The recent Falcon Strike exercise in Italy where six Israeli F-35 fighter jets flew abroad to a foreign base for the first time was an important breakthrough for Israel’s operational activity, according to an Israeli Air Force F-35 pilot. The pilot, whose name cannot be used for security reasons, described the importance of the recent drill, which included Italian, U.S. and UK pilots alongside their Israeli peers.
Six F-35 jets flew to Italy for the drill that lasted June 6–17. “The name of the exercise was Falcon Strike,” the pilot said. “It was the first of its kind exercise. It is a two-week deployment of the F-35 Adir and it includes all types of training for F-35 jets. He says the purpose is shared learning of fifth-generation aircraft to enhance Israel’s cooperation capabilities. “During the exercise the Israeli and other air forces trained on scenarios, [such as] strikes, SAMs, air to air combat, and supporting ground forces and generally all scenarios the F-35 encounters during wartime,” the pilot said. “On top of that what I can say this is the first overseas deployment for the Adir, a breakthrough for operational activity.”
The Israeli Air Force issued a statement noting that the historic deployment included Israel’s unique F-35 jets, according to a statement. It says this is the first deployment of the Adir Squadron abroad, and it included a bi-weekly exercise featuring a number of air forces. The objective was to improve strategic cooperation. The IAF practiced two sorties each day, including sorties. With U.S. F-16 jets and joint training with the UK and Italian F-35 jets. Israel sent two Boeing 707 airliners to the drill while the United States brought the F-35B variant and other aircraft included a KC-767 refueling aircraft and Italian Eurofighters, a Predator drone and helicopters. The British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth also took part, according to the statement. The Israeli second Adir squadron, the 116th, was sent to the exercise. In addition, Israel’s 140th, 120th and 122nd squadrons sent elements.
“It was a great experience to fly with other aircrew that fly the same plane and have the knowledge to operate the plane in operational scenarios,” the pilot said. “It is the first time we do that.” Israel has conducted several joint drills in the past years, including Enduring Lightning with the United States last year. The coronavirus has made much of the joint training difficult. However, by this June drill in Italy, most participants were vaccinated. Nevertheless, masks and social distancing were still part of the protocol. Each country brought its own ground staff and technical experts.
While Israel won’t comment on any technical capabilities of the F-35 jet, the pilot noted that flying together with other F-35 jets and more planes are beneficial. He said he hopes to see more in the future. This was the first joint drill with British and Israeli F-35 jets flying together.
“One challenge flying with people from different countries is understanding one another,” the pilot said. “It is amazing to see, even though we are from different countries [how] after a short briefing together you are able to cooperate well in the air. Another thing I was amazed by is how much you learn each day and how much it gets better, even though we all train independently, we are still able to operate together efficiently.”
This is important because the other participating Air Forces are in NATO. The pilot noted that NATO has its own common communications. These are “not necessarily exactly as we talk in Israel because we have to adapt, and as I said before, after a short briefing on what is required and the language and communications, shortly afterward we understand each other,” the pilot said.
The fifth-generation aircraft is designed to meet the challenges of today’s battlefield and the future. It has met the changing threats of the Middle East as Israel has used the aircraft operationally since at least 2018. The pilot notes how important it is to “be updated and know your surroundings and know the platform and know its capabilities, there are updates and you need to be on top of them.” One issue for Israel is that the F-35 jet is a single-seater, while other Israeli aircraft such as F-15 and F-16 jets were often double seaters. This experience is different for Israeli pilots, as older fourth-generation aircraft included a Weapon System Officer, or “Wizo.”
F-35 jets are an important part of Israel’s air force and its current capabilities. Israel is seeking new refuelers and transport heavy-lift helicopters from the United States. It continues to receive F-35 jets. However, in the United States, the F-35 jet has come under a lot of criticism in recent years. Elon Musk, the SpaceX innovator, told an audience in 2020 at the Air Force Association that the F-35 jet needed to have a competitor against it and “the competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote-controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it.”
The F-35 Israeli pilot said that no one really knows what the future holds, but that Musk has raised an important question. “Musk knows. He’s a smart guy,” the pilot said. “First of all, I hope it won’t happen, I love flying. It does seem unmanned aircraft are taking their share, I think there are things that are hard to take from a manned plane; there is a benefit to having someone over there, seeing what is happening, and that is hard to replicate with a drone.” However, far enough in the future the rise of drones compared to advanced manned aircraft is unavoidable, the pilot says. Looking back on Falcon Strike the pilot emphasizes the importance of the recent drill. “It was of great strategic importance for us.”
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.