After 5 years as air force chief, Amir Eshel takes off
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After 5 years as air force chief, Amir Eshel takes off

Incoming commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin promises to further expand force’s collaboration with military and civilian agencies, as well as regional militaries

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Incoming Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, right, shakes hands with outgoing IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel salutes during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
Incoming Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, right, shakes hands with outgoing IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel salutes during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Flanked by a fighter jet and a transport helicopter, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin took over as head of the Israeli Air Force at a ceremony on the Tel Nof Air Base on Monday, succeeding Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel who served in the position for five years.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot presided over the event, which was attended by the heads of the air force’s squadrons, senior officers from other IDF branches, the air force chiefs’ families, defense attaches and other representatives from foreign militaries.

Ahead of the ceremony, US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein presented Eshel with a Legion of Merit, one of the highest awards that America can bestow on a foreign citizen, the army said. Eisenkot received the medal from US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford last year.

Eshel will retire from the military after a 40-year career, a quarter of which he spent on the IDF General Staff.

Outgoing Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel receives the Legion of Merit medal from US Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
Outgoing Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel receives the Legion of Merit medal from US Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

The outgoing air force chief commanded aerial operations during the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, and the 8-day Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in 2012.

He also oversaw the acquisition of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, the first of which landed in Israel in December 2016. While the Iron Dome missile defense system was declared operational approximately a year before Eshel took his position, the air force chief, who also commands Israel’s anti-aircraft and missile-defense forces, saw the full-scale deployment of the system during two military campaigns and its ongoing development.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

In his speech, Eisenkot thanked Eshel for his years of service, for leading the air force “with courage, creative thinking and professionalism.”

The IDF chief warned that “threats are expanding and changing at a fast pace and require us to adapt our abilities to the modern battlefield.”

Eshel noted the long way the Israeli Air Force has come since it was founded in 1948.

“The Israeli Air Force of 2017 leads the world in attack capabilities, aerial defense, remote-controlled aircraft and in working with ground and naval forces,” he said.

Eshel also noted the close integration of the air force with non-military agencies, specifically the Shin Bet and Mossad, under his tenure.

The outgoing air force chief reflected on his years in the position, during which the IAF saw “threats thwarted, targets destroyed, rockets and aircraft intercepted and shot down. The achievements of the [air] force have a strategic importance nationally, in the Middle East and far beyond our borders.”

At the end of his speech, the two air force chiefs performed the official military ceremony that marked the end of Eshel’s tenure and the beginning of Norkin’s, in which the outgoing air force chief hands the IAF flag to his successor.

Incoming Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin salutes during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
Incoming Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin salutes during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Following the hand-off, Norkin gave his own speech. The general said he would work to further increase the air force’s cooperation with forces and agencies both “within the military and outside of it.”

The incoming air force chief also said he would continue to develop the IAF’s relationships with “air forces near and far, and will strengthen Israel’s position in the region and the world.”

Through international military exercises, including those that include countries with which Israel does not have formal ties, the IAF is often seen as serving in a diplomatic role.

The ceremony ended with a rendition of the national anthem, Hatikva.

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