OVDA AIR FORCE BASE, Israel — Israeli F-35 fighter jets practiced with fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft from four other countries over a multi-week period, amid a warning that Israel faces fragile fronts in Gaza and that war could be on the horizon.
Blue Flag is a biennial exercise that this year took place at Ovda Air Force Base, southern Israel, and saw drills involving low-altitude flights and the suppression of air defense measures. A total of 725 personnel from Israel, the United States, Greece, Germany and Italy participated.
On the eve of the exercise, which began Nov. 3, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi warned of threats to the country, and about a week into the drills, an Israeli airstrike killed a commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza.
For Israel the operation was designed to deter and neutralize a threat in Gaza amid a much wider threat from the north. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the IDF, said Israel cannot overlook threats from the north, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria in recent years, and Iraq’s government has accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes against pro-Iranian militias north of Baghdad. Iran and its proxies have fired rockets at Israel three times since February 2018 and launched drones from Syria to target Israel.
“We are on high alert and ready for various scenarios,” Conricus said. “We will focus on the north and stabilize the south.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who attended the drills, said the event shows off Israel’s cutting-edge platforms like the F-35 and its unique warplane tactics. “It reinforces the idea that Israel has partners with whom it could operate cooperatively in extreme circumstances. Israel stands by its ethos of fighting its own battles and defending itself by itself, but it is possible to imagine wider regional conflicts where Israel would operate with friendly nations, and this exercise enhances the capability for interoperability,” said Shapiro, who is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Indeed, Blue Flag served as an opportunity to improve interoperability between the air forces of Israel, the United States, Greece, Germany and Italy. Israeli Col. M., whose full name is withheld for security reasons, said the exercise was particularly important for combining fourth- and fifth-gen planes. Israel has had the F-35 since 2016 and used it in combat in 2018.
The U.S. Air Force’s 480th Fighter Squadron from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, brought its expertise in suppressing air defense. Aircraft faced off against Patriot systems, mimicking the threat they might face from enemy surface-to-air missiles. They operated among enemy radars and emitters that simulated surface-to-air and anti-aircraft artillery radar systems. Israel’s 115 Squadron posed as an enemy force in the air and on the ground.
Israel sent 30 fighters jets — including F-15s, F-16s and F-35s — as well as helicopters, drones, a Boeing 707 and Gulfstream G550s. The Gulfstream can be used for airborne early warning. The second-largest component was 12 American F-16s.
Israel and the U.S. also conducted a cyber defense exercise Nov. 7, and Israel practiced with NATO navies to evacuate the wounded from ships during the same week.
And in his first visit to Israel as the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie met with IDF’s Kochavi on Nov. 11. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein also visited Israel during Blue Flag, meeting Kochavi and Israel Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin.
Seth Frantzman is the Israel correspondent for Defense News. He has been covering conflict in the Middle East since 2010. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.