The airspace around Israel is challenging, particularly with Russian air defenses in neighboring Syria. But the situation has served as a test bed for Israel’s multilayered air defense.
Joint exercises like Blue Flag are not only about defense, diplomacy and cooperation between foreign countries. For Israel, there’s the added value of showcasing its force amid a threat from Iran. The use of F-35s in combined operations on the same Link 16 network with foreign air forces is important, as was Israel’s ability to base several of the planes from its southern Ovda base, instead of the F-35’s usual home in Nevatim base in the central Negev.
Additionally, the use of American Patriot systems to represent enemy air defense threats was new this year, and combining drills against electronic warfare, low-altitude threats and surface-to-air missiles has real implications.
Israel is reticent to disclose how the 2019 Blue Flag exercise mimics real-world threats, and the drills were ostensibly not about Iran. Israel is learning lessons that it hopes will help stop threats from Iran and Iranian-backed proxies, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group and Hezbollah, as well as Iraqi-based militias that operate in Syria. Testing fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets in the same exercise and advances in air defense and electronic warfare will give Israel more leverage in the event of a future conflict.
And while Israel wants to avoid a multi-front war, it knows it must ensure interoperability with allied air forces using the latest generation of jets, an experience learned during Blue Flag.
As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro put it during his visit to Blue Flag: "It’s wise to be prepared for scenarios we haven’t faced yet, but in which Israel might want to operate independently or as part of a coalition.”
Seth Frantzman has been covering conflict in the Middle East since 2010 as a researcher, analyst and correspondent for different publications. In recent years he has focused on the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.