Israeli and American fighter pilots held a joint F-35 training drill over southern Israel in recent days, meeting only in the air due to the coronavirus pandemic. Face-to-face meetings for briefings and after-drill reviews were instead conducted over the phone and video conferences.

The one-day exercise, held on March 29, and dubbed “Enduring Lightening,” saw fifth-generation jets fly in joint squadrons and tackle a range of mock threats in Israeli skies.

An Israeli airborne early-warning and control plane, which provided the flight control, also took part.

The crews practiced air-to-air combat, attacks, defensive maneuvers and strikes against a variety of targets, Maj. T, head of international exercises in the IAF’s training department, who organized the exercise, told JNS.

“In light of the coronavirus situation, we were forced to conduct on the ground communications in line with Health Ministry restrictions, and in line with IAF restrictions, which are even more severe,” he said.

In standard combat exercises, pilots gather together for briefings pre-flight and for detailed after-action reviews after the exercise. Such face-to-face meetings allow the personnel to drill down to details that are difficult to cover over remote communications.

This time, however, the Israeli crews returned to base, and the American personnel returned to the Middle Eastern base where they were stationed for the debrief. “All of the communications took part over the phone or video conference,” said Maj. T.

Where necessary, encrypted communication channels were also employed for classified exchanges of information. “The only meeting was in the air,” he confirmed.

Still, the two air forces were able to complete an important drill in line with international standards, he stressed.

‘Each side shares its experience and lessons, its tactics’

The IAF has flown with American, British and Italian F-35 jets in the past, but this is the first time that Israel has hosted U.S. F-35 jets.

“In past drills, we met them over the Mediterranean,” said Maj. T. “This drill is about paying down the basis for more moving forward. Every time [American] F-35 jets are in our area, they will be able to train with our jets. It was a short exercise that will lead to a fruitful cooperation.”

The unique capabilities of the F-35, such as its stealth and advanced sensor fusion, means that when it trains with older, fourth-generation aircraft, it has to adapt itself to them, the officer explained.

“When we train with the same type of jets from another country, suddenly another significant stage opens up. This is a jump forward for a squadron that usually trains on its own or with fourth-generation jets in the IAF,” he said.

Only those who operate the most advanced fighter jet in history are fully aware of its capabilities and can share lessons with one another in an in-depth manner, he added. “When you train with the leaders of the F-35 project—the Americans—it projects power and forms an ability for us to progress.”

Israel is the first country other than the United States that used the F-35 in a combat operation, meaning that it has developed considerable experience with the aircraft. That experience is the subject of American curiosity.

“We have been operating it over years, gained abilities, and adapted strategies and tactics on how it is right to fight with this aircraft,” said Maj. T. “Each side shares its experience and lessons, its tactics; both sides learn a lot.”

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the exercise was planned in advance as part of the IDF’s 2020 training regimen and implemented “despite the spread of the coronavirus, under the required procedures and while adjusting the exercise to them.”

It added that “the exercise illustrates the close ties between both air forces and militaries, expands the shared knowledge and learning of the F-35’s advanced capabilities and improves the operational capabilities of the IAF.”

Maj. T said he hopes that after the coronavirus crisis passes, “We will be able to bring them here for further exercises, which include face-to-face meetings.”

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