IDF and US hold F-35 drill, delayed by virus, over southern Israel
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IDF and US hold F-35 drill, delayed by virus, over southern Israel

‘Enduring Lightning’ aerial exercise simulated in-air combat and attacks from the ground; countries’ crews never met in person, just through video chat, amid infection concerns

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

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli and American militaries conducted a joint exercise with their F-35 stealth fighter jets over southern Israel on Sunday, simulating in-air combat and attacks from the ground, following a delay needed to sort out how to hold such a drill during the coronavirus pandemic.

The drill — dubbed Enduring Lightning — was one of the Israel Defense Forces’ first international exercises for the F-35 fighter jet, which was declared operational in late 2017.

“In the exercise, which was held in southern Israel, the Israeli and American fifth-generation, advanced F-35 fighter jets simulated scenarios in which they had to deal with both aerial threats and varying strategic threats from the ground,” the IDF said, apparently referring to advanced air defense systems, like the Russian-made S-300 and S-400.

In light of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, all contact between the two countries’ pilots and crews was remote — through shared communications while in the air and through video conference software while on the ground, the military said.

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition, the exercise was cut down from three days — as originally planned — to one.

“Alongside our concern for our service members’ health, the air force is continuing to preserve its full operational fitness… out of the critical need to proceed with our mission: defending the skies of the State of Israel, in the day-to-day and during emergencies,” the military said.

Though the forgoing of on-the-ground meetings was done out of particular concern in light of the pandemic, it is not unprecedented for these international air exercises to forgo physical contact, as was the case last month in a drill between IDF and the French military.

The IDF said this week’s exercise both showed its close relationship with the US military and “increased the sharing of knowledge and study of the F-35’s capabilities.”

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The F-35 exercise comes weeks after the US and Israeli militaries called off two separate exercises due to the coronavirus pandemic, including one of their largest joint drills, the biennial Juniper Cobra.

The military said the exercise was not in response to any specific threat but was part of its general 2020 training schedule.

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