Israeli F-35s train alongside US, UK in first international exercise
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Israeli F-35s train alongside US, UK in first international exercise

Fifth-generation stealth fighter jets fly in drill over Mediterranean Sea to test and improve aircraft’s abilities, IDF says

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

F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom take part in an aerial exercise over the Mediterranean Sea, on June 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom take part in an aerial exercise over the Mediterranean Sea, on June 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States and United Kingdom conducted training flights over the Mediterranean Sea Tuesday in the Israeli aircraft’s first-ever international exercise, the military said.

This marked a significant show of military cooperation between the three countries.

The Israel Defense Forces received the fifth-generation stealth fighter from the United States’ Lockheed Martin defense contractor in late 2016 and declared it operational roughly a year later. In 2018, the Israeli Air Force revealed it had used the F-35 operationally — including at least once over Lebanon — making it the first military in the world to do so.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom said its F-35 fighter jets had also conducted their first missions, flying sorties over Iraq and Syria as part of the fight against the Islamic State terror group.

The joint drill, which included dogfights between the F-35 fighter jets, was dubbed “Tri-Lightning,” a reference to the aircraft’s official designation, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

“The first international air exercise involving Israeli F-35 planes alongside foreign F-35 planes was held yesterday. The exercise was held over the Mediterranean Sea and simulated survival scenarios and defense against varying threats from advanced aircraft, including the F-35 plane,” the IDF said in a statement.

The Israeli Air Force said it planned to hold additional international exercises with the stealth fighter jets in the future in order to “advance its capabilities.”

F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom take part in an aerial exercise over the Mediterranean Sea on June 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

As one of the world’s leading air forces, the IAF regularly leads and participates in international exercises, including its flagship biennial Blue Flag drill.

Israel was also invited to take part in the British Royal Air Force’s Cobra Warrior exercise planned for September 2019.

“International cooperation between Israel, the US and Britain strengthens our joint interests and our new, exclusive capabilities in the Middle East,” said IAF Chief of Air Staff Brig. Gen. Amnon Ein-Dar.

Last week, the air force held a large multi-day exercise simulating combat action on multiple fronts, the army said Tuesday, with F-35s taking part for the first time.

That drill included night and day missions by fighter jets, helicopters, cargo planes, drones, air defense units and ground support forces. It simulated simultaneous fighting in the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon, and included scenarios involving an enemy armed with advanced technology, such as the Russian S-300 and S-400 missile defense systems; a home front under massive missile attacks; and challenges such as damaged runways and disabled IAF communications centers.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 is seen during an air force exercise, June 2019. (IDF Spokesperson)

The IAF has acknowledged receiving from the US-based Lockheed Martin defense contractor at least 14 F-35 fighter jets of the 50 that have been ordered. These are scheduled to be delivered in installments of twos and threes through 2024.

The fifth-generation F-35 has been lauded as a “game-changer” by the military, not only for its offensive and stealth capabilities, but for its ability to connect its systems with other aircraft and form an information-sharing network.

Detractors, however, balked at the high price tag for the aircraft: approximately $100 million apiece (Lockheed Martin says the cost is expected to go down as more countries purchase the F-35).

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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