Next year, the major international training exercise Blue Flag 2019 will use Ouvda airbase in the southern part of Israel as its base. Representatives of numerous air forces from around the world will participate in the exercise, with dozens of aircraft and hundreds of participants – aircrews and ground crews, officers and warfighters possessing different specialized skills. It will be a major operation, and the Overseas Training Exercise Section at IAF GHQ will conduct it.
The complete, detailed plan for the exercise is yet to be concluded, but the preparations are already underway. Every Blue Flag exercise is a multiple-system project that must be executed with infinite precision. The Head of the IAF's Overseas Training Exercise Section, Maj. A., an F-16I (IAF designation Sufa) fighter pilot, described some of the dilemmas and questions his section faces: where to fly, which IAF elements should participate, which squadron would lead and so on. The Section should prepare maps, charts and aids, and calculate the amounts of fuel they should prepare for the various types of aircraft. Obviously, they will have to take advantage of every available space around the airbase. They must take into consideration the interpersonal dynamics of the participants from the various countries, who speak different languages, and address such questions as which communication networks the participants should use. The Section faces a massive logistic task and considerations relating to force build-up in the context of the exercise, plus a diversified range of C4I aspects.
Blue Flag is one of the leading international cooperation exercises in which the Israeli Air Force participates and for which it plays host. The IAF also participates in the 'relative' exercise, Red Flag, which takes place in the USA. In recent years, IAF aircraft have been landing at airbases near and far, in destinations ranging from Cyprus to Alaska, to take part in international training exercises. The IAF's participation percentages have risen substantially over the past few years.
The IAF assigns the utmost importance to participation in training exercises overseas, the substantial efforts and investments involved notwithstanding. Maj. A., Head of the IAF's Overseas Training Exercise Section, lists the three reasons for it: an excellent training opportunity, aerial-military diplomacy, and military cooperation.
The IAF employs fighter aircraft (the various variants of the F-15 and F-16), transport and refueling aircraft (Karnaf and Shimshon) and helicopters in the training exercises overseas. Prior to an international exercise, each delegation receives detailed information regarding the contents and stages of the exercise. In some cases, the exercise administration would ask the participating air force "What would you like to practice? What type of training would you be interested in?"
Take Cyprus, Israel's neighboring island, for example. "Just ten more miles and I am abroad, in another country," says an IAF pilot. The Air Force regards Cyprus as a training playground close to home. In the past, IAF pilots practiced attacks against SAM batteries in Cyprus. The island state does not have fighter aircraft, but it does have surface-to-air missile batteries, which offer a good opportunity for training. The IAF pilots fly to Cyprus, carry out their training activity and return to base. There is no need to stay overnight, and there is no need for airborne refueling.
"A Giant Leap in Professionalism"
Greece is located just a little farther. Maj. A., as stated – an F-16I (Sufa) fighter pilot, personally participated, as a pilot, in one of the training exercises held in Greece. "The country is close. The Greek Air Force enables us to fly under topographic conditions that are different from those with which we are familiar at home, like high mountain ridges, and we can fly low – a flight profile banned to military flying in many European countries. We spent a week flying in Greece – between four and five 'pirates' (sorties). The flight envelope was new to us, and we had to communicate over the radio with foreign partners. Admittedly, we all spoke English, but not everyone actually commanded that language, and the main thing – we all had to fly together. The activity included 16 aircraft – eight Greek aircraft and 8 Israeli aircraft.
"My most memorable personal experience was night flying at a level of 10,000 feet over a mountainous area. Not easy to get used to, and even dangerous. You must be thoroughly familiar with the route, which is new and unfamiliar. There are also conversations in the corridors and in the dining room between the pilots after the training sessions. You hear details about the routine of a pilot in another air force. Admittedly, there are similarities between them and us. Pilots are pilots, but there are differences nevertheless, and it is interesting and important to listen and to learn. For me, it was definitely a giant leap in professionalism."
Maj. A. switches from a description of his personal experiences as a pilot to a review of his activities as Head of the IAF's Overseas Training Exercise Section: "In our squadrons, we are accustomed to a preplanned daily timetable. Planning such a timetable in the context of a training exercise overseas, or even when such an exercise takes place in Israel, is a much more complex undertaking. For example, the pre-flight briefing and post-flight debriefing, to which we normally allocate about thirty minutes, will take a few hours when the formation includes foreign pilots and every participant must fully understand everything that is going to happen. Additionally, in the IAF, our basic flight formation consists of four to eight aircraft. International training exercises involve a lot more aircraft. Consequently – more aircraft are airborne, taking off and landing. This means more elaborate separation between the aircraft, and that is where the air traffic control element comes in, as it is an inseparable element of every training exercise. Unfortunately, the air traffic controllers overseas do not really speak Hebrew. The actual sorties are longer as the training areas are more expansive than what we have at home; after all, this is one of the reasons why we train overseas. We learn how to cooperate with fleets and organizations like NATO, whose activities are on a massive scale with which we are not familiar.
"Other problems involve flight safety and information security issues. IAF aircraft carry certain systems that we do not wish to disclose. As far as communication between aircraft during the exercise is concerned, the participants use common channels and speak English, and we always have our own separate channel for Hebrew speakers. I should also note that a dedicated security force, charged with the task of securing the aircraft and equipment and, naturally – the members of the delegation, is a part of every delegation that travels overseas to participate in a training exercise. When we plan a training exercise, it is up to us to find ways to make the most of the contents of the exercise, while keeping costs to a minimum."
The overseas activities of the IAF sometimes digress from standard training exercises and assume operational characteristics. One of the first operational alliances occurred in 1999 – Operation 'Shoval Kachol' (= Blue Wake). During the war in Kosovo, the Americans asked Israel to dispatch a Re'em (Boeing 707) refueling tanker. The Israeli tanker refueled US aircraft that took part in that war. In 2002, Israeli F-15 fighters participated in the Maple Flag exercise that took place in the USA and Canada. In November 2006, the commander of the IAF international squadron provided some details regarding the participation of the IAF in that exercise during a lecture he delivered at the IAF Flying School. He concluded: "The objective of our participation in international training exercises is to open up the skies for us. This has opened new horizons for us, enabled us to discover new profiles and enhanced the potential of the long arm of the IAF."
In 2010, F-16 Netz fighters from the IAF Golden Eagle Squadron and F-15 Baz fighters from the IAF Knights of the Twin Tail Squadron, along with an Eitam C2 aircraft, participated in a joint training exercise with the Italian Air Force in Sardinia. The hosts assigned Eurofighter, F-16 and Tornado fighters to that exercise. The exercise mission was "Introduction to the NATO combat doctrines."
A large-scale Blue Flag exercise took place in Israel in November 2017. Participants included the USA, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and for the first time – India. This was the largest international training exercise held in Israel up to that time. The exercise objective was "To simulate extreme combat scenarios and coalition flying in the most realistic manner possible." Now, everyone is eagerly awaiting the formal contents of the scenario being prepared for the Blue Flag 2019 exercise. The exercise will take place at Ouvda airbase in a few months.
International Cooperation at Home: In late 2017, the British Royal Navy helicopter carrier HMS Ocean visited Israel, and in a joint experiment, an IAF Blackhawk helicopter landed on board the British carrier – the flagship of the British Royal Navy. On Israel's Independence Day 2018, F-16 fighters from Greece along with aircraft from Poland, Canada (C-295 transporter), Britain (C-130 transporter) and Italy (Eurofighter) participated in the festive fly-past.
Preferably, War is not to be Conducted at Home
At IAF GHQ, they explain that the cooperative training activities and exercises with foreign air forces, at home or overseas, offer numerous benefits. "They open up training areas the likes of which we do not have in Israel and the ones we do have over here – every pilot already knows by heart. You practice combat operations in territories and topographic conditions that are radically different from the ones at home. When you fly over the mountains of Greece, for example, you take into account the fact that Lebanon has similar mountain ridges – the likes of which we do not have in Israel. Bear in mind that the IDF aspires to conduct the war away from home. Instead, they would have to conduct it in a foreign, unfamiliar territory. Training activities overseas enable you to learn how to operate under time differences. You get to know a different flying culture, different mission types. All of this contributes to the aircrews – pilots and navigators, and to the command echelon when you deploy overseas. We take pride in our mental flexibility as Israelis – we can teach this to the foreign aircrews, while we can learn from an air force that employs forces that are much larger than those the Israeli Air Force employs."
The overseas training exercises are just as important to the technical crews as they are to the aircrews. The maintenance specialists of the IAF take part in the overseas deployment activities. They are a part of the massive haulage effort of transporting a squadron overseas, and all of the Israeli aircraft undergo service and maintenance exclusively at the hands of technical section specialists wearing the blue coveralls of the IAF. An IAF pilot who participated in numerous overseas exercises told us: "When we depart for an overseas destination, we fly pilots, mechanics, equipment and spare parts. We follow the same procedures we implement when a visiting IAF squadron deploys to another airbase here in Israel, but with a lot more sorties within a tight timetable. The challenge is to take advantage of every hour and every day during the overseas exercise. We observe the highest and most stringent flight safety standards to avoid accidents and collisions. As a result of our meticulous preparations, it is very clear to us how we will execute the mission overseas, but it must be equally clear to our partners, and the operations in question are extensive and complex, hence the importance of detailed briefings and the personal communication with all of the participants."
One of the most fascinating and formative events in the context of the IAF's overseas activities was the participation in this year's Red Flag training exercise in Alaska. The Israeli delegation should have included F-15 fighters, but that failed to materialize so instead, the representation of the IAF consisted of two Re'em (Boeing 707) refueling tankers. "We learned how to refuel foreign aircraft, to serve as an airborne refueling station, to receive fuel from foreign aircraft, to land in the snow and to navigate at low levels," said the squadron commander, who emphasized that the exercise in Alaska was the most challenging training activity he had experienced during his service with the IAF.
The extensive preparations for the long flight to the other side of the globe reflect the manner in which the Overseas Training Exercise Section at IAF GHQ prepares for overseas training exercises. The preparations for the exercise in Alaska lasted almost a year. An IAF team flew to Alaska twice to learn everything about the local climate and about the conditions for staying and flying in that distant snowy state. Maj. A.: "We went there as it was impossible to finalize everything over the phone. We had to meet face to face. Re'em (Boeing 707) refueling tankers from the IAF's 120th Desert Giants Squadron participated in the exercise. The distance was 14,000 kilometers from home. The climate – freezing cold, zero degrees centigrade. The terrain consisted of snow-capped mountains around Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The exercise lasted 16 days. We carried out the flight profile to Alaska in two legs: flying from Israel to the east coast of the USA – 11 hours, and then flying to Alaska through Canada. Bear in mind that the proximity to the North Pole affects the compasses on board the aircraft, so the aircrews had to memorize the navigation methods very thoroughly so that the instruments 'would not take them elsewhere.'"
Not Just in the Air
The IDF Navy possess extensive experience in hosting foreign naval vessels and crews, and the general public is familiar with the frequent visits by US Navy Sixth Fleet vessels at the port of Haifa. The navies of the USA and Israel have a special cooperation agreement.
IDF Navy vessels participated in numerous naval exercises with foreign fleets. In the past, the IDF Navy's 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos) participated in a joint training exercise with the counterparts, the US Navy Seals.
In the Mediterranean, IDF Navy units participate in training exercises of NATO navies. The Israeli Navy cooperates with the navies of Greece and Italy. The Noble Melinda training exercise, conducted entirely underwater, included the IDF Navy's YALTAM diver unit along with diver units from the USA and France. The IDF is definitely maintaining cooperative alliances with friendly armed forces in the air, at sea and on land.