As symbols of raw military power and historical memories go, few things could have beaten the sight of a Eurofighter jet, carrying the cross of the German Luftwaffe lining up beside an F-15 with the Israeli Air-Force’s blue Star of David, before both of them screamed into the sky over the Negev Desert for an air-combat exercise.
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The first-ever visit of German warplanes to Israel was not the only historic sight on display this week at the Israel Air Force’s Uvda airbase. Blue Flag 2017, the largest international military exercise ever to take place in Israel also saw the return of French fighter jets to Israeli skies, in the shape of Mirage 2000Ds. The last time they were here was in 1956, when, as part of the secret plans leading to the Suez campaign, Israel cooperated with France and Britain against Nasser’s Egypt, and French squadrons deployed to Israeli airbases. Another historical first was the arrival of an Indian C-130J transport aircraft, along with a squadron of “Garud” special-force operators, here for the first joint Israeli-Indian exercise.
Along with three newcomers, four more nations that have attended Blue Flag exercises in the past – the United States, Italy, Greece and Poland – are represented at Blue Flag 2017. The operational and logistical challenges of such an exercise are unprecedented for the IAF – hosting 35 aircraft from seven different countries at its southernmost base, along with another 26 aircraft of five different IAF squadrons from other bases. Uvda is the IAF’s only base dedicated mainly to training, rather than hosting operational squadrons, and is used to having air-crew and maintenance teams of other squadrons visiting. However, as one of the commanders of the exercise explained, “I can’t fly the international crews home for the night or put them up at the relatively Spartan facilities on base. We want them to go home with a positive experience on all fronts.” Most of the 700 foreign personnel in the exercise are therefore being hosted for the two weeks of Blue Flag in hotels in nearby Eilat.
The pattern of the exercise, to a large degree, resembles that of the international Red Flag exercises, which are hosted by the United States Air Force. As in Red Flag, the various delegations are split into “red” and “blue” teams which then conduct simulated air battles between each other. A key component in the mock-aerial combat is the IAF’s Squadron 115, based at Uvda – the IAF’s “aggressor” unit, which simulates enemy aircraft and tactics using F-16C jets.
While most large-scale military exercises are conducted with a real or barely-veiled fictional enemy in mind, an international exercise like Blue Flag, for diplomatic reasons, doesn’t usually have that kind of real-life scenario. Six of the nations participating are members of NATO, which usually holds exercises in which Russia is a potential aggressor, but Israel is currently coordinating with the Russian air-force operating above Syria, so that would not look good. And it would be out of the question for obvious reasons for other nations to join Israel in the simulation of a campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon or a long-range attack against Iran. Therefore the scenarios of the operations in Blue Flag or of a more generic nature – air-to-air battles and strike missions, defensive counter air exercises in which one group of aircraft try to shoot another group down before they succeed in attacking ground targets, suppression of destruction of enemy air defense operations, electronic warfare and low-level commando landing missions (by the Israeli and Indian transport aircraft) and the prevention of these.
But the diplomacy at Blue Flag doesn’t begin, or end, with the identity of the enemy force. What one of the senior IAF officers described as “aerial diplomacy” is closely linked to more traditional civilian diplomacy and geopolitical alliances. While the air-crews talk of learning from each other’s tactical experience and air-power doctrines, it is clear that their presence is not just for the purpose of enhancing their own professionalism. Armies of different nations don’t carry out high-profile joint exercises without there being a much deeper relationship between the countries.
While the IAF had long-standing ties with other air-forces for decades, such visible military symbols as fight-aircraft flying and training together is a recently new occurrence for the IAF. In the past, not that many countries were happy to be seen training in Israel. Which is why despite the closeness of the security relations, this is the first time France and Germany are flying here and why it took a public visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel earlier this year before the Indian C-130 and commandos landed in the Negev. And like almost everything else in Israel’s foreign relations, the United States, which supplies Israel’s fighter aircraft and is in many ways a partner in Blue Flag, also had to authorize the participation of other nations before invitations were issued. As one Israeli officer put it, “We won’t reveal systems and tactics that we have and share with the Americans without their approval.”
Blue Flag is not only a military exercise; it is a demonstration by Israel that more countries than ever are willing to engage with it publicly as strategic allies, and put aside political considerations, like the concerns of Arab nations and the Palestinian issue. As the influence of traditional diplomacy is waning, the role played by military commanders in international relations is growing. Which is also why the IAF was directed by the government to produce a major PR program alongside the training program, hosting media crews from Israel and abroad, and even more specialist aviation journalists and photographers, at Uvda on a lavish media day on Wednesday. It was a demonstration of Israel’s both hard and soft power. Inviting the press to international war games is diplomacy by other means.