No mentioning Iran, please, as Israel and US drill air assault on sophisticated enemy

Coinciding with the interim deal on Tehran’s nuclear program, massive two-week Blue Flag exercise is ‘not tied to any specific events,’ watching US envoy takes pains to stress

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Illustrative photo of an IAF F-16 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an IAF F-16 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flash90)

OVDA AIR BASE, southern Israel — One day after the Israeli military option against Iran was likely frozen along with the Iranian regime’s march toward a bomb, the Israel Air Force on Monday hosted its first multilateral air drill, Blue Flag, fighting a common enemy along with the US, Greece and Italy.

Standing alongside an F-16 together with the ambassadors of Italy and Greece, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that the joint exercise offers “the opportunity to drill real world scenarios so that in the event we would have to operate together we have the ability to do so.” He also took pains to clarify, however, that “Blue Flag is pretending realistic training scenarios, [and is] not tied to any specific events.”

The Israel Air Force has been drilling extensively in recent years for the possibility that it will be called upon to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Blue Flag, Shapiro was making plain, is emphatically not part of any such preparation.

The ambassadors, pilots and IAF commanders were careful, indeed, not to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the interim deal reached early Sunday morning in Geneva, and the glaring differences of opinion between Washington and Jerusalem.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (Photo credit: Flash 90)
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Instead, it was all aeronautics and niceties. A senior IAF officer, who was not cleared to speak with his name and rank, said the drill, which shut down two-thirds of Israel’s skies and included 60 fighter aircraft in the air, simulated a multilateral strike against an enemy country equipped with a modern air force, an active air defense and aerial terror capacities.

Israel, this officer said, is very different than Europe in that there is ample space to fly low to the ground and to drop live ordinance. As opposed to the US, he added, a leisurely left or right turn from Ovda Air Base, in the southern corner of the Arava desert, would put a pilot in Egyptian or Jordanian air space.

“Just getting 60 airplanes up in the air, off of three runways, in English, is already complicated,” he said.

The Blue Flag drill, which the IAF called “a strategic asset for both the IDF and the Western world,” is the largest international air drill ever held in Israel. Lasting two weeks overall, it moved into the joint aerial training stage on Monday, which features two sorties per day for four days and places a different commander at the helm of each mission. “That way we see the solution that each commander provides,” said the senior IAF officer.

He said that one lesson the IAF has already adopted as a result of these sort of drills, which Israel began joining in earnest only during the last decade, was in vocabulary. In the past, he said, Israeli pilots, a loquacious bunch in his rendering, would spend far too much time over the airwaves describing incoming enemy aircraft. Describing one low and one high and one on either flank could take 30 seconds of air time, he said.

“You know how the Americans describe that?” he asked several reporters. “Champagne.”

Planes coming in a straight line, he added, are reported simply as “Ladder.”

The IAF, he said, has recently adopted the “entire American dictionary” of radio call signs.

Noting Israel’s cooperation with Greece, the senior officer said that, despite all, he missed Israel’s cooperation with Turkey. “I’d be very, very happy to go back to those training drills in Turkey,” he said, referring to the NATO member’s Anatolian Eagle drill from which Israel has been barred in recent years amid strained bilateral relations.

A US F-16E fighter pilot, in from a base in the UK, praised the Israeli pilots as “great aviators.” The biggest challenge, though, said Captain Bara, who gave only his call name, “is how to communicate effectively.”

He meant while flying at 1,000 mph in a tight formation. But the observation, in today’s fraught, Iran-overshadowed military and political climate, holds true across the board.

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