Israel, US end biennial Juniper Cobra exercise with live-fire air defense test

Iron Dome, Patriot interceptors launched as final act of weeks-long, large-scale drill in which militaries simulated ballistic missile attack on Israel

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Israel Defense Forces and US military ended their joint Juniper Cobra missile defense exercise this week, with live-fire tests of two anti-aircraft systems over the skies of central Israel.

The exercise, which began on March 4, simulated a massive ballistic missile attack on the State of Israel, with American and Israeli troops working together to defend the country, something officials from both militaries stressed could happen in reality.

“They will train shoulder to shoulder, the same way we will fight in times of crisis. It’s not just about an exercise,” Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, Israel’s air defense commander, told reporters when the exercise began.

Israeli air defense commander Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovitch, right, shakes hands with Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, head of the US delegation to the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

This was the ninth Juniper Cobra air defense exercise, which has been held every other year since 2001.

Israel considers ballistic missiles, specifically precision-guided ones, to be one of the most significant threats facing the Jewish state, in the form of the Hezbollah terrorist group’s massive arsenal of short- and medium-range rockets, as well as the intercontinental ballistic missiles that Iran is working to develop.

In total, nearly 5,000 soldiers took part in the exercise, approximately half from each army, which formally ended on Thursday, though some smaller joint drills will continue through the end of the month.

During the exercise, the two countries’ top air defense systems — for Israel the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Patriot, and Arrow; for the US the Aegis, the Patriot, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and TPY-2 radar system — were tested, though mostly in computer simulations, not live tests, officials said.

American and Israeli troops deploy a radar array during the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (US Army)

The 2018 Juniper Cobra exercise was divided into three main parts. The first few days saw the American and Israeli “boots on the ground” to prepare for the drill. The following two weeks focused on tabletop and computer-based simulations of a large-scale ballistic missile attack and the response by the air defense systems.

The final portion included the live-fire tests of an Israeli short-range Iron Dome interceptor missile, Israeli long-range Patriot interceptor missile, and American Patriot missile, on Tuesday and Wednesday night.

In addition to the air defense aspects of the exercise, American and Israeli infantrymen also trained together. They practiced beach landings, as well as urban combat, including fighting in tunnels.

Israeli paratroopers and US soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment take part in training during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra exercise at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel, on March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Medics from the two militaries also simulated a mass casualty event in the Negev desert.

The militaries were unwilling to divulge significant details about what specifically this year’s Juniper Cobra would be simulating.

For instance, the words “Iran,” “Hezbollah,” and “Hamas” went entirely unheard as American and Israeli military officers discussed air defense exercises earlier this month, even though the type of missile attack against Israel being simulated would most likely be carried out by Hezbollah and Hamas, with the backing of Iran.

The official patch for the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (US Army)

“We will be practicing real scenarios, complex, multi-directional threats. Both close and far away,” Haimovitch said.

The types of missiles that the militaries were preparing against also went unspecified, even as Israeli officials regularly single out the threat of Iranian precision-guided missiles being manufactured for and transferred to the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon.

The Iran-backed terrorist group is believed to have 100,000 to 150,000 rockets and missiles in its stores, with the capability of launching over 1,000 per day in the case of war. This too went largely undiscussed, though Haimovitch acknowledged that the militaries were preparing for “large-scale salvos and more accurate rockets.”

Senior Israeli and American military officers meet at the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters during the joint US-Israeli Juniper Cobra missile defense exercise, on March 11, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to Israeli and American officials, the purpose of the Juniper Cobra exercise, which has been running since 2001, is twofold: share and swap knowledge on missile defense and improve ties between the two militaries in order to develop a common understanding in the case of war.

While Israel often touts its self-defense abilities, the United States has in the past stepped in to provide assistance in wartime. Haimovitch noted that in the case of missile defense, this happened during the 1991 First Gulf War when the US deployed Patriot missile defense batteries, which at the time were far more rudimentary, after Saddam Hussein launched a number of Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, killing three people, injuring scores more, and damaging several buildings.

“If the conditions arise and we are requested by the government of Israel, then we will be deployed to assist in the defense of the State of Israel. We would deploy forces much in the way they’re deployed in this exercise,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the head of the US Third Air Force command and the head of the American delegation to Juniper Cobra, earlier this month.

A convoy of American and Israeli vehicles move supplies ahead of the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Haimovitch described the assistance from the US military as “another tool in the toolbox” of the IDF.

“It’s another method among a lot of activities and events to help us be ready once the orders come,” Haimovitch said.

The David’s Sling missile defense battery, which was declared operational in 2017 and thus did not take full part in the 2016 exercise, participated in this year’s exercise, but was not fired.

Israeli Air Force Lt. David Segal, who serves in a David’s Sling battery, told reporters earlier this month that the system received positive reviews from the American troops, who “only have good things to say about it.”

Col. David Shank, of US EUCOM’s 10th Army air and missile defense command, described it as an “extremely capable missile defense system.”

The David’s Sling is designed to intercept medium-range missiles, such as the Iranian Fateh 110 and Syrian M-600, which are believed to be in the arsenals of Hezbollah.

This year’s exercise, with its nearly 5,000 participants, was the largest Juniper Cobra, beating out the 2016 drill, in which some 3,200 soldiers took part, by a wide margin. It also appears to be larger than the 2012 joint US-Israel Austere Challenge ballistic missile exercise.

A US V-22 Osprey takes part in a training exercise during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra air defense drill at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel, on March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Not all of the 2,500 US troops taking part in Juniper Cobra are physically present in Israel; a portion of them are participating from American bases in the United States and EUCOM’s base in Germany, Clark said.

Officials said that planning for the 2018 exercise began shortly after the end of the 2016 Juniper Cobra. As such, they said, the recent developments in the region — notably the February 10 clashes between Israel, Iran, and Syria — did not have a direct impact on the types of scenarios being simulated in the exercise.

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