel, you were acclaimed super heroes, saviors of the Jewish nation," Simon pointed out.

"We postponed a threat, a real threat. And this, I mean, the heroes were not us. The decision makers were the heroes on this because they showed the world what's right and what's wrong," Spector said.

Today, Israel's decision makers are faced with a similar choice: will they take out Iran's nuclear facilities? The Israelis hope they won't have to, but can they do it?

The pilots who flew on the Baghdad mission are convinced that the Iranians will be ready.

Zeev Raz, the commander of the Baghdad mission told Simon, "We had one point to destroy. They have many points. Many of them deep under the mountains, under the ground and it's a much more complicated problem in 1981."

Asked if he thinks Israel could do it, Raz told Simon, "Well, I really hope it will be solved another way. There is only one thing worse than the Israel air force having to do it. Iran having a nuclear bomb."

It's a scenario which reminds air force commander Shkedy of the Holocaust.

He often gives a photograph of Israeli air force planes flying over Auschwitz to his officers. "We should remember. We cannot forget. We should trust only ourselves," Shkedy tells Simon. "I totally believe that."

Shkedy and many other Israeli officers are from families who survived the Holocaust.

"In a letter to your commanders you compared the leaders of Iran today to Hitler," Simon remarks.

"In those days, people didn't believe that Hitler was serious about what he said," Shkedy explains.

"You mean back in the 1930s," Simon asks.

"Yes," the major general replies. "And I suggest us not to repeat this way of thinking, and to prepare ourselves for what they are planning."

"Can you tell me what that means?" Simon asks.

Says Shkedy, "We should be prepared for everything."

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