Israeli fighter jets have taken part in a training exercise in British air space for the first time, as the Israeli Air Force seeks new opportunities for military co-operation, and European air forces seek to learn more about combating air defence systems.
Seven Israeli F15s and a refuelling tanker took part in the British Royal Air Force-hosted exercise, known as Cobra Warrior, alongside around 40 other aircraft from Germany, Italy, the US and the UK.
Together, they practised aerial combat and refuelling over the sea off the north east of England, and simulated attacks on targets on the ground.
“We can learn [from] their drills and the way they are flying,” said Brigadier General Amnon Ein Dar, head of training for the Israeli air force.
“It’s a huge lesson learned.” He added that he hoped there would be further joint exercises with European air forces.
Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to London, also appeared briefly at the exercise, which he hailed as strengthening the democracies of both Britain and Israel.
RAF officers said they were not prepared to discuss what they described as “the bigger picture” behind the decision to invite the Israeli air force to participate.
Group Captain Rob Barrett, who directed the three-week long series that concluded last week, said: “We welcome the opportunity to train alongside all of the participating nations’ forces on this challenging exercise.”
A defence minister in the UK government told the country’s parliament that Britain was working closely with the Israeli military “in order to counter the destabilising regional activity of Iran and Hezbollah”, and to conduct operations against Islamic State.
European air forces and the US would also have been seeking to benefit more broadly from Israel’s recent military experience, according to Justin Bronk, a research fellow studying air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defence and security think tank.
New stealth fighter
Israel has conducted a number of air strikes against Iran-backed forces in Syria in recent years.
In May 2018, an Israeli Air Force commander confirmed the first operational use in Syria of the new F35 stealth fighter, which is also flown by the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force.
F35s are also reported to have been flown in missions targeting Hamas in Gaza, where the Israeli Air Force regularly conducts air strikes.
“There are two clear operational reasons for the RAF, Italy and the US Air Force in particular to welcome Israeli participation in exercises,” Bronk said.
“The first is that the Israeli Air Force has a great deal of recent experience in operating around and indeed sometimes directly against the Syrian air defence network and some of the Russian air defences which are increasingly integrated with it.
“This is very valuable for Nato air forces looking to be prepared to defend against any aggression in Eastern Europe where many of those same systems would be a threat, and to conduct operations in future against smaller states which buy their air defence systems from Russia.
“The second reason is that Israel has been using its new F35s in the region, as have the US Air Force, US Marine Corps and RAF.
“This gives them plenty to discuss in terms of developing novel tactics to make the best use of the F35, and what it may or may not be able to tell about Syrian and Russian activities whilst in flight.”
Earlier this year, the RAF, the Israeli Air Force and the US Air Force co-operated in a joint F35 training exercise over the eastern Mediterranean which was intended to help the Americans and British learn from the greater experience that the Israelis have acquired while flying the aircraft.
The US jets involved in that exercise flew from the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
For its part, the Israeli military is said to be increasingly eager to engage in joint exercises that would give it an opportunity to train in different terrains and to draw upon the experience gained by the US and British military during their long years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Amos Harel, military correspondent for Haaretz newspaper, says the IDF no longer takes the view that it has little to learn from the armed forces of other nations.
It is also eager to train outside Israel because training areas within the country are few in number and variety, so officers and troops soon become overly familiar with the terrain.
A recent training exercise in Germany, Harel wrote, “is good preparation for combat in locales in which the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] might find itself some day, notably Lebanon, though that’s not spelled out explicitly to the hosts, to avoid embarrassing them”.