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Israel, US launch joint Juniper Falcon air defense drill, possibly for last time

Due to coronavirus restrictions, the biennial exercise — simulating a ballistic missile attack — is being held remotely, with IDF in Israel and Americans in Germany

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

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

The Israel Defense Forces and the United States European Command (EUCOM) launched a joint air defense exercise this week, dubbed Juniper Falcon, focused on the threat of ballistic missile attack, the two militaries said Thursday.

It may be the last time that the two hold the biennial exercise, after 20 years of cooperation, as the US recently decided to move Israel out of EUCOM’s area of responsibility and into the purview of Central Command (CENTCOM).

“The exercise is designed to enhance interoperability between both nations’ militaries and ensure US and Israeli forces are ready and prepared to respond to any contingency, particularly those involving ballistic missile defense or crisis response,” EUCOM said in a statement.

The threat of missile attack is particularly acute in Israel as those weapons are the primary ones used by the country’s enemies. In total, hundreds of thousands of rockets, missiles and mortar shells are estimated to be in the arsenals of terror groups in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria, in addition to the more advanced ballistic and cruise missiles in the hands of Iranian proxies in Yemen and Iraq.

In this photo released on January 15, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces on Friday held a military exercise involving ballistic missiles and drones in the country’s central desert, state TV reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and a US pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

“The exercise simulates different scenarios in which Israel finds itself under threat of attack by ballistic missiles and other aerial threats. It is meant to strengthen cooperation, coordination and mutual learning between the two militaries, to improve their readiness to jointly defend against various threats and to expand and preserve the deep strategic cooperation between the militaries and countries,” the IDF said in a statement.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the exercise, which officially launched Wednesday, will be largely held remotely, with IDF troops in Israel and Americans in Germany and the US.

“Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, both the US and Israel are focused on building readiness in support of the United States’ ironclad commitment to assist in the defense of Israel and are collaborating virtually to meet mutual training objectives,” EUCOM said.

The Juniper Falcon exercise was first held in Israel in 2001 and has generally been held every other year since then, most recently in 2019. The IDF and US EUCOM have also held the related Juniper Cobra drill on the opposite years, including last year, albeit on a far smaller scale due to the pandemic.

Israeli and American soldiers at the Juniper Falcon joint military exercise held in Israel. 300 American and 400 IDF troops participated. (US Army photo)

As the Juniper Falcon and Juniper Cobra exercises are held by US EUCOM, when Israel is eventually moved to the area of responsibility of CENTCOM, which operates in the Middle East, the IDF may cease to participate in those programs.

However, it was not immediately clear when the transition will occur fully.

“The transition planning is underway, and a final timeline will be subject to approval by the new administration. In the meantime, we expect continued cooperation between US European Command and the Israel Defense Forces,” a Pentagon spokesperson told The Times of Israel last month.

The IDF said it was looking into the matter.

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