By S. Samuel C. Rajiv*
A 45 member Indian Air Force (IAF) contingent took part in the multilateral air exercise ‘Blue Flag 2017’ held at the Uvda Air Base in southern Israel from November 2-16, 2017. This was the first time that an IAF contingent has participated in air exercises with the Israeli Air Force (IsAF). The other participating nations were France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and the United States. While France was also a first time participant, Germany was an observer at these biennial exercises in 2015.
The IsAF touted Blue Flag 2017 as the ‘largest international aerial training exercise in Israel’s history’ whose goal was to ‘simulate extreme combat scenarios and coalition flights as realistically as possible’. The Indian participation involved the state-of-the-art Super Hercules C-130J Special Operations transport aircraft and Garud commandos. All the other participating nations took part with fighter aircraft. The Greeks, Poles and Americans brought the F-16 while the French, Italians and Germans brought the Mirage 2000 D, the Tornado and the Eurofighter Typhoon, respectively. The C-130 is a familiar platform to all the participating nations, with a majority of them operating the aircraft (Germany is set to induct the aircraft beginning from 2019).
The absence of fighter aircraft in the Indian contingent could possibly be due to a range of reasons including the need to establish comfort levels before ramping up participation in the next round after two years. Further, the platforms deployed also correspond to the objective of the participation, which, in the present case, was obviously focused on the training of the Garud commandos. In the Indian context, with anti-terrorist operations being a priority for the security forces, the exercise was an important occasion to gain lessons from the Israeli experience. An additional factor could be the issue of over-flight clearance for fighter aircraft from countries in the region that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Blue Flag 2017 adds an important layer to the matrix of bilateral defence cooperation, which has encompassed import of niche technology and equipment, Staff talks, reciprocal visits of chiefs of armed forces, port visits by ships of the Indian Navy, among other interactions. It remains to be seen whether the IAF’s participation in Blue Flag 2017 would lead to future bilateral air exercises on Indian soil. To be sure, both India and Israel participate in bilateral/multi-lateral air exercises with a limited number of countries. India in fact began exercising with other air forces beginning only from 2003, when Garuda I was conducted with France.1 For India (as indeed for most air forces), key operational variables that determine the frequency of such exercises have included finite resources in terms of equipment and budget and focus on internal exercises.
Over the past three years, India has conducted bilateral air exercises with France (June 2014), Russia (August-September 2014; first time ever air exercises were conducted with Russia), United Kingdom (July 2015), UAE (June 2016), Singapore (November-December 2016), Oman (January 2017), Thailand (May 2017) and Sri Lanka (July 2017), apart from participating in the multilateral Red Flag exercises in the US in April 2016. The varied combat platforms that took part in these exercises included fighters, aerial refuellers and transport aircraft, based on the objectives of each exercise.
For Israel, the US is obviously its most significant bilateral exercise partner. US-Israel bilateral military exercises also include missile defence, counter-terrorism, urban warfare, and naval exercises in the Mediterranean. European Command (EUCOM) is the lead US combatant command that partners with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in a majority of these exercises. The other significant ‘air partners’ for Israel include Italy, Greece and Romania, each of which presents unique opportunities for the IsAF to further hone its skills.
The mountainous topography of Romania, for instance, has been touted by the IDF as an important factor for conducting bilateral exercises in that country, specifically as it relates to the training that helicopter crews can gain in search and rescue operations. One of the attractions for Israeli participation in the Red Flag exercises in the US or with the Italian Air Force in Sardinia, apart from the varied nature of the exercises themselves, is the distances involved in getting to the exercise location in the first place and the large air spaces available for training.
For Israel, the Blue Flag exercises are an important effort to enhance its military diplomacy footprint and provide an opportunity for its pilots to train in a multi-lateral setting in their own air space. The IsAF, in fact, began these multi-lateral air exercises ostensibly in response to being denied permission by Turkey to take part in the 2009 Anatolian Eagle air exercises after Israel’s Cast Lead military action in Gaza. Reports, however, note that Israel has since been allowed to resume its participation in these exercises after forging a rapprochement with Turkey.
Israel also takes part in multilateral air combat exercises with countries like Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Israel, Pakistan and four other countries participated in the 2004 edition of Anatolian Eagle held in Turkey. Israel, Pakistan and UAE took part in the US Red Flag exercises in August 2016. Israel, along with the UAE and US, participated in ‘INIOHOS 2017’ held in Greece. While being cognizant of the fact that the choice of countries invited to participate is the prerogative of the host and most of the interaction takes place through host country coordination, it is interesting to note that Israel has taken part in air combat exercises in a multilateral setting with participating countries with which it does not even have bilateral diplomatic relations.
Certain limiting factors, though, could continue to constrain the nature and scope of India-Israel air exercises. India, for instance, has so far not conducted multilateral air exercises in its air space. In case the possibilities of undertaking bilateral exercises are to be explored, the IsAF will have to address the challenge of zeroing in on the optimum route to reach air bases in India, given the distances involved.
Further, Israel’s lack of diplomatic recognition in the region stretching from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan complicates the operational dynamics of the deployment of combat platforms. IsAF’s training purposes are met adequately by exercising with countries like Italy or Greece (apart from the US), which operate similar American aircraft like the F-16. Nevertheless, India’s first ever participation in multilateral air exercises on Israeli soil undoubtedly builds on the path-breaking visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel in July 2017.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author:
*S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
This article was published by IDSA.
1.See Kishore Kumar Khera, ‘International Military Exercises: An Indian Perspective’, Journal of Defence Studies, 11(3), July-September 2017, pp. 17-40.