IAF fighter jets, refuelers hold air drill with US forces, thought to focus on Iran

Two-week exercises simulate ‘strategic strike’ in unfamiliar enemy territory with ‘abundance of anti-aircraft defenses’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Four F-35I fighter jets escort a B707 refueler in preparation for Red Flag-Nellis 23-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, March 8, 2023. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Megan Estrada)
Four F-35I fighter jets escort a B707 refueler in preparation for Red Flag-Nellis 23-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, March 8, 2023. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Megan Estrada)

Israeli fighter jets and refueler aircraft on Sunday began a two-week air drill with the US Air Force at an airbase in Nevada, a joint activity thought to be focused on Iran, with officials saying the exercises would include long-range flights and simulate strikes in unfamiliar enemy territory.

The seven F-35I fighter jets and two Boeing 707 refueling planes of the Israeli Air Force had been arriving at Nellis Air Force Base since Wednesday, ahead of the drill, known as Red Flag 23-2.

In a statement Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces said the exercises would include a “strategic strike in the depth,” an apparent reference to a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Additionally, the air drills would simulate “achieving aerial superiority in the region, joint aerial strikes, area defense, interception of enemy aircraft, low-altitude flights and striking in an unfamiliar area with an abundance of anti-aircraft defenses.”

During the drill, the IAF refueler planes were to refuel American fighter jets, and Israeli fighter jets were to refuel from an American Boeing KC-46, of which Israel has ordered four and is expected to receive the first in 2025.

For Israel, the KC-46 aircraft are seen as necessary to conduct potential major strikes against targets in Iran, some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Israel and far outside the normal flight range of Israeli jets.

A US Air Force Boeing KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling plane connects to a F-35 fighter jet over California, January 22, 2019. (US Air Force photo by Ethan Wagner)

A US Air Force statement warned residents of southern Nevada of noise over the next two weeks.

“Close to 100 aircraft are scheduled to depart Nellis twice a day and may remain in the air for up to five hours during this large-scale exercise. Also, expect aircraft noise during nighttime and weekend launches,” the US Air Force said.

It said that Saturday flights would be rescheduled for Sunday, out of respect for the IAF participants who observe the Sabbath.

Israel regularly conducts various training drills with the US military, including air force exercises and missile defense drills.

In January, the IDF and US Central Command held a major drill in Israel, dubbed Juniper Oak, the largest-ever joint exercise held by the Israeli and American militaries. Juniper Oak was widely seen as a message to Iran.

Israeli and American fighter jets fly alongside an American B-52 bomber over the Mediterranean Sea during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 25, 2023. (CENTCOM)

“The Red Flag exercise strengthens operational cooperation between the two militaries as key partners committed to maintaining security in the Middle East,” the IDF said Sunday.

The US Navy, Marine Corps, Space Force, and Air National Guard were also to participate in the Red Flag 23-2 drill.

Red Flag drills are held at least three times a year since 1975 at Nellis airbase, considered the US Air Force’s “premier military training area.”

An F-35I fighter jet lands to prepare for Red Flag-Nellis 23-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, March 8, 2023. (U.S. Air Force/William R. Lewis)

The US Air Force said the exercises aim to “provide aircrews the experience of multiple, intensive air combat sorties in the safety of a training environment.”

One of the drills is only for US forces, another only for the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States — and one “that welcomes an expanded roster of international allies and partners,” the US Air Force said.

The IAF participated in Red Flag in 2002, 2004, 2009, 2015, and 2016.

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