Israeli aircraft returned to Israel this week after flying alongside Pakistani and United Arab Emirates planes in the United States Air Force’s Red Flag exercise in the Nevada desert.
Israeli Air Force fighter jets and refueling aircraft took part in the nearly two-week exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, from August 15 to 26, before returning to Israel on Wednesday, the army said.
The US military considers Red Flag to be its “premier air-to-air combat training exercise,” in which participating countries are divided into two teams and simulate dogfights to improve both their aviation skills and their international connections.
The Israeli military would not officially comment on the presence of Pakistani and United Arab Emirates pilots at the exercise this year, other than to say that the drill was being run by the Americans and Israel sees itself as a “guest” of the country. The Spanish Air Force also took part in this year’s exercise.
But while the IDF was reluctant to state outright that it flew alongside Pakistani and UAE pilots — most likely owing to the fact that Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with these two Muslim countries — the United States, which is officially allied with them, had no such qualms.
Following the exercise, the US military spoke glowingly of its “partner” Pakistan. According to Maj. Gen. Rick B. Mattson, the Pakistanis saw the Red Flag exercise as “truly an opportunity to not only get better as a force within the Pakistan Air Force but also how to better integrate with everyone else.”
During the exercise, the Israeli and foreign aircraft flew both day and night missions against ground defense systems, an IAF official told reporters Thursday.
However, he would not specify if these included missions against the Russian S-300 missile defense system, which Iran reportedly installed outside its Fordo nuclear facility this week.
In addition to the actual drills during Red Flag itself, the more than 7,000 mile- (11,000 kilometers) flight between Israel and US also served as a form of practice for the IAF pilots, according to the official.
“This was a very long flight for the teams, approximately eight or nine hours for the planes,” the IAF official said Thursday.
“This serves as a long-range exercise for the muscles that we need, in both refueling and [flying in] weather,” he said.
This wasn’t Israel’s first time at Red Flag. Nor was it the IAF’s first time flying alongside Arab pilots in one of those exercises.
During the aerial simulation last year, IAF planes flew with Jordanian fighter jets, and on the way to and from the exercise reportedly refueled them.
Earlier this year a senior IAF official told The Times of Israel that, in addition to their benefits for training, international military exercises can be seen as a form of “roundabout” diplomatic strategy.
“Flying outside of Israel is very different from flying out of Ramat David,” the IAF official said, referring to an air base in northern Israel.
“You don’t know the area, you’re speaking in a different language. It lets you hold a mirror up to yourself, and you learn a lot from that,” he said.
And there are other benefits to training with foreign armies, he added.
“[International exercises] are not just military, but strategic in nature,” the officer said. “And the strategic benefits are not always direct; they can also be roundabout.”
While they are not considered “enemy nations,” Israel does not have formal ties with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
Though Pakistan has indicated it would be prepared to formalize its relationship with the Jewish state once there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians, ties between the two countries are often complicated.
There have been reports of covert contacts between Israeli and Pakistani officials, including a WikiLeaks document that indicated that a high-ranking official in the Pakistani army met directly with the Israeli Mossad.
Publicly, however, the two nations have little to do with one another. In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly canceled a dinner reservation at a New York restaurant to avoid eating at the same time as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Though there are still no formal ties with the United Arab Emirates, there has recently been a thaw in Israel’s relationship with the Gulf state. In November, Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold visited Bahrain in order to open its first diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, which is part of the UAE.