Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Indian Fighter Jets Join Rafales, Typhoons & F-35s For Historic Blue Flag Drills – 1st Major Step Towards ‘Middle-East QUAD’?

The Ovda (or Uvda) airbase in Israel is hosting the 11-day ‘Blue Flag’ international military exercise that kicked off on October 17. The exercise is being attended by air forces from across the globe.

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The ongoing war games, aimed at strengthening “cooperation between the nations”, will offer a glimpse of what is being seen as the ‘Middle-Eastern QUAD’. This is the largest and most advanced air exercise ever held in Israel, experiencing many “firsts”.

Global Cooperation

The first edition of the Blue Flag military aviation exercise took place in November 2013. It was made a biennial event in 2015. The previous edition took place in 2019.

Although it was attended by only four guest nations, the event was still referred to as the most advanced international air force exercise in the history of Israel. With eight nations’ air forces in attendance, Blue Flag 2021 is even larger.

Air force personnel from the US, India, Germany, Italy, the UK, France, and Greece will be present for the exercise.

Blue Flag air force exercise
Eight countries are participating in the Blue Flag air force exercise. (via Israeli Air Force)

The aim of the exercise is to bolster strategic international cooperation via shared learning about the integration of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft in elaborate operational frameworks. The air forces will train in air-to-air as well as air-to-ground combat.

They will carry out drills to familiarize themselves with advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats and a variety of operational scenarios in enemy territory.

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Many Firsts

The ongoing exercise is seeing many “firsts”. For instance, this is the first time a British fighter squadron has been deployed to Israel ever since the establishment of the country.

It is also the first time that an Indian Mirage” fighter squadron has been posited to Israel. Moreover, before this year’s drills, a French “Rafale” fighter squadron had never been garrisoned in Israel either.

In terms of the types of aircraft participating, other than the first-timers, Blue Flag 2021 is seeing the return of the Italian Air Force F-35A and G.550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft to Ovda Air Base. Both of these took part in the 2019 iteration of the exercise.

Blue Flag 2021 exercise
Fighter jets performing aerial drills as part of the Blue Flag 2021 exercise in Israel. (via Twitter)

In addition, the German Air Force – Luftwaffe – has sent six of its Eurofighters, one of which is a special colored jet that sports the Israeli and German flags and is dubbed “Eagle Star”. The Eagle Star took part in a joint honorary flyover in Israeli skies.

Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, Commander of the German Air Force, manned the Eurofighter with the flyover was being led by the commander of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin was piloting an F-15 “Baz”.

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Norkin was quoted as saying in a public release, “We are living in a very complicated region, and the threats to the State of Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran are only increasing. Holding an international exercise in this current reality, while continuing our public and covert operational activities on all fronts, is of utmost strategic importance and has an extensive impact over the Israeli Air Force, the IDF, and the State of Israel.

Blue Flag exercise
German and Israeli fighter jets fly together during the Blue Flag exercise. (via Twitter)

“This exercise is groundbreaking in terms of technology, quality of training, and the number of participating nations. It illustrates the partnership and strong bond between the nation’s air forces and acts as a stepping-stone toward regional and international cooperation.”

However, the German-Israeli special relationship wasn’t the only noticeable grouping at play.

What Is Middle-Eastern QUAD?

India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States seem to be on track to forming what has been loosely referred to as the “Middle East Quad”. Following the signing of the Abraham Accords, parts of the Gulf have been opened up to Israel and vice-versa. This is being hailed as the beginning of the end of mistrust between the two entities.

Capitalizing upon the potential for new alliances opening up with countries in this region, the US decided to serve as a linchpin, launching a new quadrilateral economic forum in a part-virtual, part-in-person summit between the foreign ministers of the nations concerned.

Jaishankar-IAF
India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar with the Indian Air Force team at the Ovda airbase in Israel. (via Twitter)

The summit followed Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s bilateral meeting with Israeli Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Jaishankar is currently on a 5-day tour of Israel and has already visited the Ovda airbase where the Blue Flag drills are happening.

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This potential alliance is different from the Indo-Pacific Quad that views Beijing as the overarching threat. The Middle-Eastern ‘Quad’, if it is ever formalized, is likely to not get its skin too deep into local rivalries. The emphasis would instead probably be on cooperation in areas such as energy, health, economics, and climate change.

However, the presence of India, the US at the Israel-hosted Blue Flag exercise now, and UAE-hosted exercise Desert Flag-VI at Al-Dhafra base in March this year, hint at the prospect of increased military cooperation and coordination between these states. A move towards greater interoperability is already visible.

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