Representatives of a number of foreign air forces met in recent days at the Ovda Airbase in southern Israel as part of the planning for the biennial Blue Flag exercise, which will be held in November. Almost 70 foreign planes from nine countries, along with hundreds of pilots, will take part. This is the first time such a large number of foreign planes and air forces will participate in a training exercise in Israel.
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Germany, one of the participating countries, will for the first time send fighter jets to the exercise, alongside an aerial refueling plane, pilots and senior officials from its army and air force.
The Israel Air Force is aware of the historical significance of German military aircraft visiting Israel. "They are coming to Ovda to train with us and learn from us," a senior air force officer told Haaretz. "When a German combat aircraft and refueling plane arrive, it is an emotional event."
In addition to Germany, India will send combat planes, France will send its Rafale fighter aircraft, and Greece, Italy, Poland and the United States will also participate by sending planes and crews.
The demand to take part in the exercise was so great that the air force had to limit the number of foreign planes participating because of a lack of space on the base, according to a senior air force officer.
As part of the exercise, foreign crews will practice handling the threat of advanced surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles, with the Israel Air Force’s so-called Red Squadron playing the role of the enemy. The exercise will include flights in formation with planes from different countries, with no countries opposing each other, said the senior officer. Haaretz has previously reported that the air force will outsource the management of the exercise to a private company, and the same company may also help run similar exercises in the future as well.
Israel and Germany enjoy close security cooperation ties, including joint exercises and visits by senior officers and officials. In 2015, the German Army conducted joint exercises at the Tze’elim base with the IDF as part of its urban warfare training. More than 100 German soldiers with five heavy military vehicles came for the training, which was the largest joint exercise between the two militaries so far.
Germany has provided financial aid for Israeli military procurement, and helped finance the new Sa’ar 6 missile corvettes to protect Israel’s offshore gas fields, which will be purchased from the German firm ThyssenKrupp. Israel has also bought advanced submarines with German aid. These purchases are being investigated by the Israel Police over allegations of possible corruption in the procurement process.
Germany has also decided to lease the Israeli remotely piloted Heron TP vehicles (known locally as the Eitan) from the Israel Aerospace Industries. On Wednesday, however, the German parliament's budget committee postponed a decision on a 1-billion-euro ($1.11 billion) funding package for the military, including the deal to lease the Israeli-made armed drones, sources told Reuters.
Some lawmakers from the center-left Social Democratic Party have reservations about leasing Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) which can be armed and used to protect soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Mali.
The higher court in Duesseldorf in May dismissed a legal challenge by U.S. weapons maker General Atomics to Germany's plans to lease the drones from rival IAI. But the court this month said it had put the deal on hold again as it considers a complaint by General Atomics against its decision.
Some SPD lawmakers want the budget committee to delay a decision on the deal until a final court decision.
Germany already has three earlier versions of the Heron reconnaissance drone which are deployed in Afghanistan. They are maintained by Airbus and cannot be armed.
Reuters contributed to this report