Air diplomacy back to work in the Negev desert. For the first time, fifth generation assets belonging to both the Israeli Air Force and the Italian Air Force participated in the most important exercise organized by the Israeli Air Force, called “Blue Flag”.
The fourth edition of the biennial Blue Flag exercise, the international training event organized by the Advanced Training Center (ATC) of the Heyl Ha’Avir, the Israeli Air Force, took place from 3rd to 14th November 2019 at its headquarters of the Air Base of Ovda, in the southern part of the state of Israel, in the middle of the Negev desert, close to Aqaba, a most famous maritime stronghold of the Ottomans, impregnable from the sea because of the 305 mm coastal cannons mounted in its defense, but not easily repositionable; in the well-known movie “Lawrence of Arabia” Aqaba was conquered with a surprise attack from the desert, during the First World War.
This fourth edition saw the participation of about 70 aircraft belonging to five air forces, in addition to the hosts, the United States, Greece, Germany and Italian Air Forces participated, all with at least one participation behind them and, for the first tim , also 5th generation assets belonging to both the Israeli Air Force and the Italian Air Force, which were certainly the main novelty of this edition.
“There are a significant amount of computers in flight and the goal is to enable them to communicate to each other: we have made a huge effort to allow this type of connection. This is an opportunity that could have high dividends or advantages in the future.” said Lt. Col (R) Tal Herman, chief of the “Blue Flag Management Team”. In fact, in this edition, Israeli aircraft were connected for the first time to the “Link-16” network, the network used within NATO for the exchange and sharing of military tactical data. At present it is not clear whether only the “Adir” F-35I were connected, being the “Link-16” one of the three data-links embedded on this aircraft, or also all the other participating Israeli assets, such as the F- 15 C/D “Baz” and the F-16I “Sufa”.
Genesis of the Blue Flag
The exercise was conceived and designed in 2013 with the intent to train, in a single large exercise event, the entire Israeli Air Defense system and evaluate the cooperation capacity of its combat air units, in synergy with those of allied or friendly countries , but above all with those with which the Israeli air force had established, over time, closer relations of cooperation.
In fact, six IDF (Israel Defense Force) squadrons took part in that edition, deploying for the occasion on the base of Ovda, and assets of the air forces of the United States, Italy and Greece (Polish Air Force, for budgetary reasons, gave up this year). This was in fairly good success for Israeli diplomacy, the exercise was in fact followed by observers from 22 countries, always looking for “new allies” within the Mediterranean countries, especially after the deterioration of relations with Turkey and a turbulent situation on the Middle Eastern front. A senior Israeli officer, at the end of that edition, also hoped to be able to host a greater number of air forces for the next edition, scheduled two years later.
Each edition of the “Blue Flag” is described as the largest and most advanced exercise organized in Israel, the 2019 edition has also not escaped this rule too: these adjectives are undoubtedly deserved by the “Blue Flag 2017”, which saw the participation of seven foreign air forces – in addition to the “veteran” area forces of the United States, Greece, Poland and Italy present in the past editions – including Luftwaffe, L’ Armée de l’Air and the Indian Air Force.
A senior Israeli officer defined the “Air diplomacy”, that turns each participant in an ambassador of their nation’s willingness to cooperate together, in order to increase mutual knowledges and share of experiences and build the bases for future synergies. Leaving apart the tactical benefits, the improvement of operational capabilities of a joint training of crews, aircraft and armaments, of different nations, there is also a strategic advantage: being this a big display of our capabilities, the direct encounter among the air forces is mostly an inseparable part of the creation of strong and continuous relationships with nearby or far away countries.
The 2019 edition also had this fundamental institutional role, “The real meaning of this exercise should not be underestimated,” said the commander of the Ovda base, “The cooperation of these four countries with Israel, prepare the ground and paves the way for important future opportunities . We have the opportunity to open the doors and show these four friendly countries the Israeli Air Force and its potential. ”
The Blue Flag 2019
The squadrons participating in what Lt. Col. Herman defined as “the most advanced edition of the Blue Flag” are many, so we will try to summarize it by listing the participants by generation of assets:
12 5th generation aircraft: 6 F-35I “Adir” and 6 F-35ª of the A.M.I.
11 4th plus (+) aircrafts: 6 German Eurofighters (from Wittmund’s TLG 71) and 5 Italians;
34 4th generation aircraft: 9 F-15 A / D “Baz”, 9 F-16I “Sufa”, 4 F-16C / D Block 52+ Advanced Greeks (belonging to the 335th Mira of Araxos) and 12 F-16CM Block 50 ‘SP’ nicknamed “Spang” (from the 480th Squadron of Spangdahlem).
Also noteworthy is the participation of 3xG-550 CAEWs, two Israelis and one from the Italian Air Force, parked at the civil air terminal of the base which was closed for the occasion.
The exercise is structured according to the configuration with opposing parties, “Blue Force” and “Red Force”, and according to the concept of “Building Blocks”, i.e. with a progressive crescendo of the difficulties of the missions to be accomplished by the “Blue Force”, where, however, the “Red” component models its performances each time in relation to the scenarios and the training level of the participating crews.
It is precisely the consistency of the “Opposite Forces” that has made a participating pilot confide that “sometimes we like to win easily”. For several years the Israeli Air Force had a squadron dedicated to the role of “Op. Force” – , the 115 Squadron “The Flying Dragon” stationed right on the base of Ovda, in charge of simulating the aircraft and tactics of possible opponents and using a special area, always in the Negev desert, where SAM systems and targets of various types are scattered and flying there is the most badass, needing to take out your high standards of airmaship, man up and go in there and get out, “electronically” speaking…
To make the scenarios even more challenging, the Israeli Air Force has also made available two batteries of “Patriot” missiles to simulate advanced AA systems in order to establish specific Anti Access / Denial Area (A2 / AD) zones, as well as the F-35 in the role of “aggressor” with the aim of simulating also the possible air threats that could arise in the near future.
In accordance with a well-established scheme, the week began with a first phase called “Theater Entry”, in which the participants become familiar with the environment prepared for the exercise while performing “simple” missions in preparation for the scenarios scheduled for the following days. In the first week, these scenarios included Defensive Counter Air (DCA) missions, while in the second week the spectrum of the types of missions to be accomplished and their complexity is expanded. First in the form of Small Force Employment (SFE) while, on the final day of the exercise, in the form of a Large Force Employment (LFE) for which almost all of the Israeli airspace was made available. As a rule, during the exercise, two daily waves were made, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, consisting of 2 or 3 distinct packages, so as not to saturate the work areas. In both weeks, one of the afternoon waves was replaced by a night one.
The participation of 5th gen. a/c forced the scenario planners – once again the responsibility lay on the “Baz” Sqn, the 133 Squadron “Knights of the Twin Tail”, assisted by the staff of the ATC. and the 115th “Aggressor” Sqn (moreover they are the only two squadrons participating in all editions of the “Blue Flag”) – to provide and invent scenarios that would allow to exploit the characteristics of low observability and omni-role capabilities and of sensor-fusion capabilities that the a/c offers.
To simulate the ability of low observability, since this is never used for obvious reasons of flight safety, the planners made the F-35 immune to the “kill” of GBAD (Ground Base Air Defense) systems and guided missiles active radar of the participating fighters, but not to the infrared-guided ones, if launched beyond a certain distance from the target.
No information was disclosed on the possible cooperation between the 5th generation a/c belonging to the two nations nor if scenarios were created in which the F-35I Adir and the Italian F-35 faced each other as opponents.
The Italian participation
Particularly significant was the participation of the Italian Air Force which deployed an absolutely important contingent on the basis of Ovda. As already mentioned, the participation involved 6 F-35 of the 32 Wing, 5 EF-2000A Eurofighter coming from each of the three Wings that are equipped with it, but under the command of the 4 Wing of Grosseto and a G-550 CAEW of the 14th Wings based at Pratica di Mare. For all these wings it was a debut at the “Blue Flag”, the F-35 were coming directly from the “Iceland Air Policing” mission in Iceland, a mission that had ended just a few days before, on October 24, thus demonstrating a deployment capacity and a high level of logistics-maintenance efficiency as pointed out by the Chief of Staff, General of SA Alberto Rosso during his visit during the exercise.
“Our goal in general,” said the commander of the Italian contingent, “is to experiment the Deployment and Re-deployment procedures at a Deployed Operating Base, train to perform missions with NATO and non-NATO C2 systems and finally train to perform air missions in an environment saturated by electronic warfare. Surely the exchange of experiences with the Israeli counterpart will have been enormously profitable for both of us.”
“In particular,” continues the commander, “the 4 + 2 F-35s pursued the goal of integration between 4th and 5th generation a/c in scenarios characterized by complex missions and to achieve integration with fifth generation a/c of other nationalities.
Overall, the Italian team performed 68 sorties, for a total of about 108 flight hours.
Text: Sergio Lanna and Gianluca Storti
Photos: Sergio Lanna and Israel Air Force