IAF pilots practice their dog fighting, and English, in war games with French
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IAF pilots practice their dog fighting, and English, in war games with French

Drill over southern Israel features simulated three-on-three combat, with Israeli pilots in F-16s and the French flying Dassault Rafales from aircraft carrier off Israeli coast

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

Israeli F-16 and French Dassault Rafale fighter jets fly together as part of a joint air exercise in February 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli F-16 and French Dassault Rafale fighter jets fly together as part of a joint air exercise in February 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

French fighter pilots trained alongside the Israeli Air Force this week as part of a joint exercise focusing on air-to-air combat, the military said in an exercise that allowed the pilots to practice coordinating with foreign forces — and their English.

The drill was held on Monday and Tuesday in the skies over southern Israel. The exercise featured three-on-three dogfights, with one group of pilots — the “red team” — tasked with carrying out an airstrike while the second group — the “blue team” — tried to stop them, one of the participating Israeli pilots told The Times of Israel.

Three French Dassault Rafale fighter jets took part in the exercise, flying into southern Israel from an aircraft carrier off the coast. The Israeli pilots, from the 107th Air Squadron, flew F-16I jets out of the Ovda air base north of Eilat.

This kind of joint exercise, along with larger multinational ones, allow Israeli pilots the opportunity to learn tactics and techniques from other air forces and learn to work together with unfamiliar pilots and aircraft, something they may have to do operationally in the future.

On a more strategic level, these exercises also allow Israel to maintain strong military ties with countries around the world, regardless of any diplomatic or political tensions. In some cases, Israeli pilots have even participated in exercises alongside countries that do not formally recognize the State of Israel, like Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Israeli F-16 and French Dassault Rafale fighter jets fly together as part of a joint air exercise in February 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In order to further force the two countries to work together, instead of having each country face off against each other, the two teams included both Israeli and French pilots.

“This allowed us to both fly with them and against them, trying all the options,” said Cpt. “Ayin,” who for security reasons can only be identified by his rank and the first Hebrew letter of his name.

This also forced the participating pilots to communicate in a common language: English.

Ayin said this was occasionally difficult for the Israeli pilots, who are less used to working in English than their French counterparts, who do so more regularly as part of their training and operations in NATO.

Israeli F-16 and French Dassault Rafale fighter jets fly together as part of a joint air exercise in February 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

“You can’t be stuck thinking how to translate a word for five, seven seconds, because after five, seven seconds the situation has changed,” Ayin said, speaking over the phone.

In order to prepare for the exercise, Ayin and his fellow pilots practiced the English phrases and terms they expected to need.

“Something like 70% of the communication is things you know you’re going to have to say, like ‘I’m firing a missile,'” he said. “So we went over them, word by word, under different situations. That way it’s more fluent.”

Unlike in most of the air force’s international exercises, the French pilots who took part in this week’s drill did not stay in Israel but rather went back to their aircraft carrier at the end of each day’s training.

According to Ayin, this presented a logistic challenge in the exercise, as the French airmen had to follow a strict schedule due to the constraints of flying in and out of an aircraft carrier.

The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle seen on January 1, 2009. (Public Domain/Wikipedia)

“They had much more specific hours — a plane had to take off at a certain time and return at a certain time,” he said. “We were able to be much more flexible, but it also required much more flexibility from us.”

Additionally, as the French team never came ashore, the Israeli and French pilots never met in person before the exercise, though they did speak by phone, Ayin said.

He said this added a dimension of mystery to the training.

“You don’t know who flies better, who flies worse, or what they’ll do,” he said. “You come into the exercise completely neutral, both with who’s on your team and who you’re flying against.”

Going into an exercise with a “clean slate” meant that the pilots had to assume the other country’s were top-notch, Ayin said. “You can’t assume the person is average, or he’ll shoot you down,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Israeli pilots were flown by helicopter out to the French aircraft, the Charles de Gaulle.

“It was my first time seeing a giant thing like that. It was fascinating and enriching,” Ayin said.

He described the exercise as having been successful overall, with each side learning from the other.

“Now we’re thinking about how to do a more challenging exercise,” Ayin said.

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