Warplanes: The Blue Flag Advantage

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November 22, 2021: In October 2021 Israel hosted its fifth Blue Flag international training exercises. This one had the largest attendance so far with Britain, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, and the United States sending aircraft, pilots, maintainers, and observers to Israel. There were unofficial attendees, like Jordan and some of its F-16s. Aircraft involved included Israeli F-35Is, F-15Ds and F-16Cs; French Rafales; British Typhoons; Italian F-35s and twin-engine AWACS aircraft; German Typhoons; Greek F-16s; and Indian Mirage 2000s. The Americans were going to send F-35A land-based stealth fighters in addition to the F-16Cs, but the F-35A was still entering service and none were available for Blue Flag. The Israeli F-35I is a customized version of the basic F-35A and did show up. Blue Flag 2021 was the first appearance in Israel of the French Rafale and Indian Mirage 2000 fighters. The British appearance was the first time since 1948 that British combat aircraft were in Israel.

Blue Flag is based on the pioneering, in 1975, American Red Flag international training exercises. The American Red Flag was created to improve coordination among allied air forces in simulated combat conditions. Until the Cold War ended in 1991, nearly all the foreign air forces attending Red Flag were closely allied with the United States and able to practice using classified equipment and techniques. Since the 1990s some of the Red Flag have included frenemies and thus lacked the use of anything classified. Often described as more diplomacy than training, these unclassified exercises were nonetheless useful, at least to let these nations get a close look at each other’s aircraft and pilots.

Two years before the first Blue Flag Israel hosted foreign fighter pilots for tactical training using locally developed Red Flag technology. Israeli fighter pilots are considered the best trained in the world and one reason for that is use of the best training methods available. As part of that Israel maintains a special training program, complete with pilots trained and equipped to operate as likely foes would, in order to train Israeli pilots. Initially the Israelis provided training for fighters and pilots from Poland, Italy, and Greece. This was a good source of income and good diplomacy as these were countries that Israel was on good terms with.

Blue Flag is free for participants, and by invitation. This became a good way to note which countries Israel could depend on militarily. Israel continues to attend the American Red Flag events and recently those have included Middle Eastern nations that Israel is technically at war with over the Palestinian issue. Because Israel and these other Middle Eastern nations have some common enemies, especially Iran and Islamic terror groups and Israel is the most powerful and technologically advanced military power in the region, a growing number of Arab states are openly working with the Israelis.

The growing Israeli participation in military exercises worldwide is in part driven by diplomacy because for decades the Arab countries have sought to isolate Israel diplomatically. That effort failed, in part because of growing Israeli success in developing and exporting world-class commercial and military technology and manufactured goods. The United States has always been a major customer for this tech and so are a growing number of nations in Eastern Europe and in South and East Asia, who invite Israeli participation to see what the Israelis can do. The Israeli Air Force has long hosted foreign fighter pilots for tactical training because Israeli pilots are considered the best trained in the world

The Israeli training center is based on the one pioneered by the U.S. Air Force Red Flag program and the U.S. Navy's Top Gun training in the 1960s and 70s. Initially American aircraft were used to represent the enemy in this dissimilar training. The original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school was established in 1969, by the U.S. Navy, in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that its training emphasized how enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II and Korea because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian-trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four-week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed in the 1970s with its Red Flag school.

Israel adopted its own Blue Flag training program during the 1980s. Plenty of other nations eventually did the same. After 2010, China and Russia developed "dissimilar training" programs based on the American experience.

Because Israel has been at war or under imminent threat of attack since the late 1940s, it has developed one of the best Red Flag operations outside the United States. For Blue Flag 21 the Israeli aggressor squadron, with pilots able to use the tactics of potential enemies, were an important part of the various exercises. In several of the training exercises personnel from the Israeli aggressor squadron were used, as well as Israeli techniques for realistic SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) and ground attack situations.

The Chinese effort to create a Red Flag operation was based largely on the success the United States and Israel had with it, and shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done and for many nations Israel is the nearest place to get it. The Israelis are glad to offer access for friendly nations, which now includes Arab states like Jordan and the UAE. Many other Arab states that obtain jet fighters and pilot training from the United States came with Red Flag and discovered the usefulness of Blue Flag for Middle Eastern countries.

 


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