Hundreds of Pilots, Zero Dogfights: Inside Israel's 'Social Club' Exercise

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A German Eurofighter landing at Ovda Air Base in southern Israel as part of the Blue Flag exercis
A German Eurofighter landing at Ovda Air Base in southern Israel as part of the Blue Flag exercisCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

There are no dogfights at Blue Flag. This was probably the most surprising piece of information from Sunday’s media day at Ovda Air Base in the southern Negev.

Dozens of the most advanced fighter jets, hundreds of pilots and over 1,000 ground personnel from eight countries gathered for the largest international air exercise Israel has ever hosted. Yet despite the “Top Gun”-style videos screened to the assembled journalists from Israel and around the world, there were no dogfights on the schedule. No airborne jockeys jousting in the sky, pulling 9Gs and straining to get each other in their sights.

Welcome to air power in the 21st century. Dogfights are out. No one is going to see the whites of their opponent’s eyes. Instead, interceptions of enemy planes take place beyond visual range, and the only chance a pilot may get to use their cannon is when being tasked to shoot down a drone.

There are still plenty of flying sorties at Blue Flag, but much of the emphasis is on management and protocols: how best to deploy aircraft; where to send them; how to integrate fifth-generation F-35 fighters and the masses of data they collect in the air within a larger force of fourth-generation fighters.

A British Royal Air Force Typhoon at Blue Flag 2021 in southern Israel.

Even Lt. Col. E., commander of the Israel Air Force’s Squadron 115 (Dragon), whose role is to lead his F-16s in a simulation of enemy aircraft and train fellow pilots in the air to the max, admits that “planning is an inherent part of what we’re doing here in the exercise.”

According to one of the senior officers involved in staging it, Blue Flag 2021 – the fifth such exercise to be held in Israel since the inaugural drill in 2013 – is primarily “a social event.” An opportunity for crews from around the world to plan and fly joint operations. To take advantage of what the IAF calls its “playground” in the Negev skies.

But unlike similar international exercises carried out in the United States and Europe by NATO air forces, there isn’t any real-life scenario in which Israel would actually join forces in a strike mission with any of the countries involved in Blue Flag. Not even with its closest ally, the United States.

Beyond the professional opportunity for flight crews and military planners to learn from each other, Blue Flag is “military diplomacy and actual diplomacy. It strengthens our legitimacy,” says one Israeli general.

An Italian F-35 at Blue Flag 2021 in Israel yesterday.
Israeli F-35 at Blue Flag 2021

In other words, its main contribution to Israel isn’t in improving the skills and increasing the know-how of its pilots. It’s proving to the world that Israel has not just the military clout but the international standing to host such an event, with aircraft and crews from the U.S., India, Germany, France, Greece and Italy – who have all taken part in these exercises in recent years. This year, for the first time, Britain’s Royal Air Force also deployed to Israel with Typhoon fighter jets.

There are few more visible manifestations of strong relations between countries than the joint deployment of combat aircraft, and Britain, which until not so long ago feared angering its Arab allies by bringing its military ties with Israel out into the sunlight, is just the latest member of the Ovda Flying Club.

Anyway, why should Britain worry about harming its ties with Arab countries when even the commander of the United Arab Emirates Air Force was scheduled to drop in to join a “commanders symposium” as part of Blue Flag.

The UAE’s own F-16s weren’t part of the exercise, but perhaps next time. They already flew with their Israeli counterparts in another international exercise that took place over Greece in April.

So, what’s in it for these club members?

A Greek F-16 at Blue Flag 2021 in Israel
Indian Mirage 2000 at Blue Flag 2021 in Israel

The experience for the pilots in flying over unknown terrain and being exposed to new tactics is obvious, but the bigger picture is even more important. New diplomatic and military alliances are forming across the globe.

Last month, the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United States and Britain was unveiled. Australia will be getting new U.S. submarines as a result, but the underlying strategy is about creating an alliance against Chinese ambitions in the Pacific.

Blue Flag is nowhere near as ambitious, of course. But the military and strategic ties between the participating countries are increasingly important. India, for instance, is also facing an increasingly belligerent China on its border and is hoping for assistance. It is also a major client of Israel’s arms industry. All the other guests have arms deals with Israel as well.

The U.S. hopes to use these events to emphasize that, despite its recent debacle in Afghanistan, it hasn’t withdrawn from its military relationships. Besides, it manufactured most of the planes being flown at Blue Flag: the F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter jets. The F-35 project is itself a club of nations developing fifth-generation tactics together. Half of the Blue Flag participants already operate the F-35, and more sent representatives to a special F-35 “seminar” (another event on the Blue Flag schedule).

An Israeli F-16 taking off during the Blue Flag international air exercise in southern Israel, yesterday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Israeli F-35s landing at the Ovda Air Base in southern Israel during the Blue Flag exercise yesterday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Greece is there because it sees Israel as its main ally in the eastern Mediterranean, facing a hostile Turkey. Britain, no longer a member of the European Union, is anxious to build up new alliances. Meanwhile, the main EU nations – France, Germany and Italy – are all there to make sure they, and the EU, don’t lose their own standing in the region. And flying their fighter jets with Israel’s is the way to do it nowadays.

In a week in which the United States publicly asked Israel for “clarifications” on its decision to designate six Palestinian NGOs as “terrorist organizations,” some of which received funding from EU governments, the air forces of those countries were in Israel to show that what really mattered was being part of the Ovda Flying Club.

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