Israel flexed its military and political muscle last month, hosting its largest and most advanced air force exercise ever. The Blue Flag 2021 exercise included dozens of fighter aircraft from at least eight major countries and a landmark visit from the chief of the United Arab Emirates Air Force.
The exercise provided flight crews an opportunity to share best practices, improve interoperability, and refine the integration of fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft operations. Much to the chagrin of those who seek to delegitimize, isolate and attack Israel, the exercise also demonstrated growing international respect for Israel as a regional leader and military power with deep operational experience.
France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States all sent fighter aircraft and personnel to Israel to participate in Blue Flag 2021. Participating aircraft included Israeli F-35Is, F-15Ds and F-16Cs; French Rafales; U.K. Typhoons; Italian F-35s and G550 early warning aircraft; German Typhoons; Greek F-16s; and Indian Mirage 2000s. The United States had wanted to send F-35A aircraft in addition to the F-16C aircraft that participated, but couldn’t due to scheduling challenges.
In total, an estimated 1,500 service members participated. Flight crews honed their air-to-air and air-to-ground skills, and practiced suppressing enemy air defenses, going up against Israeli F-16Cs from the 115th Aggressor Squadron, which modeled the capabilities and tactics of potential adversaries. These aggressor aircraft were augmented by unmanned aerial systems and helicopters as well as a Patriot battery simulating an enemy surface-to-air missile threat.
Blue Flag 2021 marked a number of historic firsts. The exercise featured the first French Rafale fighter squadron in Israel, the first Indian Mirage fighter squadron in Israel and the first British fighter squadron in Israel since the country was established in 1948.
The participation of France, the United Kingdom and India in Blue Flag 2021 suggests each government saw practical operational benefits from sending crews and aircraft to the Israeli exercise, and was happy to signal increased diplomatic support for the state of Israel.
This growing international recognition of Jerusalem’s role as a source of regional leadership and stability must be disappointing for the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist proxies, who seek to attack and even destroy the state of Israel. It must also be quite frustrating for those elsewhere who seek to delegitimize and isolate Jerusalem.
Despite the efforts of Israel’s adversaries, Jerusalem now fields its most capable military ever and is more diplomatically integrated in the region than it has been since Israel’s founding. Recognizing that fact, the Pentagon moved Israel this year from U.S. European Command’s area of responsibility to that of U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East.
Israel’s growing regional integration was demonstrated by the Blue Flag 2021 exercise’s most important first: the visit by UAE Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Nasser Mohammed al-Alawi.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain, signed the Abraham Accords in 2020, codifying normal relations and catalyzing growing cooperation in a number of economic, scientific and social fields. Israel-UAE cooperation increasingly also includes the security sector.
A major reason for this growing cooperation is the fact that Iran continues to export terrorism that targets Israelis, Americans and Arabs alike, while inching toward a nuclear weapon capability that will endanger them all. This is incentivizing an increasingly unified and capable American, Israeli and Arab military coalition.
That dynamic was on full display on Oct. 30 in a separate development when aircraft from Israel, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (at different times) accompanied a U.S. B-1B strategic bomber in its flight around the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh’s willingness to participate for a second time this year in a multilateral patrol mission involving Israel is worth noting.
The United States, Israel and their Arab partners, however, should not be satisfied with this progress. They should look for additional opportunities to deepen mutually beneficial security cooperation. This cooperation strengthens the readiness of each military, improves their ability to operate together and sends a positive deterrent message to Tehran.
The good news is that the respective militaries are already moving that direction. The Blue Flag exercise represents a “stepping-stone toward regional and international cooperation,” Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said last month. There are several immediate opportunities the United States and our Middle Eastern partners should not miss.
Terrorist threats to shipping and offshore energy infrastructure in the Middle East are growing. Israeli and Emirati ships have been attacked. Meanwhile, with Iran’s help, Hezbollah has armed itself with a variety of weapons designed to attack maritime targets, and Hamas tried to target gas installations off the Israeli coast during the Gaza conflict in May.
To strengthen maritime capabilities and deterrence, Israel should invite the United Arab Emirates (and Egypt) to participate in the next Noble Dina exercise. This Israeli-hosted exercise focuses on maritime situational awareness, counterterrorism and port defense (among other skills), all of which would improve Israeli and Emirati security.
In the air domain, Israel should invite the United Arab Emirates to send aircraft and fighter crews to the next Blue Flag exercise in two years. For its part, Abu Dhabi should invite Israel to participate in the next UAE-hosted Desert Flag exercise.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates already participate in the Greek-hosted Iniochos exercise, last conducted in April. To extend Arab-Israeli security cooperation further, Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi should work with Athens to invite Egypt and Jordan to join the next Iniochos exercise as full participants (not simply as observers).
The Pentagon should also encourage both Israel and the United Arab Emirates to send robust contingents to the next Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
In the land warfare domain, Abu Dhabi should invite the Israel Defense Forces to participate in the next UAE-U.S. Iron Union exercise hosted by the United Arab Emirates. There is good reason to do so: As Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, “Iran plans to arm its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with hundreds, and then thousands of these deadly drones [Shahed-136s].”
If the IDF were to attend the Iron Union exercise, Emirati, American and Israeli forces could work together, for example, to strengthen and rehearse the defense of bases and ground maneuver forces against swarms of enemy drones. Developing, fielding and honing improved defenses against drones is a top priority for U.S. Central Command, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and others are right to celebrate the success of the Blue Flag 2021 exercise. Given the growing threats, however, they should not spend too much time congratulating themselves and would be wise to get to work now on urgent next steps.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Retired Brig. Gen. Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at FDD. He previously served as head of Israel’s National Security Council and as acting national security adviser. Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at the center.