When does the New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, and most of the military press corps care about a routine bilateral military exercise?
When it’s a massive U.S.-Israeli demonstration of regional missile defenses that comes amid high tensions with Iran and neighboring extremist groups, discord between Jerusalem and Washington, and three weeks before a U.S. presidential election infused with Israeli security concerns, that’s when.
According to Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of Third Air Force and the event’s senior U.S. commander, the exercise dubbed “Austere Challenge” set to kick off later this month is “purely about improving our combined U.S.-Israeli [capabilities, and] not related to national elections nor any perceived tension in the Middle East.”
The planned war game scenario will let the combined armed forces practice dealing with incoming missile threats “coming from all fronts,” said Israel Defense Forces Brig Gen Nitzan Nuriel, the lead planner. Both officers spoke on a Pentagon-arranged conference call with reporters. Nuriel said the event, for his forces, will “let them deal with more than one salvo…we need them to work at high tempo.”
Take one guess as to which country near Israel is most capable or likely of ever launching a massive missile salvo. (It’s Iran, say Iran.)
The $60 million exercise (the Americans and Israelis split the bill) will involve 3,500 U.S. military personnel across Europe, Mediterranean, and Israel for three to four weeks in the field and simulation drills. The officers would not say the exact start dates, citing operational security purposes, only that it would start in late October.
Among several missile defense systems slated for testing is Israel’s newly deployed Iron Dome (pictured above), which knocks short-range rockets out of the sky thanks in part to huge American taxpayer backing. The House has approved more than $600 billion in fiscal 2013 funding for the system, though the Senate lags behind that sum. The system is considered so important and successful to protecting Israelis that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited a battery near Ashkelon in August and held a press conference at the site with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak about five miles from the Gaza border, in the line of fire.
The Arrow II system also is on the menu, as is the U.S. Aegis system, all of which are considered highly-effective. The THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) system was considered for the war game, Franklin said, but it is “currently committed to other operational priorities.” Israel’s short-range defense system, David’s Sling, will be part of a simulation only, and not actively deployed.
The event drew unusually high attention when it was postponed from this spring until the fall per an Israeli request, yet with no clear explanation. Yet, amid the delay, tensions have increased over Iran’s continued progress in its nuclear program, and so-called “red lines” over how soon a Western military strike of some kind must occur to effectively halt the program.
Both officers on Wednesday were asked to explain the delay, but only said, “We all agreed it would be better to do in the fall.”