Israeli-American coalition takes on ‘enemy’ aircraft in the south
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Israeli-American coalition takes on ‘enemy’ aircraft in the south

Ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit, pilots from US, Israeli Air Forces fly together in Juniper Falcon air exercise

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An Israeli-American aerial coalition squared off against enemy forces in southern Israel, sustaining heavy (mock) losses, but learning invaluable lessons along the way, an IDF official said Sunday, speaking to reporters at the end of a two-week exercise.

This month, the US and Israeli Air Forces dominated the Jewish state’s southern airspace for the annual Juniper Falcon exercise, staging dogfights and bombing runs against an enemy nation: Stallion.

The Stallion forces were, in fact, Israeli forces. The air force’s Flying Dragon Squadron, also known as the Red Squadron, played the role of enemy aircraft in the drill.

Though the Flying Dragon Squadron operates F-16 fighter jets, in the exercise they behaved like Sukhoi-35, MiG-29 and MiG-21 jets. The Stallion military also used SA-2, SA-6 and SA-22 anti-aircraft batteries against the US-Israeli coalition forces, the IAF officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to his sensitive position.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The enemy country — often referred to as the “Red Team” — was deliberately a fabrication, as opposed to representing a specific country, though its Russian-made air power was reminiscent of several real countries, notably Iran and Syria.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Fighting against Stallion was a coalition — the “Blue Team” — made up of American and Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, the officer said.

The Americans, the IAF official said, were “very organized” and “showed tremendous bravery” in the exercise.

The US Air Force pilots’ style favored “high risk” and “aggressive” flying, going into missions at high speed and attacking targets “very violently,” the officer said.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

On the other hand, the Israeli pilots who made up the “Red Team” took their job as the enemy seriously as well.

“The opposition was very harsh. They did everything to spoil [Blue Team’s] plans. The MiGs and Sukhois were unforgiving to mistakes,” the official said.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over Masada, in southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over Masada, in southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The exercise was based in the IAF’s Ovda air base, just north of Eilat, but the simulated fighting took part throughout the Arava desert.

The drill was divided into two main aspects: attack and defense.

On attack sorties, the coalition forces had to penetrate enemy airspace and target convoys or missile launch sites.

They flew in three basic teams, known in the air force as “packages,” the officer said. One was tasked with taking out the enemy MiGs and Sukhois; the second with “maintaining air superiority” by targeting the surface-to-air batteries on the ground; and the third with carrying out the actual bombing runs.

“It was three packages that had to plan the mission together, to solve the riddle we presented them with, including lots of tactical elements, like identifying targets, bringing down targets, creating aerial superiority,” the officer said.

“They all depended on one another, and only cooperation let them reach their goals,” the air force official said.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

During these attack runs, the coalition forces would send up about 24 planes and lose between three to eight of them, the officer said. The average number of losses for the Blue Team was five, he said.

“If they flew very well, it would be like five percent [loss]. If they flew poorly, it would be closer to 30 percent,” the air force officer said.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

On defense missions, the coalition had to patrol the skies, keeping out attacking enemy aircraft.

The Israeli and American pilots were responsible for defending specific sites, like control towers or congregations of allied forces.

“It’s totally different flying, a totally different experience. It’s a different mode in your head,” he said.

The Red Team’s job was, of course, “to infiltrate, to get in alive with bombs and attack the targets of the Blue country,” the officer said.

On defense, the Blue Team’s losses were much greater than in the attack runs, he said.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Following the exercises, the two air forces would debrief and review the runs.

“After the flights, we sat down and went over: who shot down whom; who attacked whom and when,” he said. “We’d figure out what the joint lessons were for all of us.”

According to the officer, one of the main takeaways from the exercise was the importance of communication.

The American-Israeli Blue Team worked in English, which presented a challenge to some of the Israeli pilots, who are used to conducting operations in Hebrew.

“They had to make up all kinds of codes between themselves that represented different things so that they could work together and defeat the opposition,” he said.

Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli and American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets fly alongside one another over southern Israel in May 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Later this year, Israel will host its largest-ever aerial exercise in Ovda — known as “Blue Flag” — bringing in seven air forces from around the world.

For the first time, Indian aircraft will train in Israel as part of Blue Flag, as well as France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and the US, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, the IAF’s international affairs chief, told Defense News earlier this year.

Officers and other representatives from nearly 40 countries will also attend.

“People are seeing there’s a lot to learn from Israel,” Hecht said. “We provide a sort of battle lab in which forces can hone a spectrum of skills needed to combat growing threats.”

In March, Israel and the US took part in an international exercise in Greece, along with the United Arab Emirates and Italy.

The 11-day drill consisted of “complex air operations” and also included naval and ground forces, according to Greece’s air force.

That reportedly included training exercises against the Greek air force’s S-300 missile defense battery, the same type of system used by Iran.

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