April 7, 2020 | Policy Brief

Despite Coronavirus, U.S. and Israel Conduct Combined F-35 Exercise

April 7, 2020 | Policy Brief

Despite Coronavirus, U.S. and Israel Conduct Combined F-35 Exercise

Despite growing coronavirus concerns in both countries, the United States and Israel conducted a combined air-power training exercise on March 29, marking the first time U.S. and Israeli F-35s have trained together in Israel. The “Enduring Lightning” exercise improved the ability of the U.S. Air Force and its Israeli counterpart, the Israeli Air Force (IAF), to operate together and sent an important and timely message of deterrence to adversaries.

Widely considered the most advanced fighter in the world, the F-35 is a fifth-generation multi-role fighter that combines exceptional sensor and network capabilities with advanced technologies that make it difficult to detect.

Enduring Lightning took place over the deserts of southern Israel, where American and Israeli pilots rehearsed combined operations against a variety of simulated air and ground threats and communicated directly with one another. This ability to communicate quickly and directly, rather than through an intermediate channel, could provide a decisive combat advantage in future combined U.S.-Israel operations.

The exercise included F-35As from the 34th Fighter Squadron of the U.S. Air Force’s 388th Fighter Wing from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Israeli aircraft included the F-35I “Adir.” An Israeli G-550 conformal airborne early-warning and control aircraft also participated.

The head of the IAF’s International Exercises Department called America “our number one partner” and said Israel values the opportunity to “strengthen cooperation in the field of cutting-edge aviation technology.”

U.S. Air Force Central Command tweeted that it is “committed to partnering with regional air forces” such as Israel’s in order to “build sustainable capacity, increased capability and interoperability.”

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office said exercises like Enduring Lightning “allow our forces to hone their skills while strengthening F-35 partnerships with our allies.”

The IAF’s F-35Is had previously trained over southern Israel with American F-16s during the biennial “Blue Flag” exercise in November 2019. But that exercise did not include the fifth-generation American F-35A. In June 2019, Israeli F-35Is, American F-35As, and British F-35Bs took part in “Tri-Lightning,” an exercise over the Mediterranean Sea.

Israel was the first country to acquire the F-35 through the U.S. foreign military sales process.   Lockheed Martin produced the first F-35I in June 2016, and Israel declared its squadron operationally capable in December 2017.

Israel’s F-35’s have accumulated more than 3,100 flight hours. The IAF has reportedly utilized the F-35 to strike Iranian targets in Syria and has flown it over Lebanon. Israel is combating Iranian efforts both to establish another front against Israel in Syria and to funnel precision-guided munition parts and technology through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

That Enduring Lightning took place at all deserves note given the coronavirus pandemic. The exercise followed the widespread cancellation of other U.S. military exercises around the world, including several with Israel. U.S. European Command and the Israel Defense Forces cancelled a ground exercise named “Eagle Genesis” and a biennial missile defense exercise named “Juniper Cobra.”

Of course, single-seat fighters such as the F-35 have built-in “social distancing” that infantry or air defense units would struggle to replicate during training. As an added precaution, U.S. and Israeli service members avoided face-to-face contact during Enduring Lightning, conducting a post-exercise debrief over a secure communication line.

As the United States and Israel struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, adversaries might be tempted to undertake aggression. Enduring Lightning helps underscore why that would be unwise.

When the pandemic subsides, the United States and Israel should seek to expand the Enduring Lightning exercise and conduct it more regularly.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mikhael Smits is a research analyst. For more analysis from Bradley, Mikhael, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley and Mikhael on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @MikhaelSmits. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

COVID-19 Hezbollah Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Lebanon Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy