TV report claims joint US-Israel air drill will bomb ‘Iranian nuke sites’ in Negev

But IDF has not confirmed this, and American officials leading maneuver say no mockups of Iranian targets during Juniper Oak 2023

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

Israeli F-35 fighter jets escort an American B-52 bomber through Israeli airspace on November 10, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli F-35 fighter jets escort an American B-52 bomber through Israeli airspace on November 10, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

As part of an ongoing drill between the Israeli Air Force and United States Central Command, American B-52 strategic bombers will drop live ammunition on targets in southern Israel on Wednesday.

Channel 12 news on Tuesday evening, without citing a source, said the targets in the Negev Desert would simulate Iranian nuclear sites. The network said the bombers would drop 100 tons of bunker-busting explosives, also without citing any source.

However, a US official speaking to American media said there would be no mockups of Iranian targets during the drills, and that the exercises were not oriented around any particular adversary, but rather meant to send a message to Iran and China.

The Israel Defense Forces has not briefed reporters about the drill at all, aside from a short statement announcing the start of the war games with some extra details, shortly after CENTCOM did.

The IDF does not plan to issue any statements or media from the drill until it ends, and only after CENTCOM officially wraps it up.

A hype video published by CENTCOM on Tuesday showed a wide array of military activities as part of the exercise, dubbed Juniper Oak 2023.

The US-led drills, which involve over 140 aircraft, 12 naval vessels, and artillery systems from both nations, will end later this week, both the IDF and CENTCOM said.

The senior US defense official said the drill was aimed at showing adversaries, such as Iran, that Washington is not too distracted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats from China to mobilize a large military force.

Juniper Oak 2023 logo. (CENTCOM)

CENTCOM in its statement said the forces would practice joint command and control, air operations in maritime surface warfare, combat search and rescue, electronic attacks, suppression of enemy air defenses, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and air interdiction.

Of the 142 aircraft involved in the drill, 100 are American, US media reported, including four B-52 strategic bombers, four F-35 fighter jets, 45 F/A-18 fighters, and two MQ-9 Reaper drones.

CENTCOM said F-15 and F-16 fighters, AC- 130 gunships, Apache helicopters, and other rescue and refueling aircraft — including the Boeing KC-46, which Israel is expected to receive in 2025 — would also participate.

The IDF said the aircraft would practice “various scenarios,” including striking targets simulating naval threats, and the US bombers dropping live ammunition in southern Israel.

The 12 navy vessels involved in the drill include six Israeli Navy ships, and six US ships, the latter of which include a carrier strike group.

Israeli and American naval vessels are seen in the eastern Mediterranean Sea during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 24, 2023. (CENTCOM)

The IDF said the Israeli Navy’s Sa’ar 5-class corvettes and a submarine would participate in the drill. The corvettes are to refuel from an American replenishment tanker during the drill “to expand the IDF’s ranges and areas of operation in routine and emergency situations,” it said.

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

Approximately 6,400 US personnel are joining 1,100 Israeli personnel for the exercise. Senior CENTCOM commanders, including its chief, Michael Kurilla, will observe the drill.

A CENTCOM HC-130J refuels an IAF Sikorsky CH-53 ‘Yasur’ helicopter over northern Israel, during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 24, 2023. (CENTCOM)

The official who spoke with US outlets said it was “the most significant exercise between the United States and Israel to date,” citing the massive amount of aircraft and personnel involved.

He said that 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 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.

CENTCOM artillery systems fire rockets during the Juniper Oak 2023 drill, January 24, 2023. (CENTCOM)

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

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 said at the time that joint activities with the US military in the Middle East would be “significantly expanded.”

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