The Ramat David based 117 Squadron was the first to operate the Lockheed Martin F-16A Netz within the IAF in June 1980. The more advanced Block 30 F-16C Barak variant coming on strength in 1987. Between 2010 and 2012 the aircraft underwent the Barak 2020 upgrade, intended to keep them in service for at least a further ten years. Of note is the fact that for a number of years now, IAF squadrons operate only single-seat or twin-seat F-16s. Squadrons that operate the single-seat version specialise in the air superiority role.
“One of the main challenges here is how to bring together the four, four and a half, and fifth generation fighters;” said Lt. Col. Katsikaris. “Working together and operating efficiently. That is what we are practicing. Our jet is four and a half generation, so we are learning from the fifth generation fighters and aircrews what they can do and how we can work together because that is where you get the best outcome, when you work together as a combined force. Alone, nobody can work efficiently.”
The Eagle emblem painted on the tail of the IAF F-15s is common to all F-15A/B/C/D models and were applied
to the fleet upon completion of the Baz upgrade programme
A 140 Sqn F-35I Adir taxy's to the runway during Blue Flag 2019
Boeing KC-707s from 120 Sqn 'Desert Giants' provided air-to-air refuelling during Blue Flag 2019
Israeli F-16I Sufa
Despite declaring the Lockheed Martin F-35I's Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on 6th December 2017, Blue Flag saw the Adir's first involvement in an international exercise. Inducted with 140 'Golden Eagle' Squadron at Nevatim air base, the F-35 is able to collect intelligence and independently analyse the fight, all by itself in real time, with only a single pilot. Whilst fourth-generation jets have great maneuverability and sophisticated weapons systems, they are not able to collect intelligence and independently analyse the battle in as a sophisticated way as the F-35.
A 4º Stormo Eurofighter Typhoon is seen taking off from Ovda during an afternoon Blue Flag mission
An F-15D from 106 Squadron seen taxying in after a Blue Flag mission
Of note are the Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs) and the large SATCOM antenna mounted just aft of the cockpit
Blue Flag 2019
The F-16I Sufa's (Storm) at Blue Flag 2019 were from 201 'The One' Squadron based at Ramon. The squadron was activated at Hatzor during the 'War of Attrition' as the first to operate the McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom.
Following withdrawal of the Phantom from IAF service, 201 Squadron re-formed at Ramon on 9th July 2008 as the fourth F-16I squadron.
Prior to delivery of the F-35s, the IAF's weapon of choice for strike missions was generally the Lockheed Martin F-16I and it was most likely the Sufa that was used during the recent strikes in Gaza. The Sufa is a modified variant of the F-16D block 50/52, with the avionics and weapons systems capability modified to meet the requirements of the Israeli Air Force. The large dorsal spine extending from the rear of the cockpit to the tail-fin houses the additional avionics systems, chaff and flare dispensers and the aircraft’s in-flight refuelling receptacle.
The German Air Force bought 110 personnel and six Eurofighter EF2000 aircraft to this year's Blue Flag, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Gero von Fritschen. This is the second time the Luftwaffe has attended Blue Flag, following on from a successful exercise in 2017.
The Hellenic Air Force (HAF) has become a mainstay of Blue Flag, having attended all three previous exercises - and 2019 was no different, with 335 Sqn bringing four F-16 Block 52+ Fighting Falcons, along with 45 personnel from Araxos Air Base. Led by Lt Col Panagiotis Katsikaris, the Aegean Tigers had attended the last Blue Flag exercise in 2017, thus being the first HAF unit to attend a second Blue Flag. Three F-16C and a single F-16D were involved in the HAF deployment, their experience from previous events standing them in good stead throughout the exercise.
As the light fades across the Negev, this Hellenic Air Force F-16D heads back towards 335 Squadron's
Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) area at Ovda
Spanning southern Israel and occupying almost half of Palestine west of the River Jordan, the Negev Desert covers some 60% of the State of Israel. Located an hour’s drive north of the resort of Eilat, the Israeli Air Force base at Ovda is about as remote as you can get in such a small country. First held in 2013, the aim of Blue Flag is to simulate combat missions. Throughout the first week of the exercise, aircrews conduct FAM (Familiarisation) Flights, followed by Theater Entry and Defensive Counter-Air (DCA) missions. The second week is spent rehearsing more complex scenarios and COMAO's (Combined Air Operations) – firstly as SFE (Small Force Employments), gradually building up to LFE (Large Force Employments) as more and more aircraft become involved.
The Blue Flag 2019 exercise was overseen by Lt. Col. (Reserve) Tal Herman. "The first aspect of preparing the exercise was the aerial overview – that is, the things we want to practice. This was led by the 133rd Squadron, which planned the scenarios alongside the 115th Squadron", elaborated Lt. Col. (Res) Herman. "The second aspect was work on the ground. We had to plan how we would bring all the international crews to Ovda, and prepare infrastructure for two weeks' time". Established in February 2005, the ‘Red Squadron’ and the activation of the Advanced Training Center (ATC) at Ovda was a significant milestone for the IAF, with 115 Squadron re-activated to provide adversary training for all of the IAF squadrons – teaching the IAF how to fly against the enemy. Together with hosting the Blue Flag exercise, where overseas participants also benefit from their expertise, the unit’s F-16C Block 40s acting as Red-Air (enemy forces) during the various training exercises.
With some 70 aircraft and 1000 personnel involved, in terms of firsts - for the IAF it was an introduction to utilising the F-35 and their Airborne Early Warning (AEW) force with Link-16 communications, something that the exercise's NATO participants are well versed in. Israeli Air Force Colonel ‘M’ told us; “We have learned a lot from the NATO guys – how they fly together, flying at night as if it were daylight. We are not used to flying with other countries on a regular basis. We are also not used to communicating in English, which is something we are doing during Blue Flag - all communication is conducted in English. Utilising Link-16 has also been new for us; it increases our capability immensely, allowing each aircraft to see what other aircraft see".
Luftwaffe pilots completed a total of 62 missions, including three at night, during Blue Flag 2019
Eurofighter #31+08 is seen heading back to the TLG.71 shelter area after an afternoon mission
#30+86 is captured departing Ovda for an afternoon mission during Blue Flag 2019
The German Air Force brought six Eurofighters to this year's exercise, operating autonomously from their own shelter area
The Israeli F-35s are still at a very early stage of their development and it is expected that some indigenous modifications and components will be installed on the Adir, much in the same way as the IAF's F-15 and F-16s have - employing home-grown EW (Electronic Warfare) pods, weaponry, and C4 systems.
Aside the Israeli units at Blue Flag, by far the largest attendee was the 480th Fighter Squadron (480FW), 52nd Fighter Wing (52FW) from the United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE), based at Spangdahlem, Germany - the 52FW bringing 250 personnel and 12 F-16C Fighting Falcons.
About a week into Blue Flag, an Israeli airstrike killed a commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza, the death sparking 48 hours of rocket attacks from Gaza, in which some 450 rockets were fired at Israel, who claimed that 90% were intercepted by the country's Iron Dome air defence system. The operation by Israel involved strike missions performed by the IAF, including some retaliatory strikes after the rocket attacks. Whether the air strikes involved the new F-35I Adir fleet is not known.
The Lockheed Martin F-35’s close air-support capabilities and sensors provide the pilots of the jet unparalleled access to information during missions. For overseas crews participating in this year's Blue Flag, a new scenario for many of them was experiencing SAM threats and being able to fly in the ‘playground’ at low-level, at supersonic speed and drop bombs, something that many of the NATO crews do not benefit from when flying back home in their native environment.
Israeli Air Force F-35I Adirs took part in their first Blue Flag exercise in 2019
The aircraft are base at Nevatim with 140 'Golden Eagle' Squadron
The Italian Air Force also had a G550 CAEW at Blue Flag. The aircraft from 14° Stormo was also modified by Elta Systems in Israel, who installed the mission systems. The Elta EL/W-2085 AEW allows the flight crew a high situational awareness in real-time, with a 360° picture of the battlefield. Information obtained by the sensors allow a rapid and accurate capture and identification of objectives, target acquisition and target information.
Barak #313 roars out of Ovda during Blue Flag 2019
enemy territory,” an IDF spokesman said. All airspace south of Hatzerim is limited during Blue Flag, with other IAF bases not flying during Blue Flag exercises, thus freeing up as much airspace as possible without the fear on aircraft incursions.
Billed as Israel’s most advanced exercise due to participation by 5th generation aircraft for the first time, Blue Flag is of the utmost strategic importance and has a tremendous influence on the Air Force, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the State of Israel. “As part of the exercise, dozens of flights were carried out, in which the Israeli Air Force, along with the other air forces taking part, simulated air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, dealing with the threat of advanced surface-to-air missiles and scenarios of combat in
“Being here offers certain opportunities such as low altitude flying,” Burns said. “Typically in Germany we do not get a lot of that training. So being here and able to train with low altitude tactics, our surface-to-air targets and our Israeli partners, really enhances our ability to operate together and develop our tactics. It makes us better aviators and better tactical effectiveness working with the Israeli Air Force and with the other partner nations here.”
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) hosted this year's Blue Flag exercise at Ovda Air Base 3-14th November. Located in the Negev Desert, some 37 miles (60km) north of the coastal resort of Eilat, the 2019 exercise's main goals included; Providing high quality combat aerial training for 4th & 5th generation aircraft; Mutual training and learning of combat missions; and Fostering international relations, cultural understanding and combat experience. Jetwash Aviation Photos was invited along by the Israeli Defence Force to report on the exercise and re-visit a country we hadn't been to since 2005.
One of four F-35I Adirs involved in Blue Flag 2019 is caught taxying to the Ovda runway on 11th November
Note the 140 Squadron 'Golden Eagle' emblem on the engine intake
As the sun sets over Ovda, a Eurofighter Typhoon from the Luftwaffe's TLG.71 touches down after a late afternoon mission
The Israeli Air Force fleet of F-35I Adirs received their introduction to international exercises during Blue Flag 2019
#681 is a F-15A Baz belonging to 133 'Twin Tail' Squadron
An Adir from 140 Squadron is seen departing Ovda in full afterburner during Blue Flag
The 480FS is a specialist in the Wild Weasel, or SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) role - suppressing enemy surface-based air defences, including not only surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), but also interrelated systems such as early-warning radar and command, control and communication (C3) functions
Two Naschon Eitam CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) aircraft from 122 Squadron were at Blue Flag 2019
#569 is seen here departing Ovda for a mission
Sufa #892 from 201 'The One' Squadron heads back to the unit's ramp after a Blue Flag mission on 11th November
Four F-35As from Amendola's 32° Stormo deployed to Ovda for this year's international Blue Flag exercise. Having only recently returned from their first NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland, General Alberto Rosso said; “We operate at our best even in adverse weather conditions and thousands of kilometres from our home base". The AMI deployment was supported by Lockheed C-130J Hercules and Boeing KC-767 aerial refuellers. For two weeks the AMI and IAF F-35s operated side-by-side, controlled by G550-CAEW Gulfstreams from both countries, working in conjunction with each other to provide electronic warfare support via Link-16.
Blue Flag participants fly sorties against the 115 ‘Flying Dragon’ Squadron, the Israeli Air Force’s aggressor squadron, which is based at Ovda; its role to simulate enemy aircraft during the exercise. In addition to the ‘Red-Air’ adversaries of 115 Sqn, Blue Flag participants also encounter Patriot Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) batteries. The IAF has modelled Blue Flag on the U.S Red Flag and Green Flag exercises and besides the tactical advantage gained by training with hundreds of international aircrew members, aircraft and weapon systems; the IAF also gains a strategic advantage.
This Spangdahlem based F-16 Block 50 is captured as it blasts out of Ovda for a Blue Flag mission
'Italian Stallions' The Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI - Italian Air Force) brought along 200 personnel to this year's Blue Flag, together with six Eurofighter EF2000s, a single Gulfstream G550-CAEW and most noticeably six Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs from 32º Stormo. The Italian Air Force Chief of Staff, General Alberto Rosso, who visited the Italian contingent during the exercise, commented; "The training return for our crews has been very high, but most of all this exercise demonstrates the logistical projection capability of the Air Force".
122 Squadron re-formed in June 2005 to take delivery of the IAF's new Naschon Shavit and Naschon Eitam aircraft. Based on Gulfstream's 550 business jet, the Naschon Eitam CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) aircraft is equipped with two L-band antennas and 2 S-band antennas, part of the Elta Systems EL/W-2085 multi-sensor suite. Elta is a subsidiary of Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI).
An Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning from 32° Stormo heads out for a Blue Flag mission at Ovda
Blue Flag provides multi-domain, cross-functional training missions aimed at maintaining the sharp combat edge needed for the most demanding military scenarios by promoting a continuous learning environment. The multi-national aspect of the training builds partnership and personal relationships among the pilots of each participating nation as they train together to make each pilot better. “Israel provides a great opportunity to fly at a low altitude as well as fly against live emitters, which is great training”, said U.S. Air Force Capt. Andrew Burns, a F-16 pilot from the 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. “We are also able to see how different cultures think about problems and see their ways of problem solving, which allows us to come up with a better solution overall and has us build relationships with our other nations.
The IAF have operated the McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) F-15 Eagle (known as the 'Baz' - Buzzard in IAF service) since 1976. In service with 106 Spearhead and 133 Twin Tail Squadrons, both based at Tel Nof on the outskirts of the capital Tel Aviv, the Baz has been much modified and upgraded by Israel - so much so that it is far more than just an air superiority fighter. A mix of F-15A/B/C and D models were delivered, many of which underwent the Baz Meshupar (Improved Baz) upgrade, which saw them provided with an air-to-ground capability, including the delivery of guided weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the indigenous Rafael Popeye missile. The F-15 fleet later received a further upgrade under the Baz La'ad (Baz Forever) programme.
There are very few built-up areas across the Negev’s barren landscape, giving pilots the opportunity to fly low and fast over the high-tech aerial playground, where the Blue Flag exercise is conducted. The aerial dog-fighting and surface-to-air attacks are all simulated, but some of the bombing conducted involves live weapons. All participants in the exercise fly from Ovda, with each unit having their own dedicated shelter area to operate from. As well as the aircraft involved, the Israeli Defence Force provided two Patriot air-to-air missile batteries (one for use by Red-Air forces and one for the Blue forces), up to four Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA - Drones) and up to four helicopters for the exercise. The large, sparsely populated areas surrounding Ovda air base, combined with a dedicated adversary unit providing complex and realistic enemy tactics, enables the Advanced Training Center at Ovda to provide first class large-scale international exercises such as Blue Flag.
Lt. Col. M‘, Commander of the 133rd 'Knights of the Twin Tail' Squadron, told us; “A lot of work went into getting the F-35 operating from Ovda. The aircraft brings a huge amount of support equipment with it – we even had to adapt the shelters to house the aircraft. Because of the aircraft’s rear large V-tail arrangement, it would not fit inside the shelters, resulting in them being ‘cut’ to accommodate the aircraft”. Interestingly, the F-35 flew both Red and Blue-air missions during the exercise, giving the foreign crews the opportunity to experience flying against the latest 5th-Gen aircraft. The Lockheed Martin F-35 has an extremely low radar signature, allowing them to operate undetected deep inside enemy territory whilst evading the latest advanced Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems such as the S-300 and S-400.
Lt. Col. Manuel Last from TLG.71 said; “We started doing a squadron exchange. We flew with the Israeli Air Force - one of our pilots flew in an Israeli F-16 and we took one of their pilots in one of our Eurofighters. It was kind of emotional, it was a great experience, and I really honour the professionalism of the Israeli Air Force.”
The Israeli Air Force credits the Blue Flag exercise and other international aerial drills with improving its capabilities as it allows Israeli pilots an opportunity to see how other air forces operate and also teaches them to effectively communicate with foreign pilots and crews, something that may come in handy if Israel ever participated in a multi-national military operation. For the many of the foreign participants it was the first time they have had the opportunity to fly at low-level and use chaff/flares. Two missions a day were planned during Blue Flag, with one night flight per week. Individual pilots generally flew one mission each day, with the missions scheduled to operate between 1000-1200 and 1400-1600hrs.
Officially, the Italian Eurofighter Typhoon deployment was headed up by 4º Stormo, based at Grosetto, however I was told unofficially that crews from all three Typhoon Wings (4, 36 and 37) attended.
The military relationship between Israel and Italy is currently at an all-time high, with information exchanges regarding the F-35, mutual exercises and military deals continuing to grow.
We would like to thank the following people without whose help this article would not have been possible:-
Alex, Mika and Avital (IAF/IDF Spokesperson)
Col. M (Israeli Air Force)
Lt. Col. (Reserve) Tal Herman (Israeli Air Force)
Everyone else at Ovda who provided help, refreshments, information and assistance throughout our visit
As we wait in anticipation, the unmistakable sound of jet engines can be heard in the distance. Several minutes later, strange simmering shapes appear on the horizon. Hard to make out exactly what they are through the heat haze, as the noise increases and the shapes get closer, it becomes apparent - F-35 Adirs. The 2019 edition of Blue Flag is in full flow, Israel’s biennial large-scale aerial warfare exercise. For the first time at a Blue Flag, the Israeli Air Force’s first 5th Generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35I Lightning (known as the Adir in Israel) is participating in the exercise - alongside aircraft from Germany, Greece, Italy and the United States.
Israel and Italy were able to operate their F-35s side-by-side, exchanging experiences and information,
allowing them to maximise the aircraft's capabilities in future operations
F-15A Baz #689 is credited with a ‘MiG Kill’ on 27/6/1979 when Lt Col Eitan Ben-Eliyahu shot down a Syrian MiG.21
The aircraft supposedly has 2 credited kills, but no details of the other ‘kill’ can be found on record
Against a typical Negev Desert background, an Italian Typhoon taxy's out for a mission
The aircraft wears the markings of 37º Stormo, which is based at Trapani on the island of Sicily
The EF2000s came from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 71 (TLG 71), the first jet-fighter unit in the Luftwaffe and known as the 'Richthofen' squadron, after the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Lt Col Fritschen commented on Blue Flag 19; "The exercise has no concrete scenario as a background. It does not indicate any specific operation. There were exercises against threats from the air, such as enemy fighter planes that had to be defeated in a dogfight, and behavioral threats to jets from the ground, such as surface to air missiles”.
IAF C-130 Hercules were used in the build-up to Blue Flag, ferrying in personnel and equipment for the Israeli squadrons deployed to Ovda during the exercise
Israeli Air Force F-16C Baraks from 117 Squadron roll-out after landing, as the light fades on another day at Blue Flag
117 'First jet Squadron' is based at Ramat David air base. The squadron was the first to operate the F-16 in the IAF
Israel has been a long-time user of the C-130 Hercules transport, dating back to the introduction of the E-model in 1971. Since then, the IAF has operated the H-model and since April 2014 the much improved C-130J-30 Hercules, the J-model adopting a more mundane overall grey colour scheme, rather than the sand/green/tan camouflage worn by the earlier E and H-models. Seven of the new type are currently in service with 103 Squadron at Nevatim . Known as the Shimshon (Samson) by the IAF, the aircraft is an advanced tactical transport aircraft, with modern, computerised and modified flight controls. It is thought that as with most IAF aircraft, the Shimson will be integrated with indigenously manufactured systems geared specifically to the IAF's missions.