Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Israel’s Blue Flag drills

The recently concluded Blue Flag 2017 military aviation manoeuvres furnish clues as to what is foremost in the minds of Israeli strategists at a moment of high regional tensions, writes Osama Al-Geredli


A fighter jet in action during Israel’s Blue Flag military aviation manoeuvres
A fighter jet in action during Israel’s Blue Flag military aviation manoeuvres

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Blue Flag 2017  — the largest international military aviation manoeuvres in Israeli history — ended this week. The third such biennial exercise (the first two took place in 2013 and 2015), it was attended by 40 observer countries and eight participant states, which contributed a total of around 1,000 air force members and 100 aircraft. The eight participant countries were: the US (200 US air force members plus seven F-16C Falcons from the 31st Fighter Wing of the 510th Fighter Squadron from Aviano Airbase in Italy), Germany (six Eurofighter Typhoons), France (five Mirage 2000ADs), Italy (five Tornados), Poland (six F-16s), Greece (five F-16s), Israel (with a number of F-15, F-15I and F-16C fighters) and, last but not least, India (with C-130J Super Hercules special operations aircraft and a 45-member contingent that included 16 Garud commandos).

The Garud are generally tasked with the protection of vital targets, counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations, and their equipment includes Israeli made weapons such as the Tavor TAR-21 assault rifle, the Galil semi-automatic sniper rifle and the Negev SF light machine gun. The Garud commandos were assigned tasks requiring missions “behind enemy lines” and in which they worked together with Israeli counterparts such as the Shaldag commando unit, the 669 Combat Search & Rescue unit and the Israeli airborne attack forces.

The multilateral Blue Flag exercises seek to improve the coordination, integration and tactical efficiency of the Israeli and US air forces, on the one hand, and the six other participant air forces, on the other, by setting certain challenges for their various aircraft that compel them to work together while modifying drills to accommodate the differences between technical specifications of these air forces’ diverse aircraft. The drills themselves were based on simulated war scenarios in which participant teams were required to carry out a variety of offensive and defensive aerial combat tasks. There were about a hundred daytime and night time sorties involving, for example, aerial interception of hostile targets, electronic warfare tasks, evasion of enemy defence systems, taking out enemy defences and countering hostile drones. This strategy offers an opportunity for all participants to sharpen their skills, familiarise themselves with the other forces, exchange expertise and acquire experience in new tactics, while enhancing military cooperation between participant air forces.

The general concept of the Blue Flag manoeuvres pits the “Blue Squadron” (made up of diverse combinations of participant forces, depending on the mission) against the Israelis’ “Red Squadron”, which is also known as the 115 Squadron and the Flying Dragon Squadron. This squadron, with its F-16s and Bell AH-1 Cobra assault helicopters, is experienced in simulating enemy air force tactics. The purpose is to help participants gain experience in how the “enemy” thinks through a range of simulated challenges that approximate real life threats.

This year’s Blue Flag exercises are significant on many levels. It is the first time that India, Germany and France take part. Israel showcased the participation of the German Luftwaffe alongside the Israeli F-15s as an unprecedented event in light of the history of the Jewish holocaust. India’s participation was profiled in the framework of growing relations between New Delhi and Tel Aviv following the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017 and the recent visit of three ships from the Indian Western Fleet to Haifa Naval Base. There has also been a marked increase in Israeli military exports to India.

Ovda Airbase, where these exercises are staged, is the best situated for the purposes of the drills. Located in the southern Negev, it is remote from any residential areas while the training space extends westward towards the border with Gaza and eastward towards Wadi Araba.

The manoeuvres also come at a time of sharply heightening tensions in the region (between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the threat of possible Gulf state sanctions against Lebanon in the context of Saudi-Iran tensions, and the wars in Yemen and Syria, the recent Israeli strikes against Hizbullah locations in Syria, renewed talk in Israel concerning the possibility of military action against Iranian nuclear installations, the recent surge in tensions in Gaza after Israel destroyed the Khan Younis tunnel, killing members of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation, and reports that the Israeli military is planning another strike against Gaza).

The US and Israel, this year, were particularly interested in how to handle surface-to-surface anti-missile systems and air-to-surface missiles, which is significant in light of Iran’s acquisition of the Russian S-300 air defence system. This helps explain the focus, in the drills, on simulated exercises involving Patriot missiles stationed south of the Dimona nuclear research centre, as well as the Tornado fighter jets, which are also designed for electronic warfare tasks, in an attempt to explore new ways to neutralise the missiles.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Indian special forces participating in the exercises were stationed at the Navatim and Palmachim airbases in order to carry out joint exercises with Israeli special forces. As these two bases are part of the security and protection systems for the Dimona and Soreq/Yavne nuclear research centres, it appears that the joint exercises had in mind the possibility of operations “behind enemy lines” in dealing with Iranian nuclear facilities and their protection systems.

The Iranian factor can also be seen in the inclusion of drones in the exercises. Israel appears to be particularly keen to acquire greater defence expertise in contending with drones in light of recent developments in Iran’s drone capacities and the fact that it has either furnished Hizbullah with drones or helped the Lebanese movement develop the technical resources to manufacture them. Hizbullah’s capacities to strike vital targets inside Israel have increased considerably, a threat to which Israel is particularly acute.

Of course, the exercises are a major sign of the deepening forms of military and strategic cooperation between Israel and the US. The Blue Flag aerial drills seek to enhance cooperation and coordination between the two sides and to hone their aerial combat skills.

On the other hand, Israel did not include the new generation of US-made F-35 fighter jets in the exercises. This may reflect that these aircraft have not yet been fully incorporated into Israeli air defences. But observers predict that they will take part in the Blue Flag 2019 drills.

What is certain is that Israel is intent on continuing to develop the Blue Flag project, gradually expanding participation beyond the joint Israeli-US framework so that the Israeli defence forces can acquire new skills by exposing themselves to different countries’ expertise, and as a form of “diplomacy” in order to develop Israel’s international relations.

The writer is a former general and deputy director of the Egyptian General Intelligence.

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