Shmuel L. Gordon

Inciting rebellion on Iran — why petitions are irrelevant

Recently, a group of professors signed a petition calling on Israeli fighter pilots to disobey any command to attack the Iranian nuclear project. The petition has sparked a storm in the Israeli media — just as its signatories anticipated.

This petition has two sides: the professors and the pilots. Those who signed the petition faced a barrage of condemnation. Inciting rebellion is an illegal and felonious act, and it is troublesome to realize that not one of the instigators was accused and sentenced. However, it is important to note that several articles expressed anxiety that the petition may affect Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilots and diminish their preparedness. So, I am obliged to discuss this important issue from a fighter pilots’ point of view.

The IAF air crews are first and foremost Israeli citizens: they read newspapers, listen to radio and watch TV; they are familiar with the public debate and the variety of opinions. They are attentive to widespread criticism, but because they are prepared for years to accomplish the mission, they don’t need such petitions in order to stimulate their critical thinking.

The commander of the IAF coined at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War the term “freedom of decision.” It means that air leaders are permitted to consider the wisdom of the commands they receive and exercise their own judgment.

Over time, “freedom of action” morphed into the somewhat paradoxical term “critical discipline,” according to which combat orders received from the IAF Command Post are examined, criticized, and improved.

How does this concept pertain to the petition? Fighter pilots (or at least their commanders), to whom the petition was addressed, are used to critically examining their orders; they have more freedom of action than average civilians, and they know how to use this freedom responsibly. Therefore, most of the pilots do not need petitions to raise question marks and criticism.

“Critical discipline” entrusts military commanders and political leaders with the responsibility to check their own instructions carefully. They should convince their subordinates that decisions are wise, and were made after meticulous consideration. A lack of trust between decision-makers and those who execute their orders — fighter pilots — may cause a comprehensive failure in the campaign to counter the Iranian nuclear project.

Finally, there is no room for fear that the recent petition will incite rebellion, and that it will change the way of thinking of those who plan, command and train for certain missions. Critical discipline is already embedded in their operational culture.

About the Author
Colonel (res) Shmuel L Gordon has a PhD in International Relations and Strategic Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has written several books and hundreds of essays on national security, decision-making, strategy, air warfare, and counter-insurgency conflicts. He had a distinguished career in the Israeli Air Force as a fighter pilot and commander. He is the winner of Yitzhak Sade Prize for Defense Literature, the Karmon Prize for Research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and And the Ben Gurion Prize for Security study from the General Histadrut.