With thundering afterburners four F-35A Lightning II soar into the clear blue sky of the Negev desert. They are followed by another four F-15 “Baz” of the Israeli Air Force. The jets are the vanguard of the “Blue Force” and have to protect the territory of the “Falcon State”. With a fight over water and other natural resources, it is threatened by the aggressive neighboring country “Nowhereland”. This can become a realistic scenario in this part of the world and was certainly not chosen by chance as a theme for the high-value exercise “Blue Flag 2019” at Ovda Air Force Base in southern Israel.
Where? Ovda, Southern Negev, Israel
When? November 2019
F-35 Adir at Ovda
Flying high, the borders disappear into the sand-colored desert landscape and the pilots’ gaze extends to the neighboring countries. The main aspect of this year’s exercise was the participation of 5th generation jets in such a complex training scenarios. The Israeli Air Force emphasized the first participation of the F-35I “Adir” (“the Mighty”) in Blue Flag, who relocated from their home base Nevatim to Uvda for “Blue Flag”. To do so, not only the extensive technical ground infrastructure for the “Adir” had to be moved to Uvda, it was also necessary to break out the massive concrete gates of the shelters. Otherwise the “Adir” with its wide V-tail would not hav e fitted into the shelters. As a pleasant side effect, Uvda now also became Israel’s second airfield that can support F-35 operations.
However, due to the participation of the most modern jet of the Israeli Air Force, restrictions also applied. Not all information about the Adir has been released as this would allow the participating nations to draw conclusions about its real performance. For example, the F-35 did not fly at its full flight performance during the exercise, the precise firing parameters of guided missiles were not shared, and there was no information about possible enemy hits, regardless of whether the F-35 was used as a Blue or Red Air. Finally, it was also admitted that the “Adir” could not be hit by simulated radar-guided missiles.
Fighting against Red Air at Blue Flag
Blue Flag has been organized by the Israeli Air Force since 2013 every two years in the South of the Negev desert at the Uvda (or Ovda) Air Force Base. The formerly civilian airfield is now purely used for the training of the Israeli Air Force. Israeli units regularly fight here against the aggressor unit of the 115th season “The Flying Dragons”, which has recently updated its jets from the F-16A “Netz” to the F-16C “Barak” (Lightning).
Flying takes place in an airspace that extends from the Red Sea up North to the Dead Sea. This does only restricted the airport in Tel Aviv, but also the flight operations at the new civil airport at Eilat. The solution for this is simple: Eilat airport is being shut down when “Blue Flag” flights are going on.
International participants in 2019 came from the USA, Italy, Greece and Germany:
- Germany: Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 71 “Richthofen” from Wittmund (6 Eurofighters)
- Greece: 335 Mira from Araxos (4 F-16s)
- Italy: 32° Stormo from Amendola (6 F-35s) & 37° and 4° Stormo, from Trapani and Grosseto (6 F-2000s)
- USA: 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, 52 TFW from Spangdahlem, Germany (12 F-16s)
“At Blue Flag, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) can train with a nation that is not a member of NATO. We usually fly in the familiar NATO framework”, a German participant described one of the major differences to other “Flag” exercises that the German Air Force has previously attended. Under these circumstances the crews cannot rely on the procedures they are used to.
The same also applies to the hosts, and therefore the pilots of the Israeli’s 115th Aggressor Squadron also benefit from the exercise: “Training with international crews also brings an added value for our pilots. Usually we speak Hebrew, now we communicate in English”, one of the instructors describes the procedures during Blue Flight, and adds, “Under the stress during the exercise, it makes things more complicated because it takes you out of the comfort zone.”
The assigned airspace was also tight and crowded, because up to 38 “Blue Force” jets take off in three waves during each deployment phase. There are also 12 opponents of the “Red Air”. Depending on needs and mission, the aggressor force can also be increased by helicopters and UAVs, the threat from the ground is realistically simulated by Patriot surface-to-air missiles.
Israel’s largest Military Exercise
Blue Flag is not only the largest exercise of the Israeli Air Force, but also one with the rare opportunity when the host with his vast operational experience gives his international guests the opportunity to train deployment scenarios against state-of-the-art air and ground-based systems. This included, for example, drone control during an operational mission, which cannot be practiced elsewhere.
“We are investing huge resources in this exercise”, said Tal Herman, one of the main organizers of the exercise, “in order to create the best possible training conditions here.” And this deserted part of the southern Negev has a lot to offer: in addition to low-level and supersonic flights, chaff and flare can be used without restrictions, and largely closed off areas on the ground are approved for the use of bombs.
Network Operations of 5th Generation Fighters
During the exercise information was shared in the Link16 network with the other aircraft from the NATO nations. The F-35s of the Italian Air Force were included as another nation’s “5th Generation” jet. Furthermore an Italian and Israeli Gulfstream G.550 CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) equipped with the IAI EL / W-2085 radar system served as airborne early warning aircraft (AWACS) during the exercise.
Sharing the information was also the focus of the exercise for the hosts: “Here at Blue Flag we place great value on training the individual pilot in his cockpit. We are here to share, not to teach”, Tal Herman explains an important point of “Blue Flag”.
This is practiced during “Mixed Fighter Operations”, during which the international crews with different aircraft types can develop a feeling for the peculiarities of the other weapon system. This was practiced during defensive counter air (DCA) operations not only as a “blue force” against the aggressor from “Nowhereland”. As a Small Force Employment (SFE), the Blue Force’s job was to free a particular area from enemy forces. For example, the Luftwaffe Eurofighters operated together with the Greek F-16 and Israeli F-35, while American F-16s from Spangdahlem acted as “Wild Weasels” to hold down enemy air defense positions.
The exercise was concluded with a large-scale COMAO (Combined Air Operation) with over 50 participating aircraft. Due to the excellent training requirements at Uvda , combined with the experience gained and the training content, the participants were certain that they will continue to try to benefit from this exercise in the future.