The fifth bi-annual Blue Flag exercise entered its second week, with thousands of troops and dozens of aircraft from around the world taking part in the most advanced aerial drill ever held in the Jewish state.
An estimated 1,500 technical and administrative personnel from different air forces are taking part in the drill at the Ovda Air Force base in the Negev north of Eilat.
Along with the dozens of Israeli aircraft taking part, some 40 aircraft from Germany (six Eurofighters), Italy (five F-35 jets and five G550 planes), Britain (six Eurofighters), France (four Raphael jets), India (five Mirage jets), Greece (four F-16 jets), and the US (six F-16 CJ jets) are taking part.
The two-week drill marks the first time that a British fighter squadron has been deployed to Israel since the establishment of the state, as well as the first time that India has sent a Mirage fighter squadron to Israel and that France has deployed a Rafael squadron to the Jewish State.
In addition, personnel from South Korea, Finland, Romania, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Croatia and other countries have arrived to learn from the exercise without any active participation.
Israeli platforms taking part in the drill include F-35 jets, F-15s, F-16s, G5500 aerial monitoring aircraft, a Patriot battery and UAVs, as well as Hofit and Tzufit aircraft. The IAF squadrons taking part include the 106th Spearhead squadron which is leading the exercise, the 119th Bat squadron, the 115th Flying Dragon, 140th Golden Eagle, 116th Lions of the South and the 122th Nachson squadron.
Uvda airbase hosts squadrons training in the Negev Desert and has an advanced training center, which trains air crews in numerous exercises. It is also the base of the 115th “Red” Squadron which plays the role of enemy aircraft in exercises; ground teams that operate enemy ground targets such as missile launchers and radars; and infantry soldiers who act as the enemy during these training scenarios.
During the drill, forces are practicing aerial battle, as well as surface-to-air battle scenarios, advanced surface-to-air missile combat outlines in enemy territory, and more.
The exercise focuses on “broadening and enhancing the operational capabilities of the participating forces,” with a focus on air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks, as well as evading ground-based air defense systems “and various operational scenarios in enemy territory,” the army said.
With fighter jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial systems, a Patriot battery and more, the “Red” Force simulate the enemy that has mobile weaponry resembling real threats that pose strategic and tactical challenges during training scenarios.
This years’ drills will focus on the integration of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, including the F-35 Adir in complex operational scenarios, the military said.
Israeli F-35i Adir aircraft are also flying as the “Red” team, posing a challenge to the other aircraft.
“This exercise is groundbreaking in terms of technology, quality of training, and the number of participating nations,” Israel Air Force commander Amikam Norkin said.
“It illustrates the partnership and strong bond between the nations’ air forces and acts as a stepping-stone toward regional and international cooperation.”
IN ADDITION to the aerial drills, there will be a conference at the Nevatim airbase for countries flying the F-35 including Italy, Norway, Netherlands, the UK, the US and Belgium. As part of the conference, Commander of the United Arab Emirates Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Nasser Mohammed al-Alawi will land in Israel for the first time as Norkin’s guest.
Following the signing of the Abraham Accords last year and the visit by Alawi, it’s believed that other regional countries will take part in future Blue Flag exercises.
With several countries taking part in the drill, aerial diplomacy provides the IAF with legitimacy to act against threats posed to the country, be it in Gaza or in Israel’s North.
Norkin, who took part in a symbolic flyover over Jerusalem alongside his German counterpart Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz last week, said that the threats posed to Israel continue to increase and that the drill is a “stepping stone” towards cooperation with other countries in the region.
“We are living in a very complicated region, and the threats to the State of Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran are only increasing,” he said. “Holding an international exercise in this current reality, while continuing our public and covert operational activities on all fronts, is of utmost strategic importance and has an extensive impact over the Israeli Air Force, the IDF and the State of Israel.”
While the drill does not simulate any particular threat, the IAF is “constantly training to be ready for a wide range of emergency scenarios” and is flying “in a joint coalition, wing-to-wing with partnering air forces,” Norkin said.
“The Middle East is a complex arena that changes at any given moment,” he said. “The threat to the State of Israel comes from different arenas: the Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and more.
“The challenges we face are increasing and we are making sure to stay one step ahead of the enemy.”