Israeli aircraft will fly alongside Pakistani and United Arab Emirates planes in the United States Air Force’s Red Flag exercise in the Nevada desert later this month.
Red Flag is considered the US military’s “premier air-to-air combat training exercise,” in which participating countries are divided into two teams and simulate dog fights to improve both their aviation skills and their military’s international connections, according to the US Air Force.
Last year, Israeli pilots took part in the Red Flag exercise for the first time in six years. During the aerial simulation, Israeli Air Force planes flew with — and reportedly refueled — Jordanian fighter jets.
In 2016, there will be four Red Flag exercises at the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The first ran from January to February, the second from February to March and the third in July, while the final exercise will be conducted August 15-26, according to the US Air Force.
Israel will take part in the August exercise, sending both fighter jets and cargo planes to Nellis Air Force Base, an IDF spokesperson said.
Those planes will apparently be joined by two Muslim countries, according to the US Air Force.
“For the second and fourth Red Flag, we will be including foreign players which include the United Kingdom, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, and Spain,” Col. Jeffrey Weed, a Combat Training Squadron commander in the US Air Force, announced after the 2015 Red Flag exercise.
The Aviationist, a website dedicated to aviation news and analysis, reported that Pakistani F16 fighter jets were seen en route to the Nevada desert, refueling at the US Air Force Lajes Field base in the Azores, Portugal.
The Israeli military would not officially comment on the presence of Pakistani and United Arab Emirates pilots at the Red Flag exercise, other than to say that the drill was being run by the Americans and Israel sees itself as a “guest” of the country.
However, earlier this year a senior IAF official stressed that, in addition to their benefits for training, international military exercises can be seen as a form of “roundabout” diplomatic strategy.
“Flying outside of Israel is very different from flying out of Ramat David,” the official told The Times of Israel, referring to an air base in northern Israel.
“You don’t know the area, you’re speaking in a different language. It lets you put a mirror up to yourself, and you learn a lot from that,” he said.
And there are other benefits to training with foreign armies, he added.
“[International exercises] are not just military, but strategic in nature,” the officer said. “And the strategic benefits are not always direct; they can also be roundabout.”
While they are not considered “enemy nations,” Israel does not have formal ties with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Though Pakistan has indicated it would be prepared to formalize its relationship with the Jewish state once there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians, ties between the two countries are often complicated.
There have been reports of covert contacts between Israeli and Pakistani officials, including a WikiLeaks document that indicated that a high-ranking official in the Pakistani army met directly with the Israeli Mossad.
Publicly, however, the two nations have little to do with one another. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly canceled a dinner reservation at a New York restaurant to avoid eating at the same time as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Though there are still no formal ties with the United Arab Emirates, there has recently been a thaw in Israel’s relationship with the Gulf state. In November, Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold visited Bahrain in order to open its first diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates.