Israel's Air Force Chief: Iran Threat Real

Tells 60 Minutes Israel's Air Force Is Ready For Any Threat, Especially A Nuclear Iran

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

This segment was originally broadcast on April 27, 2008. It was updated on Aug. 8, 2008.

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 IAF, Israeli Air Force.

As we first reported last spring, it's 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.