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U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation: Joint Air Force Training

Since its creation, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been a model of innovation and success for militaries around the world. The IAF prides itself on being technologically advanced and its fighter pilots have won decisive battles against enemy forces despite being routinely outnumbered or far from the home front. It is for these reasons that the U.S. Air Force has begun conducting combined training with Israeli pilots.

In April 2001, Israeli and American fighter planes conducted the first ever joint training mission between the two air forces. The pilots performed maneuvers including mid-air refueling, dogfighting and air-to-ground attacks. The exercise included 14 Israeli F-15s and 10 F-16s and 11 US F-16s.

In June 2007, the IAF held joint training excercises with visiting American pilots as part of a “multi-year working plan involving joint flights for the purpose of mutual learning.” Such joint training exercises help strengthen the relationship between Israel and it's allies.

In November 2012, the U.S. and Israel collaborated in the largest aerial defense drill between the two allies to date. Codenamed "Austere Challenge," the drills were conducted both in Israel and offshore and involved approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Israel with an additional 2,500 troops in Europe and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The exercise also tested air defense capabilities and training of both countries.

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Craig A. Franklin and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Brigadier General Nitzan Nuriel were the lead planners of the exercise for their respective nations. “This exercise is purely about improving our combined U.S.-Israeli capabilities,” Franklin said. “It’s about military teamwork. It is not related to national elections nor any perceived tensions in the Middle East. We are military professionals coming together to train for a defensive mission.”

In November 2013, fighter planes from the Greek and Italian Air Forces joined their counterparts from the U.S. to conduct joint training manuevers in Israel, codenamed Exercise Blue Flag. The drill represented the largest military air exercise in Israel's history, as more than 50 foreign and Israeli fighter jets were involved. The exercises' goals were to examine the group's general aerial capabilities and it included training missions to identify anti-aircraft missiles as well as surface-to-air ones and also included mock dogfights. Aerial refueling, attacks on fixed as well as moving targets, and damage assessment exercises were also included in the training. The Blue Flag exercise has been held multiple times since November 2013, most recently in June 2017. Germany participated in the Blue Flag exercise for the first time in June 2017, joining 70 planes from Israel, the United States, India, France, Italy, and Poland in the largest aerial training exercise to ever take place in Israel.  

The Israeli and U.S. Air Forces signed an agreement aimed at increasing cooperation between the two organizations in June 2015. The ASNR (Air Senior National Representative) document provides a joint annual working plan to promote the interests of each organization, and according to Brigadier General Ya'akov Sharabani the document, “codifies everything that the IAF and USAF has been doing together and identifies new areas where we can cooperate”.

Israeli and U.S. pilots participated in a training exercise dubbed Southern Strike over the Southern United States during the first weeks of November 2015. As opposed to combat training scenarios, the exercise focused on terrain management, transporting items, handling difficult takeoffs and landings, low-level flight, and logistical missions. An annual event, 2015 was the third consecutive year that U.S. and Israeli forces had participated in this training program. While this exercise was being conducted, multiple American pilots were simultaneously in Israel for their annual Blue Flag drill.

An international exercise took place over two weeks in April 2016, including the U.S., Greek, and Israeli Air Forces. The pilots trained against a replica of the Russian S-300 missile system recently sold to Iran, with a special focus on preparing the Israeli pilots for a potential confrontation.

Aircraft and pilots from the U.S., Israel, Pakistan, Spain, the U.A.E., and four other unspecified countries participated in the “Red Flag” training mission at the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada during the last weeks of August 2016. Israeli refueling planes took part in the exercise, along with eight Israeli F-16I Sufa fighter jets. During the Red Flag exercises, pilots are split into two teams and practice intercepting enemy aircraft, tracking targets, rescuing downed pilots, conducting cyber attacks, and operating under the threat of surface-to-air missiles.

Dozens of pilots and hundreds of crew members from Israel, the U.S., Italy, Greece, and the U.A.E. participated in the Iniohos 2017 training mission together during mid-March 2017. The training took place in Greece, and allowed the pilots to fly in unfamiliar terrain.  

IDF paratroopers participated for the first time in the U.S. Army European Command’s Swift Response exercise in June 2018. The exercise, held in locations in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, included over 2,300 soldiers from 10 countries.  

Israel was the first foreign country to buy F-35s, with an order for 50. The IAF dubbed the plane the “Adir,” which means “Mighty One” in Hebrew. In June 2019, the IAF, USAF and RAF (Royal Air Force) held the first exercise in the F-35s. “Tri-Lightning” was the first time the planes were flown together in Israel.

In March 2020, Israeli and American F-35 pilots trained together in the “Enduring Lightning” exercise in southern Israel during which they practiced responding to aerial and ground threats. “The Americans are our number one partner,” the head of the IAF’s International Exercises Department said. “I see great importance in cooperating on the most advanced plane in our collection with us as hosts.”

Another exercise involving in-air refueling, engaging targets, and command and control was conducted in August 2020, over Southern Israel. F-35Is with the IAF’s 140th Squadron flew with 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron F-35As and a KC-10 from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron in “Enduring Lightning II.”

On October 12, 2020, the “Enduring Lightning 3” exercise took place. It was the third joint exercise of 2020 between the Israeli Air Force and the United States Air Force. In the exercise involving F-35 fighter jets, the 116th Squadron of the IAF trained alongside the 421st Fighter Squadron of the USAF. The IAF’s 122nd Squadron flying “Nachshon” (Gulfstream G550) aircraft conducted airborne air control for both Israeli and American fighter jets. The IAF’s 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron and the USAF’s 340th EARS Squadron participated as well providing aerial refueling support.

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs and Israeli Air Force F-35I Adirs fly in formation

The 115th Squadron, the IAF’s “Red Squadron” that specializes in enemy simulation, took part in the exercise as aggressors. Its purpose is to train and challenge the participating pilots with various scenarios that reflect the operational arena.

“Israeli-American cooperation, and international 5th generation exercises in Israeli territory, place the IAF as a reliable source of knowledge in the field of F-35 aircraft, and the State of Israel as a quality operational training arena,” stated head of the IAF Air Division, Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar.

“The Enduring Lightning exercises provide invaluable opportunities for both AFCENT and our Israeli partners to improve readiness and strengthen relationships,” said Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, 9th Air Force (Air Forces Central) commander. “This partnership has been built on trust and developed over decades of mutual cooperation, demonstrating an ongoing commitment to regional stability.”

“This is the second time this deployment that the Black Widows (421st EFS) have had the opportunity to fly, train, and learn with [Israeli] F-35Is,” Lt. Col. Stephen Redmond, the 421st EFS commander said. “Not only do our young officers get an opportunity to be a mission commander of a multi-national exercise, but most importantly, they build relationships with Israeli fighter pilots that they will keep for the duration of their careers.”

In 2021, the United States Air Force joined the air forces of seven other countries for the “Blue Flag” exercise with the Israeli Air Force in Israel. Separately, on November 11, IDF F-15 fighter jets escorted two American B-1B bombers and an American KC-10 refueler through Israeli skies on their way from the Gulf.  The IDF tweeted: “The joint flight demonstrates our continued cooperation, which is crucial to the security of Israel and the Middle East.”

See also: 

Sources: “Israeli Air Force Holds Joint Exercise with U.S. Pilots,” Haaretz, (June 10, 2007).
U.S. Department of Defense.
“Austere Challenge 12 Exercise Begins Tomorrow,” IDF Blog, (October 20, 2012).
Adam May, “U.S. Third Air Force Commander: Austere Challenge 12 Shows Great Promise,” IDF Blog, (October 25, 2012).
Gili Cohen, “IDF and US Army Launch 4 Patriot Missiles as Part of Mass Joint Drill,” Jerusalem Post, (November 12, 2012).
Yoav Zitun, “IAF, US Air Force Hold Largest Military Drill in Israel History,” Ynet, (November 25, 2013).
Noa Fenigstein, “Strategic Accord Signed with USAF,” Israel Air Force, (June 6, 2015).
Phil Stewart and Dan Williams, “Israel, US signal security ties back on track after Iran deal fued,” Reuters, (October 19, 2015).
Judah Ari Gross, “Israeli pilots train over southern US, with focus on mountainous areas,” Times of Israel, (November 7, 2015).
Noam Amir and Maariv Hashavua, “A look into the IAF's latest international exercise,” Jerusalem Post, (May 10, 2016).
Amos Harel, “Israeli Pilots Trained in U.S. With Pakistani, UAE Air Forces,” Haaretz, (September 1, 2016).
Gili Cohen, “Israeli Air Force Holds Joint Exercise With United Arab Emirates, U.S. and Italy,” Haaretz, (March 27, 2017).
Gili Cohen, “In First, Germany to Send Fighter Jets to Train in Israel,” Haaretz, (June 21, 2017).
“IDF Paratroopers Parachute into Europe, First Time Since Hannah Senesh,” Jerusalem Post, (June 13, 2018).
Shira Pansky, “For the First Time: Israeli ‘Adir’ Trains Alongside American F-35’s in Israel,” Israeli Air Force, (March 30, 2020).
Alyk Russell Kenlan, “USAF, Israeli F-35s Train Together,” Air Force Magazine, (August 4, 2020).
“Enduring Lightning 3” Exercise,” Israeli Air Force, (October 14, 2020).
“Enduring Lightning III exercise brings together U.S., Israeli air forces,” U.S. Air Force, (October 14, 2020).
@IDF, (November 11, 2021).

Photos: U.S. Air Force.
Escort photo: IDF