Deep in the Negev Desert in Southern Israel jet noise permeates the harsh but beautiful landscape, for it is here that the huge Israeli Air Force (IAF) air base of Ovda is located. Ovda was chosen as the base for the Blue Flag series of exercises due to is its excellent facilities, some purpose built, for all the visiting units and armed forces that congregate here every two years.

First held in 2013, Blue Flag has grown into what the Israeli Air Force calls the biggest exercise of its kind in the world and 2017, the third showing, was the largest of the lot. Though argument could state that in sheer numbers of personnel and aircraft the Red and Green Flag series of exercises held at Nellis Air Force Base in the United States are far greater, it is true that in Israel, with nine participants, is bigger internationally. The exercise similarity with the American version is evident in the name Blue Flag, and one could not help but notice than even the landscape gave memories of the equally rugged but serene Nevada desert as the various combat aircraft took to the skies to begin their missions.

Blue Flag was explained by Israeli officials as having three common goals. These were to strengthen diplomatic relations between the countries taking part, expose the participating countries militaries to new tactics and techniques, and to improve military co-operation by forcing the air forces to work together.

The 11 day exercise held in November concentrated on the normal ‘Blue’ versus ‘Red’ scenario that normally distinguishes modern western combat exercises, this time split between Falcon Land (Blue) and Nowhere Land (Red). Also incorporated was a ‘Blue on Blue’ scenario over two days of the exercise to sharpen the skills of international aviators with different aircraft platforms in a 2 v 2 scenario. Over 1,000 personnel and five different types of fighter jets took part in Blue Flag, with over 100 sorties per day and including some at night.

‘Red Air’ or Nowhere Land as it was called, had its own dedicated fighter unit in the form of 115 Squadron, the Israeli Air Force aggressor specialists equipped with the General Dynamics F-16C block 40 Fighting Falcons and based at Ovda. The squadron can simulate all kinds of threats and tactics used by potential enemies in the Middle Eastern area and beyond. And it’s not only aerial combat the unit specialises in, its personnel can also simulate surface to air threats, electronic warfare attacks and even challenges to friendly space based assets. 115 Squadron is known also as the ‘Dragon Squadron’ and these aircraft were joined by the one of the IAF Patriot air defence system units for added Surface to Air Missile (SAM) realism, the unit deployed to Ovda normally being based near the Israeli city of Dimona to protect the Negev Nuclear Research Center. The commander of the detachment was proud of the success the missile had had in the first week of the exercise stating that, “Everything we’ve been allowed to target, we’ve knocked down”

Having the Patriot system at Ovda reinforces the need for the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) training for future conflicts and that’s what the Italian Air Force bought with its Panavia Tornado ECR from 6 Stormo, normally based at Ghedi. Italy, along with Greece, Poland and the United States had participated in Blue Flag before but for some countries it was the first time.

Perhaps the most emotive of these newcomers to Blue Flag, due to recent history, was Germany. Both Israel and Germany have trained together in the past but this was the first time Luftwaffe fighter aircraft had flown over Israel since World War One, when Israel was known as Ottoman Palestine.

Commander of the base and also the exercise was Colonel Itamar (surname withheld for security reasons) who explained his feelings on seeing German aircraft on his airfield, “Seeing the Luftwaffe airplanes entering out hangars, it’s something I will always remember, its sensitive, it’s emotional. The past can’t be changed”. He made clear that the close military and diplomatic ties the two countries have enjoyed for several decades now bide well for the future.

Germany bought the Eurofighter EF.2000 to Israel, all aircraft from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader (TLG) 73 based at Laage near Rostock. In charge of the deployment was Lieutenant Colonel Gero von Fritschen and was happy with the reception his unit had received, not just from the Israeli military, but also the general public, as he explained, “I’m honoured to be here. We’ve had a warm welcome. Even when we are just sitting in the lobby of our hotel in Eilat in our uniforms, people come up and talk to us.”

Another ‘first-timer’ was India, which had a heavy involvement in the Special Forces mission practised at Blue Flag. The Indian Air Force sent a Lockheed C-130J Hercules to participate, as well as some of its own ‘Garud’ special force soldiers.

The final first timer was France, in country for the first time since 1956 during the Suez Crisis. The Mirage 2000Ds from EC.003 stood out with their dark camouflage more suited to northern Europe where the aircraft normally operate than the stark bright colours seen in the Negev.

With seven F-16s, the United States Air Force 510th Fighter Squadron, part of the 31st Fighter Wing from Aviano in Italy, had the largest amount of aircraft deployed by the international participants at Blue Flag. The squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Freeborn told how his pilots introduced themselves to the exercise arena and operating in a different country. He explained, “We started with simple missions to get used to the local area, working together, and the administrative coming and going from the airspace, then we are continually layering complexity onto these simple missions”

Israel itself committed several of its combat units from the IAF to Blue Flag. The first week alone saw 101 Squadron equipped with the F-16C ‘Barak’, 107 Squadron with the F-16I ‘Suefa’ and 133 Squadron with no less than 4 types of McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles, or ‘Baz’ as it’s known in Israel. 106 Squadron from Tel Nof also had two F-15C present. With the second week having a more expansive Israeli participation, the seriousness and commitment the IAF takes to Blue Flag is obvious, and takes precedent over all other aerial activity in Israeli airspace when missions take place.

So what of the future? The 2019 event will be sure to feature fifth generation fighter capability with the introduction of the Lockheed Martin F-35I ‘Adir’ already taking place into IAF service. This means another technology shift and enhanced threat training to add to the first class lessons the Israeli and international air arms are already gleaning from the Blue Flag exercise, and a challenge the personnel at Ovda are sure to saviour.

Perhaps the last words should go to Colonel Itamar ,”Our aim is not to win or lose, but to learn.”