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In air defense drill with EUCOM, IDF works on ties to a unit it’s due to leave

Israeli military’s feted move to Mideast-focused CENTCOM comes at a cost, as was on display over past 2 weeks during 20th Juniper exercise, simulating a ballistic missile attack

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Ministry and Rafael defense contractor test an upgraded version of the Iron Dome missile defense system in January 2020. (Defense Ministry)
Illustrative. Defense Ministry and Rafael defense contractor test an upgraded version of the Iron Dome missile defense system in January 2020. (Defense Ministry)

When the Pentagon announced that Israel would be moving under the purview of its Middle East-focused Central Command (CENTCOM), the decision was greeted as a blow to Iran, a sign of Israel’s growing status among Arab nations and a boon to the country’s defense.

But that move also came at a cost. It meant Israel would end its long-time relationship with the European Command, an outfit it has worked with for decades, and one that — in one of the country’s darker hours — it had fought alongside.

That cost was on display over the past two weeks as the Israel Defense Forces held its 20th Juniper-series exercise with the European Command (EUCOM), potentially for one of the last times. The drill this year, which was largely held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, focused on how the two militaries would work together to confront a ballistic missile attack on the State of Israel, according to the two brigadier generals running it, who spoke to The Times of Israel.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Brady, head of EUCOM’s 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, who took part in the exercise, said that this drill and others like it are also meant to prevent countries or groups from attacking Israel by demonstrating publicly the close ties between the US and the Jewish state.

“We talk a lot about what we would do if we had to be able to support the defense of Israel, but more so, importantly, I would say, it’s about our ability to deter any type of aggression,” Brady said, also from Germany.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Brady, the head of US European Command’s 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, in an undated photograph. (US Military)

But beyond addressing the technical aspects involved in coordinating a response to an incoming attack, this year’s exercise and the ones preceding it were meant to build and deepen the relationships between EUCOM and IDF personnel, the brigadier generals said.

“The more times that we’re able to do this — over 20 years — it builds readiness. One of the most important things is the human factor of building interoperability, our relationships. The more we have the opportunity to train together, we build a stronger relationship,” Brady said.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Doron Gavish, who led the Israeli aspects of the drill, noted that his personal relationship with EUCOM began 10 years prior to the 20-year-old Juniper-series exercises, when EUCOM troops were deployed to Israel to fight “shoulder to shoulder” with IDF troops during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles at the Jewish state.

Gavish added that Israel’s air defenses had improved considerably since then, when nearly no incoming Scud missiles were intercepted.

An American Patriot missile defense system that was deployed in Israel in response to a series of Scud missile attacks by Iraq during the 1991 First Gulf War. (Noam Wind/Defense Ministry Archive)

“The first time that I had the opportunity to work with US forces was in the Gulf War. As a young captain in the ’90s, I was in a detachment deployed to Tel Aviv, shooting against Scud missiles, shoulder to shoulder with my American fellows,” he said, speaking over the phone also from Germany.

Brady joked that due to the coronavirus restrictions, this time around they were fighting “shoulder to shoulder — six feet apart.”

Juniper Falcon 21

This year’s Juniper Falcon exercise was held largely remotely due to the pandemic, with Americans operating in Germany — where EUCOM is based — and in the United States, while Israeli participants were spread out in bases throughout the country. A small number of people from each country did travel to train alongside their counterparts, including Gavish who traveled to Germany.

“We are preparing ourselves for all kinds of scenarios, but we are focusing on ballistic missile defense and multi-tier defense and interoperability between US forces and Israeli forces for the defense of Israel,” Gavish said.

The two-week air defense exercise was held through computer simulations, not through live use of missile defense systems.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Doron Gavish, the former head of Israel’s air defenses, in an undated photograph. (Michael S. Alexander/Wikimedia)

Gavish said every level of Israel’s multi-tiered air defense array was tested in the exercise, from the short-range Iron Dome, to the mid-range David’s Sling, and long-range Arrow and Patriot batteries, as well as a variety of Israeli and American radar systems.

Gavish and Brady said the drill focused on real-world scenarios, though they would not elaborate on the nature of what they called the “vignettes” that made up the exercise.

“We are talking about this as an exercise, but as we see it, this Juniper Falcon and all these years of exercises, this is an investment, we are preparing ourselves for real life,” said Gavish.

The CENTCOM-EUCOM dynamic

Despite being located in the Middle East, Israel was kept in EUCOM’s area of responsibility in 1983 when CENTCOM was formed, in order to avoid tension between the US and the Arab nations it worked with, who either did not have ties with the Jewish state or were still technically at war with it.

Israel has for years lobbied to be moved to CENTCOM seeing it as strategically beneficial: CENTCOM is in the Middle East, and so are the threats facing Israel.

“Whereas EUCOM was assisting in Israel’s defense, the incoming threats were from CENTCOM’s area — between Iran, Lebanon, and Yemen. The airspace where Israel operates against such threats is also within CENTCOM’s responsibility, as are most US assets involved in the detection, suppression, and prevention of missile threats in the Middle East,” wrote Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, a former head of the IDF’s Strategic Division in the Planning Directorate, for the Washington Institute, where he is now a fellow.

(L-R) IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, CENTCOM Commander Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Though the announcement regarding Israel’s move to CENTCOM was made last month by the outgoing Trump administration, the United States has made it clear that it will take some time before it actually occurs as it considers how best to carry it out.

“I don’t want to overestimate the speed that this will happen, it’s going to take some time to occur,” the head of CENTCOM, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said at an event with the Washington Institute think tank this week.

A Pentagon spokesperson told The Times of Israel last month that “transition planning is underway,” but that the final timeline for the move had yet to be approved.

But as Israel leaves the area of responsibility of EUCOM and enters that of CENTCOM, it is not clear what will happen to those relationships that have been cultivated over the past decades, though Brady insisted cooperation would remain strong.

An Israeli Air Force officer takes part in the Juniper Falcon exercise in February 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Our overall goal — if there is a change — at the end of the day, we will ensure that we maintain a high degree of readiness to come to the assistance to the defense of Israel,” Brady said, adding that his forces can be deployed “anywhere in the world.”

“When there are changes, it is thoughtful and deliberate. This will not jeopardize our security relationship with Israel,” Brady added.

In any case, Gavish said the larger relationship between the US military and IDF would not be lost.

“We will adapt to any changes in the future,” Gavish said. “Look, people change. Over the last 20 years, you always meet new people. But it is always the relationship and the depth of the US-IDF relationship that remains.”

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