Israel, US wrap up largest-ever joint drill in message to Iran

6,400 US troops, 1,500 Israeli soldiers and over 140 aircraft, 12 naval vessels, and artillery systems from both nations involved in Juniper Oak 2023

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Israeli and American fighter jets fly alongside an American B-52 bomber over the Mediterranean Sea during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 25, 2023. (CENTCOM)
Israeli and American fighter jets fly alongside an American B-52 bomber over the Mediterranean Sea during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 25, 2023. (CENTCOM)

The Israel Defense Forces and the United States Central Command on Thursday wrapped up their largest-ever joint exercise in Israel and the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the two militaries announced.

The drill, dubbed Juniper Oak 2023, involved some 6,400 US troops alongside more than 1,500 Israeli troops, and over 140 aircraft, 12 naval vessels, and artillery systems, making it the largest-ever joint drill between the nations.

The exercise was widely seen as a message to Iran, however, American officials said the live-fire drills did not include mockups of Iranian targets or of any other adversary. Israel’s Channel 12 news reported, without citing a source, that part of the drill included American bombers targeting a simulated Iranian nuclear facility.

IDF chief Herzi Halevi said “Israel and the US share the same values, and the IDF and CENTCOM share the same outlook on the threats facing this region,” adding that the drill “raised our level of planning and implementation of combined operations.”

“Israel is capable of defending itself, but it’s always good to have our greatest partner beside us to learn from one another. This operational partnership strengthens our ability to deal with a wide range of security challenges in the region,” Halevi said in remarks published by the IDF.

“Today the partnership between CENTCOM and the IDF is stronger and continues to grow,” said General Michael Kurilla, the commander of CENTCOM. “Our partnership is a key pillar of our commitment to expanding regional security cooperation,” he added.

The drills simulated “complex operational scenarios,” including aircraft and ships striking targets simulating naval threats, US B-52 bombers dropping live ammunition in southern Israel, and joint command and control, in order to “enhance their shared ability to counter regional threats,” the IDF said.

“The exercise showcased some of the most advanced capabilities of the militaries,” the IDF said.

The drills also included refueling Israeli fighter jets from an American Boeing KC-46 — which Israel is expected to receive in 2025 — and Israeli Navy’s Sa’ar 5-class corvettes refueling from an American replenishment tanker “to expand the IDF’s ranges and areas of operation in routine and emergency situations,” the Israeli military said.

CENTCOM and the IDF said the drill also involved High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, as well as infantry and special forces.

Israeli and American navy vessels are seen in the Mediterranean Sea, during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 25, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

A US official speaking to American media said the exercise was not oriented around a particular nation, but regional adversaries like Iran would take notice. “The scale of the exercise is relevant to a whole range of scenarios, and Iran may draw certain inferences from that,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying by NBC News.

“It’s really meant mostly to kick the tires on our ability to do things at this scale with the Israelis against a whole range of different threats. But, you know, it would not surprise me if Iran sees the scale and the nature of these activities and understands what the two of us are capable of doing,” the source added.

Missiles are launched during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 25, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel regularly conducts various training drills with the US military in the country, including air force exercises and missile defense drills.

Juniper Oak 2023 was the first in a series of planned drills with the US in the coming year, the IDF said.

In November, the IDF and the US military held a series of joint aerial exercises, simulating strikes against Iran and its regional terror proxies.

Then-IDF chief Aviv Kohavi that month said joint activities with the US military in the Middle East would be “significantly expanded.”

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