Israeli F-35 jets join Red Flag exercise for first time

JERUSALEM — Israel for the first time sent F-35I Adir fighter jets to the American-led Red Flag exercise in Nevada, which ran March 12-24.

The training comes amid tension between Israel and Iran as well as the former’s procurement of KC-46A tanker aircraft. The U.S. and Israel have engaged in several recent high profile joint drills, including Juniper Oak, which began in late January. Israel called that event the largest-ever U.S.-Israel drill.

U.S. Air Force Col. Jared Hutchinson, who leads the 414th Combat Training Squadron, said Red Flag provided operators with realistic and relevant training in an integrated warfighting environment.

“The only way to get at realistic elements is training with those you may go into combat with, and Israel is one of our closest allies, so we need to be ready for that,” he added.

During Red Flag, about 100 aircraft flew out of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Israel committed seven F-35s, representing nearly a quarter of its Joint Strike Fighter fleet. Israel will have 50 of the advanced jets by 2024.

An Israeli F-35I Adir taxis out for a drill during Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on March, 15 2023. (William R. Lewis/U.S. Air Force)
An Israeli F-35I Adir taxis out for a drill during Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on March, 15 2023. (William R. Lewis/U.S. Air Force)

Exercise participants confronted simulated air defenses as well as static and mobile targets. There were “a wide-range of training drills, including long-range aerial scenarios, achieving aerial superiority in the region, joint aerial strikes, area defense, interception of enemy aircraft, low-altitude flights and flights in areas abundant with anti-aircraft equipment,” according to a statement by the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF noted that the U.S.-led exercise strengthens “operational cooperation between the two militaries as key partners committed to maintaining security in the Middle East.”

For his part, Hutchinson said these events help the U.S. learn “how other countries develop tactics, techniques [and] procedures, and we can learn from them as they learn from us.” The F-35s, he added, specifically participated in drills involving the suppression of air defenses and trained to neutralize simulated threats.

“We are training to [a] generalized Russian-based threat; a lot of the Russian-based threats are in these other nations in the [U.S. Central Command] area of responsibility,” Hutchinson said.

Red Flag doesn’t focus on adversaries in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility — some of which are Israel’s neighbors — but Syria, for example, uses defense systems of Soviet or Russian origin, such as the S-200 missile system.

Three iterations

Red Flag is held three times a year in Nevada, and each iteration includes different scenarios and focus areas. The January event was three weeks long and included the British and Australian air forces, with a focus on China as a potential threat. It was open to all Five Eyes members — an intelligence-sharing group made up of the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The most recent iteration was open to an “expanded roster of international allies and partners.”

The third Red Flag, scheduled for August as a U.S.-only drill, will also focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

Israel has attended 11 Red Flag events since 1978, according to a U.S. Air Force statement. This year was the first time Israel participating in Red Flag since 2016, the service noted.

Israel received its first F-35s in 2016, and used them in combat for the first time in 2018. The Jewish state has trained alongside American and Italian forces with the aircraft in the last few years, but it hasn’t sent the jets so far abroad as it did this month.

Israel also sent Boeing 707 tanker aircraft to Red Flag this month. The F-35s were refueled by U.S. KC-135s, according to the IDF.

An Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 takes off during the Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on March 20, 2023. (William R. Lewis/U.S. Air Force)
An Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 takes off during the Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on March 20, 2023. (William R. Lewis/U.S. Air Force)

Hutchinson said this month’s Red Flag drill involved several military units that brought together about 2,100 personnel, including the 20th Fighter Wing out of South Carolina with F-16 jets; elements of the New Jersey Air National Guard that fly F-16s; F-35As and members of the 34th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah; and U.S. Navy E-18 Growlers electronic warfare aircraft from Whidbey Island, Washington.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron receives air-to-air refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker during the Red Flag exercise over Nevada on March 23, 2023. (Senior Airman Zachary Rufus/U.S. Air Force)
A U.S. Air Force F-16 assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron receives air-to-air refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker during the Red Flag exercise over Nevada on March 23, 2023. (Senior Airman Zachary Rufus/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Marine Corps brought F-18C and F-18D aircraft from Miramar, Florida, while E-3 airborne warning and control system aircraft were flown in from Tinker Air Force Base. There were also rescue assets from the 106th Rescue Wing out of New York and HC-130 planes, along with a tanker task force’s KC-135s and KC-46s.

Hutchinson said unmanned aircraft did not participate.

The training occurred at Nellis’ Nevada Test and Training Range, which includes 12,000 square miles of airspace and 2.9 million acres of land as well as about 2,000 target sets that aircraft can train against.

“This is the home of the only professional bad-guy aggressor squadron, the 64th, that fly F-16s and the 65th that fly F-35s, and air defense that simulates using enemy surface-to-air [missiles], and [an] information aggressor that will aggress the cyber environment,” Hutchinson said. He added that the airborne aggressor in this case replicated Russian fighters and surface-to-air missiles.

Israeli participants were present for almost two weeks, which included 10 training days. Hutchinson said 50-75 sorties were flown in each 90-minute drill, equating to about 150 sorties per day. Israel’s older tanker aircraft participated, even as the country seeks to take delivery of the modern KC-46s.

Asked about the use of the older tanker aircraft, Hutchinson said they “performed exceptionally well” in this month’s exercise, and that “every organization is on a cycle to upgrade the support assets so they have the reliability to execute when the time comes.”