Peace Time: Israel Trains Foreign Fighter Pilots

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February 9, 2021: Greece recently called for bids on a contract to provide advanced pilot training for new fighter pilots. This was a 20-year long project that involved providing jet trainers, simulators, instructors and a credible track record for doing this sort of thing. Israelis won the contract, which came as no surprise. Israeli F-16s, modified for Israeli use, are among the best in the world and Israeli F-16 pilots have scored more air combat victories with the F-16 than any other user nation.

There are a growing number of firms that can handle jobs like this at lower cost than most governments. In this case Israel, not a private contractor, won the competition. This was not surprising because Israel has, in the past provided military training for allies, but never to this extent. It was no surprise that Israel won the contract because the Israeli and Greek air forces have been increasingly engaging in joint training and other forms of cooperation. Currently Greece and Israel have a common adversary in Turkey, which has become increasingly aggressive and Islamic since 2000 when an Islamic party won control of the government. Since its founding in 1948 until 2000, Turkey and Israel were trading partners and had good diplomatic relations. Since 2000 Greece has become more of an ally with Israel and Turkey more of a foe. All three countries have something else, using the F-16 as their primary jet fighter. While that used to be an advantage for Turkey, when they were close with Israel, after 2000 Greece was drawn to Israel in part by joint military needs and a common problem with Turkish hostility. Israel and Greece also have growing economic ties when it comes to developing oil and natural gas resources in offshore waters. Israel wants to build an underwater natural gas pipeline that will go through Greek EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waters now illegally claimed by Turkey.

For over a decade Greek and other foreign pilots have been able to see Israeli combat pilot training up close because Israel has been hosting joint training exercises at its training center for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training." Several times in the last decade Greek pilots have participated and came away impressed.

The Israeli Air Force has hosted foreign fighter pilots for tactical training. Israeli fighter pilots are considered the best trained in the world, and Israel maintains a special training program, complete with pilots trained and equipped to operate as likely foes would, to train their own pilots. A growing number of NATO nations, including new members like Poland, send fighters and pilots to Israel for training.

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 for the enemy, or 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 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 also developed "dissimilar training" programs.

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. The Chinese effort to create a Red Flag operation was based largely on the success the United States and Israel have 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 the UAE.

This success in pilot training was a major reason Israel won the Greek pilot training program. Greece has a smaller air force than Turkey but was always considered to have better trained pilot. Turkey lost its edge in F-16 pilot training after a 2016 purge of the Turkish air force because the Islamic government suspected the air force of being disloyal. Turkey lost so many F-16s pilots that it had problems training new ones. Recent encounters between Greek and Turkish F-16s made it clear that the Greeks had a pilot edge and, with the new Israeli run pilot training program, the Greeks hope to hold onto it.

The training contract has Israel providing ten Italian M-346 advanced jet trainers, which are what the Israeli air force uses. Israel obtained 30 M-346s in 2012 instead of trying to replace the elderly A-4 light bombers used as jet trainers with older F-16s. The A-4 wasn't a great trainer aircraft given its age and high maintenance cost. Israel eventually realized that older F-16s would not be much better as trainers. The M-346s were obtained at a price Israel could afford via a billion-dollar barter deal. Israel was pleased with the performance of the M-346s. That meant obtaining Israel as a jet trainer export customer was a big deal for Italy as it played a role in obtaining more export sales.

The M-346 is a 9.5-ton, twin engine, two-seat aircraft. Top speed is 1,000 kilometers an hour. Max range with two drop tanks is 2,500 kilometers. The aircraft can also carry three tons of weapons including bombs, missiles, and a cannon pod. The M-346 is an excellent dual-use aircraft, as a trainer and fighter-bomber. The M-346 began production in 2008. Development began in the 1990s as a joint venture with Russia. But the two projects split in 2000, with the Russians continuing to develop theirs as the Yak-130.

 


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