TEL AVIV, Israel — Eight nations flying dozens of US, European and French aircraft are training together for two weeks in Israel’s largest-ever air exercise, dubbed Blue Flag.
Teams flying in the biannual, multinational drill include air forces from the US, Greece and Poland – participants from the previous Blue Flag held two years ago – and newcomers from France, Germany, Italy, India and one other country.
“All the teams we wanted to participate are participating,” said Lt. Col. Guy, head of the exercise branch in the Israel Air Force’s headquarters training department.
The Israeli officer, whose surname was withheld from publication, estimated more than 1000 people and some 70 aircraft are participating in the drill that began Nov. 5 and will continue through the end of next week.
Front-line fighters flying all over the airspace of southern Israel include U.S., Greek and Polish F-16s, Italian Tornados, German Eurofighters and French Mirage 2000s. The Indian Air Force brought C-130Js.
As for the Israel Air Force, the service is flying F-15C and F-15D aircraft, earlier-model F-16Cs and the frontline F-16I along with the nation’s Flying Dragon aggressor squadron, which will simulate enemy aircraft, surface-to-air missile batteries and threats from shoulder-launched missiles.
The entire drill is based at the service’s Ovda Air Base north of Israel’s Red Sea town of Eilat.
“It’s pretty exciting to see all these kinds of aircraft flying here,” the officer said. “Blue Flag is unique because it’s happening in Israel. Not a lot of nations can host multilateral exercises like this at such a level.”
The officer said participation of the French Mirage 2000s was especially symbolic, as French fighters formed the backbone of Israel’s frontline fighter force during the early days of statehood through the 1967 Six-Day War.
“After 50 years, to see the French Mirages flying here are quite symbolic. Obviously our French partners are flying much more advanced versions, but it’s exciting all the same.”
When asked if participants would be flying in the northern part of the country, where spillover from the Syrian civil war often requires responses from the Israeli military, the officer said the entire drill is taking place south of Tel Aviv.
“We will not come into conflict with what is going on up north.”
He noted that teams are put through increasingly difficult scenarios each day to test particular skill sets determined in advance through a series of Blue Flag conferences held in the months prior to the exercise. “Everyone is training pretty hard, and it gets a big harder each day,” the officer said.
In an interview earlier this year, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, Israel Air Force’s chief of international affairs, said officers and attaches from nearly 40 countries are expected to attend as observers.
“People are seeing there’s a lot to learn from Israel. In our tiny airspace and in the environment around us, things are so intense. The Russians are here… Many of the world’s air forces are passing through here on their way to operations in Syria and elsewhere in the region. So we provide a sort of battle lab in which forces can hone a spectrum of skills needed to combat growing threats,” said Hecht.
Unlike the annual Red Flag drill hosted by the U.S. Air Force at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada, Blue Flag does not pit flying forces against one another in various combat drills. Rather, said Hecht, the Israeli event is designed to satisfy respective requirements of participating forces; emphasizing cooperation over competition.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.