Israel and the United States completed the third joint exercise involving their fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets on October 12, increasing cooperation between the two countries and the unique abilities of the advanced aircraft. Three exercises in a year involving the fight jet builds on an already unprecedented series of joint drills. The latest exercise was called Enduring Lightning III. Back in August a second Enduring Lightning took place, building on the first one in March.
The joint drills look to increase cooperation involving the F-35 platform specifically because the jet works well flying with other fifth-generation warplanes. Israel is one of only a handful of users of the F-35, and it is the only country in the Middle East that has the airplane. Turkey was supposed to acquire the aircraft, but its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system has halted the delivery. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia, may request F-35s from the United States as well. It is not clear if Washington will sell the aircraft to the Gulf states. Other countries procuring the plane include eight international partners and six other countries, including Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.
Enduring Lightning III is part of the annual training regimen for the aircraft, the Israel Defense Forces said. This is nevertheless a heightened amount of activity with a foreign country, especially as the U.S. F-35s have reportedly come from U.S. base at Al-Dhafra in the UAE. Israel’s 116th squadron, which became operational in August 2019, trained with the U.S. 421st and the U.S. Air Force’s 908th expeditionary Air refueling Squadron. This saw the kC-10 and KC-135 refueling aircraft deployed. Israel’s 122nd Nachshon squadron of Gulfstream G550s also participated to help coordinate the aircraft. Israel’s unique version of the F-35 is called the “F-35 Adir.”
For the exercise the Israeli “Red Squadron,” which plays the “aggressor” during simulated drills, was involved as well. Israel says “as part of the exercise, which took place over southern Israel, the advanced aircraft trained to deal with various strategic aerial and ground threats present in the Middle East. The exercise was conducted in a special format (due to Covid-19), in which the participating crews planned, briefed, and debriefed together virtually.”
Brig. General Amir Lazar of the Israel Air Force training and doctrine division said that the Israel cooperation with America is important for increasing knowledge of the F-35 aircraft and its abilities. “Throughout the exercise, the air forces operated closely, which allowed for a shared learning experience and the sharing of the lessons learned. The joint exercise lays a strong foundation for future real-time cooperation between the countries and enhances knowledge-sharing in the field of the ‘Adir’ aircraft operational abilities,” he said.
Israel is facing important challenges this year as the arms embargo on Iran expired on October 18 and Iran says it is looking forward to exporting defense technology and is conducting a new air defense drill in late October. Iran has also improved its radar capabilities in recent years. It has been practicing increasingly with precision missiles and drones. To confront Iran, Israel announced that as part of its multi-year plan called Momentum it has established a special headquarters to focus on “third circle” threats, which include Iran. Iran also threatens Israel by moving weapons via Iraq to Syria and to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has reportedly moved 3rd Khordad air defense, a system like the S-300, to Syria in 2018. It has also moved ballistic missiles to Iraq, according to reports in 2018 and 2019. Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, the former Israeli chief of staff said in January 2019.
With elections in the United States in November and Iran seeking to increase its economic connections with China, Russia and even Turkey and Qatar, the Middle East is experiencing an arms race that could escalate. Recent Israeli deals with the UAE and also U.S. sanctions on Iran are part of this context for the joint F-35 drills. Reports also indicate that Israel may be seeking to upgrade its tanker fleet by speeding up delivery of KC-46 refuelers as well continuing to look at more F-15s, and possible purchases of V-22s, CH-47 Chinooks or CH-53K helicopters. For now, Israel is looking to complete its purchase of fifty F-35s with the option to procure up to seventy-five of the advanced plane, making the country one of the major operational users of the warplane.
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.