IDF denies cover-up attempt in censoring news of F-16s damaged in flood

IDF denies cover-up attempt in censoring news of F-16s damaged in flood

Military completes investigation into flooding at Hatzor Air Base after which 8 aircraft needed $9m in repairs, finds commanders failed to adequately prepare for inclement weather

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

An F-16 fighter jet sits in a flooded hangar on the Hatzor air force base in southern Israel in January 2020. (Social media)
An F-16 fighter jet sits in a flooded hangar on the Hatzor air force base in southern Israel in January 2020. (Social media)

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday acknowledged it had made a mistake in censoring the fact that several F-16 fighter jets were damaged due to flooding during a rainstorm earlier this year, but said this not was an effort to cover-up the incident.

This determination was made as part of an investigation into the flooding, which was completed this week and presented to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.

“The chief of staff stressed that the investigation found that from the start of the flooding incident and throughout it, there was no intention to hide it from the public. The opposite is true — there was a clear intention to publicize it. At the same time, mistakes were made in how it was handled,” the military said in a statement.

On January 9, a strong storm pummeled Israel, which flooded a stream near the Hatzor Air Base near Ashdod, sending huge amounts of rainwater into the underground hangars where a number of F-16 fighter jets were being stored, damaging eight of them. The repairs from the flooding were estimated to cost NIS 30 million ($8.7 million).

A military truck evacuates Israeli citizens through a flooded road in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya, on a stormy winter day, on January 8, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

The investigation presented to Kohavi this week confirmed the findings of the military’s initial probe: commanders at the base failed to sufficiently prepare for the inclement weather, which led to the flooding of the hangars.

The probe released on Wednesday also addressed a secondary aspect of the incident: the decision to censor the matter, which was seen as an attempt to cover up an embarrassing, costly mistake.

The military determined that the Israeli Air Force and Military Censor had been correct in barring publication on the matter for the first few hours of the incident, but that this ban should have ended far more quickly than it did.

“The chief of staff determined that the Air Force’s request of the Military Censor to delay publication of the event from Thursday, January 9, to Friday, January 10, was correct. However, by Friday, January 10, [the Air Force] could have informed the Military Censor that the information could be published. The failure to notify the censor was a mistake by the Air Force,” the IDF said.

An F-16 fighter jet that was damaged by flooding during a rainstorm in January is seen in its hangar after it returned to service in this undated photograph released on February 3, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military said it had planned to inform the public of the incident on January 12, but this “wasn’t carried out because of an internal error in the Air Force.”

News of the incident was eventually reported later that day, following multiple requests for permission by journalists.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi addresses a group of Kfir Brigade soldiers stationed at the Gaza border on January 22, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The chief of staff summarized the matter by saying that the IDF is a ‘glass house’ that the public can watch what happens inside and that it is expected of those who serve in it and of the organization in general to display high standards and moral, professional and honest behavior,” the IDF said.

The military did not indicate that the chief of staff would take any disciplinary action against the officers involved in the unnecessary censorship.

In January, Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin censured three officers for failing to properly prepare for the flood.

The commander of the F-16 squadron, the maintenance squadron commander and the aviation squadron commander all received official reprimands.

The officers were found to have incorrectly assessed the force of the incoming rainstorm, which dropped some 50 million liters (13 million gallons) of water onto the area around the base in the span of half an hour and caused a nearby stream to overflow.

As a result of this flawed evaluation, they did not evacuate the underground hangars in time or take other steps necessary to prevent the flooding, the investigation found.

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