In the latest example of Israel’s improved relationships with countries previously characterised as hostile towards Israel, the IAF took part in the drill alongside Pakistani and United Arab Emirates (UAE) air forces.
While they are not considered enemy nations, Israel does not have formal ties with Pakistan or the UAE. However, Pakistan has indicated that it would be prepared to formalise its relationship with Israel once a peace agreement with the Palestinians was established. There has recently been a thaw in Israel’s relationship with the UAE. Clandestine contacts between Israel, Pakistan, and the UAE as well as other Sunni Muslim countries have surfaced in recent years due to shared concerns over Iran.
Israel’s participation in the Red Flag exercise aims not just to improve the skills of aviation pilots but also to build stronger international military connections. A senior IAF official stressed that “[International exercises] are not just military, but strategic in nature… And the strategic benefits are not always direct; they can be roundabout”.
The Red Flag exercise provides realistic combat training in an environment designed to imitate real-life war scenarios. For the exercise, American forces act on the side of the enemy, engaging in combat with the other forces. During the exercises, dozens of planes took off for missions lasting a few hours, in which they encountered a US squadron simulating an enemy in the air, as well as mock surface-to-air missile batteries and even cyber-attacks on plane computer systems. The IAF sent jets, transport planes, refuellers as well as eight F-15s and F-16s to be used.
Last year Israeli pilots took part in the Red Flag exercise, alongside Singapore and Jordan. It was reported that Israeli planes provided mid-air refuelling of Jordanian aircraft en route to the US.
In 2017, Israel is set to hold its own international exercise called “Blue Flag”; the US Air Force has already confirmed its participation and several additional friendly states are expected to take part.