Military diplomacy as a national security asset: Israel’s widening array of joint exercises

The Blue Flag 2021 air-force exercise was the largest and most significant since the exercise series began in 2013.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet seen during the “Blue Flag,” an international aerial-training exercise at the Ovda airforce base in southern Israel, Oct. 24, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet seen during the “Blue Flag,” an international aerial-training exercise at the Ovda airforce base in southern Israel, Oct. 24, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Blue Flag 2021 air force exercise and the gathering in Israel of air force commanders from several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, represents an impressive milestone.

This international cooperation has now been extended to include joint naval operations with United States Central Command (CENTCOM). The Israeli Navy and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet held a joint exercise for the first time in September in the Red Sea, marking the transition of cooperation to CENTCOM.

Moreover, this was followed by a joint special forces exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps near Eilat and the extraordinary step of a joint naval exercise with the Israeli Navy’s Red Sea flotilla, Emirati and Bahraini ships, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

In September, CENTCOM officially took control of the military’s relationship with Israel, taking over from European Command (EUCOM).

In addition to improving military capabilities, Israel’s military diplomacy also has strategic value in consolidating the country’s role as a member of good standing in what might be termed the Like-Minded Defense Community. This community enhances Israel’s stature among its regional partners, undermines efforts to isolate it and sends a message to hostile forces.

Blue Flag 2021

The fifth biannual Blue Flag multinational air force exercise, held from Oct. 17-28 at the Uvda Air Force Base in the Negev, was the largest and most significant since the exercise series began in 2013. The exercise is modeled after the U.S. Air Force’s largest combat training exercise, Red Flag, held at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Officially, eight air forces took part in Blue Flag: the Israeli Air Force, the U.S. Air Force, Britain’s Royal Air Force (for the first time), and the Indian, German, French, Italian and Greek air forces. In addition, judging by a leaked photo from the exercise, it appears that the Jordanian Air Force participated as well—and probably not for the first time. Overall, 37 guest planes and some 1,500 troops arrived in Israel for the exercise.

The drills focused on new threats, such as cooperation against a virtual enemy state, “Dragonland,” the air-defense profile of which resembled Syria. The exercise also included defense against intruding enemy aircraft and strikes against the enemy’s rear areas, defended by surface-to-air missile batteries.

Further, the participants carried out close air support for ground forces and the escorting of transport aircraft for in-depth raiding forces.

The exercise utilized the capabilities of the fifth-generation F-35 fighter aircraft, which can communicate with and support friendly forces.

There were three unique characteristics of the drill that represent the transformation of Israel’s international standing:

1. At the beginning of the exercise, aircraft from participating nations performed a fly-over salute over Jerusalem—including a side-by-side flight by IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin and his German counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz. The latter flew a Eurofighter repainted in the colors of both nations’ flags. After the fly-over, the countries exchanged medals in two separate ceremonies. Both the fly-over and the symbolic ceremonies won broad attention in the Israeli media, much more so than during previous Blue Flag exercises.

2. During the exercise, there were visits at Uvda Air Force Base by senior representatives from the air forces of several countries, including Japan and Australia, which, together with the United States and India, form an alliance that could redefine the balance of power in Asia. Particularly noted in news coverage was UAE air force commander Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Nasser Muhammad Al Alawi, whose presence signaled the depth of cooperation in the era of the Abraham Accords. In addition, all senior guests were invited to a dinner hosted by President Isaac Herzog.

3. Nevatim Air Force Base hosted a U.S.-sponsored gathering of air force commanders of forces that deploy F-35s. This, too, reflected the unique standing of the IAF and the IDF as a valuable force that can contribute to the capacities of NATO members.

The broader context

The exercise, and the coverage it received, demonstrate that the IDF’s cooperation with other military forces has become institutionalized. In recent years, a profound transformation has taken place regarding the overt presence of Israel as a legitimate and vital part of the defense of like-minded nations.

Once Israel was transferred to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, there emerged a pattern of participation in operational activities, not just exercises. For example, Israeli fighter jets have escorted U.S. bombers on their way to deployment in the region.

The appointment of a permanent IDF liaison officer at CENTCOM headquarters in Florida is a pattern that is likely to be enhanced. Unlike cooperation with EUCOM within NATO operations in the Mediterranean, which were foiled in recent years by a Turkish veto, work with CENTCOM is not necessarily subject to the consent of all other regional players.

Meanwhile, as guests of the Hellenic air force, Israeli fighters now participate annually in the “INIOCHOS” exercises in Greece, alongside the air forces of the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and the UAE.

The Israeli Navy joined the “Nemesis” exercise in November 2021 in Cyprus, alongside the United States, several European allies and Egypt(!). In addition, the IDF special forces regularly train in the Troodos mountains range in Cyprus, simulating scenarios of warfare deep in Lebanese territory.

Furthermore, the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, held joint exercises with Greece and Cyprus. In April 2021, the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Greece, the UAE and Israel met in Paphos, Cyprus, adding a diplomatic layer to the patterns of military cooperation.

In Asia, while treading carefully not to raise the ire of China, Israel is increasingly cooperating with the U.S.-led Quad that includes the UAE and India. Over the last decade, Israel also witnessed breakthroughs in defense cooperation with Australia and Japan.

Moreover, for two generations, it has built what amounts to a security partnership with Singapore, and the attempts to treat it as a secret are becoming absurd. For example, Defense Minister Benny Gantz held what was supposed to be a secret trip to the country in October, but the news leaked.

In Europe, cooperation with the German air force is not limited to the Blue Flag exercises. Working relations are extensive and continuous, demonstrated by the growing personal relationships between German and Israeli officers. In addition, Israeli units have been taking part in some NATO exercises.

The demonstrative jump by Israeli paratroopers in Slovenia this year was carried out in commemoration of the brave men and women, such as the legendary Hannah Senesh, who the Nazis executed in 1944.

Moreover, Israel has a significant role in the extensive intelligence cooperation in terrorism and nuclear proliferation, with no one agency able to contend with all the challenges alone. Israel also consults with the Five Eyes alliance between Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States.

How does military diplomacy serve Israel’s strategic interests? 

Technological superiority and defensive capabilities add to the now-familiar triad of deterrence, early warning and decisive outcome (harta’ah, hatra’ah, hachra’ah in Hebrew).

True, the scenarios in the exercise were not designed to simulate any action against Iran, though the exercise did occur in conjunction with a rising level of tension and a statement by the IDF chief that preparations for a military response to the Iranian nuclear project are now underway. Israel certainly does not expect any participants to be of active help should such circumstances arise. Yet more generally, the recognition granted by other air forces to the strength and sophistication of Israel’s air force should give Tehran and other regional foes such as Turkey pause.

The regional forces opposing Israel seek its political, economic and military isolation. This military cooperation between Israel and its regional and Western allies, along with trade and other areas of exchange, demonstrate that at the end of the day, these factors are far more critical than meaningless votes at the United Nations.

Equally important is the message to Israel’s newly established friends in the region, and to Egypt and Jordan, who find themselves in the same trenches against revolutionary Islamists. This exercise and others, including those taking place in the Eastern Mediterranean, establish a significant alignment of forces.

Finally, the growing military and intelligence cooperation contribute directly to the overlap with Israel’s advanced technological solutions. This, in turn, generates interest in acquiring Israeli technology.

This provides income and employment—but above all, contributes significantly to Israel’s national security. Only a solid and reliable economic grounding—which requires larger markets than the IDF can provide—enables the defense industries to thrive and make their top-end products available.

IDF Col. (res) Dr. Lerman is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Lerman was deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. He held senior posts in IDF Military Intelligence for more than 20 years and teaches in the Middle East Studies program at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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