The largest ever joint Israeli and American military drill will begin next week, with any reduction in troop size deemed insignificant, the senior US commander of Austere Challenge 12 said Wednesday.
Third Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, speaking in a conference call, said that the “scale of the exercise and the number of forces participating has remained unchanged,” despite reports that the drill had been cut back by thousands of troops. His counterpart, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, the head of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the National Security Council and the IDF’s lead exercise planner, said that the “numbers had hardly changed” and that the matter was simply one “of logistics.”
The drill, originally slated to take place months ago, was postponed at Israel’s behest, which created a scheduling conflict for many of the troops who had planned to take part.
In late August, Time magazine reported a reduction in troop levels, when talk of a possible Israeli preemptive strike against Iran was at a peak. A senior Israeli officer told the magazine, “Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you.’”
Over 1,000 American troops will take part in the exercise in Israel, Franklin said. The number is down from an estimated 5,000 earlier in the year, according to the Time report. Franklin, without being specific about the initial numbers, said that a total of 3,500 troops would be taking part in the air defense simulation exercise, many from abroad.
The drill will take place amid a cooling of talk of a possible military strike on Iran, after several months of saber rattling.
Both generals stressed that the exercise is meant to reflect reality in the Middle East and is “not related to any specific world events.”
Nuriel added, however, that “the fact that we are working together is a strong message in itself.”
The initial report of the troop reduction came against the backdrop of US concern over a possible unilateral Israeli strike against Iran.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Army General Martin E. Dempsey, said at the time that he did not want the US to be seen as “complicit” in an Israeli attack.
The current situation is less tense. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at the UN in late September that the deadline for international action, from Israel’s perspective, was likely in the spring or at most the summer of 2013, by which time Iran will near nuclear weapons capability.
The drill will run until after the US presidential elections on November 6 and will simulate many of the aerial threats that Israel faces: a multi-front attack with mortars, rockets, drones and short and long range ballistic missiles.
Nuriel said that the drone element of the drill had been “part of the scenario” well before a Hezbollah-launched drone penetrated Israeli airspace on October 6. “We did not need the real event to know to prepare for it,” he said.
The drill will cost some $30 million per side, the generals confirmed.
The David’s Sling short range missile protection system will be tested along with multiple Iron Dome batteries, advanced Patriot batteries and Arrow 2, Israel’s medium range missile defense system. Most of the action will be simulated with only a small component of live fire.
The stated goal of the exercise, the seventh such US-Israeli drill, is to “improve interoperability” between the already significantly linked Israeli and American air defense systems. During the First Gulf War, in 1991, the US sent Patriot anti-aircraft batteries to help defend against Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles. Today, too, despite an increase in spending and American support, Israel still has major gaps in its air defense.