The first-ever joint combat jet air force exercise last week in Germany involving the Israel Air Force and German Air Force was filled with symbolic events. There was a fly-past over the Munich suburbs to commemorate the Israeli athletes slain during the 1972 Olympics and another fly-past over the former Dachau concentration camp. Up above, wing tip almost touching wing tip, were the jets of both air forces with Israeli Air Force Commander Amiram Norkin and his German counterpart Ingo Gerhartz. The exercise set out to demonstrate the depth of military cooperation between the two countries.
But over the past 18 months, there has been a more routine daily and closer cooperation, away from the media focus, at the Tel Nof airbase south of Tel Aviv. At the base, German soldiers and aircrews having been training to operate the Heron TP unmanned aerial vehicle, as part of a deal worth nearly €1 billion between the German government through an Airbus subsidiary, and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1) and the Israeli government. Five UAV drones, and two more for training, will be leased in the coming years to Germany. They will fly with the German flag on their tails, equipped with the best systems that Israel's defense industries have to offer.
German soldiers on an Israeli military base
As part of a clause worth about €200 million of the deal, over the coming years, the Israel Air Force (together with IAI) will train German crews. This is the reason that the German military personnel and a trainer-UAV (nicknamed the Red Baron) have been based in Israel for the past 18 months. This military presence has set a precedent in the close relations that have developed between the countries. The soldiers walk around in German uniforms, with the flag on their arms, eat together with their Israeli colleagues in the canteen, share offices and train together.
The officer leading the German military operations in Israel at Tel Nof is Lt. Col. Michael Hoffaker. He came to Israel in October 2019 and he is not only responsible for the German side of the cooperation and its logistics but also the quality control aspects the UAV, which will also serve as an international quality assurance badge for the Israeli drone.
Until now most Israel-German military cooperation has been one-sided. For example Germany took it upon itself to build and pay one third of the costs for the latest series of submarines, which according to foreign reports, will have nuclear missile capabilities. But it is now Israel selling weapons to Germany.
Hoffaker says, "So far we have had three training courses. Two of them included 12 participants from the German side but at the end of the second course the coronavirus broke out and we were forced to change our schedule. Sao the third course took place on a smaller scale with four participants."
Hoffaker praises the Israeli Air Force which, "has demonstrated flexibility during the coronavirus period," and successfully completed part of the training with the four German participants in isolation in order to save time.
"Many things are different here," he says with a smile. "But our role is to integrate between the cultures, and I think it is going well. With us in the German Air Force there is a fixed chain of command and everything has to be done exactly by the book. But in the Israel Air Force everything is more flexible. There is less hierarchy and much more is organized simply through Whatsapp. Sometimes this culture has an advantage such as during the coronavirus when we have had to change procedures and do some of the training while in isolation. It was very impressive."
At the moment they are waiting at Tel Nof for the fourth training course while in Germany discussions are continuing on whether to arm the UAVs leased from Israel. This issue delayed the deal for more than a year in the past due to opposition from the German Social Democratic party (SPD), part of the ruling coalition. German Foreign Minister back in 2017, Sigmar Gabriel, torpedoed the deal at the last minute, opposing it on moral grounds because the UAVs could carry weapons. Gabriel left the political stage in 2018, and the government reached a compromise, by allowing parliament to decide on the matter, but meanwhile the Germans at Tel Nof are training to operate unarmed UAVs.
Hoffaker explains, "At the moment we are training only on intelligence gathering without using the UAV's assault capabilities. There are political discussions on the matter in Germany and we are waiting for the results from them."
It remains unclear when the matter will be decided but the German army has made it clear on a number of occasions that arming the UAVs will be of great assistance to ground forces. In fact one of the reasons for choosing IAI's Heron TP was its ability to carry missiles and destroy targets, which in certain circumstances could prevent innocent deaths.
Lt. Col Hoffaker explains that the German operations in Israel are gradually expanding. "I am the first officer here and we are supposed to gradually grow to five people, in addition to those coming for training courses of six to eight weeks. At the moment training is being conducted on the Israeli version of the Heron TP while special UAVs that will be built for the German Air Force are in stages of production and testing. The first of them (called the Heron G TP) is already undergoing flight trials.
"What impresses me," adds Hoffaker, "is how the relations between the countries have developed to its present level in which there is a deep Israeli-German friendship and there are German soldiers at Israeli bases. We are completely integrated with the training squadron. We use the buildings together, share classrooms, as if we were one squadron. I think that the Israelis feel the same way. It's very emotional when you think about the history. In practice there aren't many personal questions about what the family did in the Holocaust, we speak like soldiers, and more about our families today rather than the past."
He recounts that there is a special emphasis, even as part of the training in Israel, on historical education regarding the Holocaust and the Second World War. "We have held and we will hold special ceremonies on Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day, and in addition soldiers are being given the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and other sites.
Hoffaker comments, 'Our impression so far is very positive. The training is being carried out in a very professional way and the air force is open to feedback."
The current exercises on German soil did not include use of the UAVs, but in the field, the previous generation of IAI's Heron-1 UAVs are in operational use by the German army in Mali and Afghanistan.
Hoffaker says, "We have yet to begin using the Heron TP in the field but since 2010 we have been using Israeli-made UAVs and we have had a very positive experience. They allow us to look at large areas over time and to protect our ground forces. There have been great successes and I would say that the Israeli UAVs have already helped save the lives of German soldiers. The new generation of Herons will even let us improve our capabilities in this area."
The contract signed to lease the UAVs covers seven years and Airbus's subsidiary is being paid €720 million. It is not clear how much of this amount IAI will see. The German Ministry of Defense expects the first two UAVs to be delivered by January 2021 - two years from the start of training of the German crews in Israel - but this could be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After that an additional UAV will be delivered every three months. Overall more than 50 German soldiers are due to be trained at the Tel Nof air force base in Israel.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 23, 2020 © Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020