Israeli fighter jets are flying alongside Emirati aircraft this week as part of a major international aerial exercise hosted by Greece, simulating in-air dogfights, large airstrikes and rescue operations, the Israeli military confirmed on Tuesday.
This is not the first time that Israeli and Emirati pilots have flown with one another — they both participated in a similar Greek-led exercise in 2017 and an American drill the year before — but it marks a rare case of open military cooperation between the two countries, even following last year’s landmark normalization agreement.
Seven countries are joining Greece in its Iniohos exercise this year: Cyprus, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, France, the United States, Spain and Canada. The exercise kicked off on Sunday and was scheduled to last through Friday.
According to the Israeli Air Force, the drill is meant to simulate a variety of scenarios, including air-to-air combat, strikes on land-based targets and evading attacks from surface-to-air missiles.
“This exercise is an important milestone in the strategic international cooperations between the Israeli Air Force and the different countries through strengthening shared interests,” the Israeli military said.
Dozens of planes from each country are participating in the exercise, which is being held largely along the Greek coast and over the Mediterranean.
The Israeli delegation includes F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, Boeing 707 refueling planes and Gulfstream G550 surveillance planes.
In previous years, Israel has used aerial exercises in Greece as a way to practice against and learn about the Russian S-300 air defense system, which is also used by Iran and Syria. But according to one of the Israeli airmen taking part in the exercise, this year’s exercise did not include that system, though it does include a variety of other land- and sea-based air defense batteries.
“They’re doing something nice: [The Greeks are] involving their navy in the exercise so a lot of times on these ships there are different surface-to-air missiles and cannons that can fire at us. That’s what you’re dealing with,” said the officer, who can only be identified by his rank and first Hebrew initial, Lt. “Yod.”
According to the officer, the different countries participating in the exercise work together to complete different aspects of a shared mission, while a so-called “Red Team,” pretending to be an enemy military, tries to stop them.
“Before each sortie, you get mission orders that include all kinds of protocols, what you have to do. There will be 20 planes from different countries in different formations. So the French will be doing air-to-air combat missions, while the Spanish are looking for ships, while we are searching for and striking targets. That all needs to happen simultaneously because I can’t carry out a strike if there’s a ship [firing surface-to-air missiles at me] or there’s a plane threatening me,” said Yod.
The exercise does not have one overarching narrative or storyline; instead each mission is its own self-contained scenario, said Yod, an F-16 navigator.
He has already taken part in two sorties, one simulating a dogfight and the other a nighttime, low-altitude attack run. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to take part in a scenario simulating the rescue of a pilot who ejected from his aircraft behind enemy lines, He said.
Yod said he was meant to participate in another two or three sorties before returning to Israel.
He noted that the flights back and forth from Israel to Greece were in themselves a useful bit of training as it is a relatively long distance for fighter jets to travel and required them to fly along civilian flightpaths.
For the Israeli pilots, the exercise provides a much-needed opportunity to train over significantly different terrain than they are used to and at extremely low altitudes, under 200 meters (660 feet).
“We are doing ‘hunting’ flights where you fly at low altitude in the mountains here. This is topography that we don’t have in Israel. It’s really amazing. You’re flying through canyons — a mountain on one side and a mountain on the other and it’s all snowy, at altitudes we’re not used to,” he said.
“It prepares you for things that you may deal with operationally,” he added.