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US says could hold joint air drill with Israel, UAE, Bahrain amid Iran tensions

Top general notes possibility of aerial exercise in wake of recent Red Sea naval drill; says troops will remain in region despite increasing China, Russia concerns

In this photo released by the US Air Force, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle flies in formation with a US Air Force B-1B Lancer over Israel as part of a deterrence flight Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (US Air Force/Senior Airman Jerreht Harris via AP)
In this photo released by the US Air Force, an Israeli Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle flies in formation with a US Air Force B-1B Lancer over Israel as part of a deterrence flight Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (US Air Force/Senior Airman Jerreht Harris via AP)

The top US Air Force general in the Mideast said Saturday that the US could hold a joint air drill with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after the nations carried out a Red Sea exercise in an apparent threat to their shared adversary, Iran.

Speaking to journalists ahead of the Dubai Airshow, Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot also said American aircrews would continue to be stationed in the region even as military planners consider competition with China and Russia as Washington’s next major challenge.

However, he acknowledged that presence “could adjust” after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. The US Air Force operates a major base in nearby Qatar, which oversaw operations in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Syria.

“But I don’t see any scenario where the United States does not have an important role,” Guillot said.

Guillot’s comments come as tensions remain high between Iran and the US after years of confrontations following then-President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Israel meanwhile is suspected of launching a series of attacks targeting Iran’s atomic program.

As talks over the deal remain stalled, Iran elected a hardline protégé of the country’s supreme leader as president and has itself seized vessels at sea and is suspected of launching drone attacks.

Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot (US Air Force)

Guillot several times declined to directly attribute recent drone attacks in the region to Iran, though he acknowledged the rising number of such assaults in the region.

“The collaborative defense of multiple countries, you know, in the region is going to be our key to detecting those and staying one step ahead of the threat as it evolves,” he said after appearing at the Dubai International Air Chiefs’ Conference.

Russia is expected to display its Sukhoi Su-75 Checkmate fighter jet at the Dubai Airshow this week.

It’s a direct competitor to the American F-35 fighter, which the United Arab Emirates has been trying to buy since diplomatically recognizing Israel last year. That sale has slowed under US President Joe Biden’s administration.

Illustrative: An F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew prepare for a mission at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, August 5, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/US Air Force via AP)

Asked about the Checkmate, Guillot said he hoped that US allies and partners would use equipment that would be “interoperable” with the American military. He said buying the Russia fighter “absolutely” would affect that.

During his presentation, Guillot displayed a graphic that included the Israeli flag among others in the region.

The American military now considers Israel as falling under US Central Command due to the recent recognition deals. Bahrain and the UAE just conducted a joint drill with the US Navy and Israel in the Red Sea.

Guillot said air drills with Israel and those nations could happen as well.

The comments came after the Israel Defense Forces said Thursday that Israeli F-15 fighter jets escorted United States B-1 bombers through the region, in a tacit threat to Iran. It was the second time it happened within a month.

Israeli F-15 fighter jets escort American B-1B bombers, on November 11, 2021. (IDF)

According to the IDF, the fighter jets accompanied two B-1B heavy bombers and an American KC-10 refueling jet through Israeli airspace as they headed west from the Persian Gulf.

“The joint flight demonstrates our continued cooperation, which is crucial to the security of Israel and the Middle East,” the IDF said in a statement.

The Israeli military shared photographs of the flight, showing the American bombers — capable of carrying heavy bunker-buster bombs that would be needed for a strike on Iran’s largely underground nuclear facilities — alongside the Israeli F-15 jets.

Late last month, Israeli F-15s escorted a B-1B bomber as it made its way to the Gulf.

The escort missions come as Israeli and American officials have increasingly threatened to act against Tehran’s nuclear program, ahead of the resumption of indirect talks with Iran aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Israeli officials have explicitly threatened a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, while Americans have discussed the matter more circumspectly, referring to “other options” beyond diplomatic negotiations in order to halt Tehran’s atomic aspirations.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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