'It's not just about an exercise.' It's 'building the glue'

US, IDF troops train to protect Israel from ballistic missiles together

US general says Juniper Cobra exercise, which simulates a large-scale missile attack, could look similar to actual deployment of American troops to Israel in time of war

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

HATZOR AIR BASE — Thousands of American and Israeli soldiers are preparing for the real possibility that they will have to fight “shoulder to shoulder” against a massive ballistic attack on the State of Israel, officials from both countries said Thursday.

On Sunday, the two militaries launched the nearly-month-long Juniper Cobra exercise, which will simulate such a missile barrage. The biennial drill is this year’s premier exercise for the US European Command (EUCOM) and one of the most important for the Israel Defense Forces, with approximately 2,500 soldiers from each army taking part.

“For more than four weeks, they will train shoulder to shoulder, the same as 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 on Thursday.

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)

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.

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

During Juniper Cobra, the 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 — will be tested in the exercise, though for the most part only in computer simulations, officials said.

The majority of the exercise will take place in the Israeli Air Force’s Hatzor base, located in central Israel, east of the city of Ashdod. During the exercise, the base, which is ordinarily home to two F-16 fighter jet squadrons, will act as a menagerie of sorts for Israeli and American missile defense systems, with open lots filled to the edges with launchers, radars and mobile command centers.

Towards the end of Juniper Cobra, an Israeli short-range Iron Dome interceptor missile and long-range Patriot interceptor missile will be launched, along with an American Patriot missile, Haimovitch said.

American, Israeli troops deploy a Patriot missile defense battery during the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

While the Israeli brigadier general lauded the exercise and the “deep and strong relationship” between the two counties that it represents, details about what specifically this year’s Juniper Cobra would be simulating were relatively scant.

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

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

The words “Iran,” “Hezbollah” and “Hamas” went entirely unheard as American and Israeli military officers discussed air defense exercises, 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.

Instead, officials would say only that they were training against attacks by “state and non-state actors.”

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.

A Hezbollah fighter stands behind an empty rocket launcher, May 22, 2010. (AP/Hussein Malla)

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.”

His counterpart, Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the head of the US Third Air Force command and the head of the American delegation to Juniper Cobra, said the armies “will be ready for whatever threat, whenever it may happen.”

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.

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

Showing the depths of the American-Israeli cooperation, Clark noted that not only had he developed a friendship with his counterpart Haimovitch, but that their families had developed a relationship as well.

“As I walk around our camp, I see Israeli and American forces sitting side by side in our operations center, operating equipment, eating togetheer in the dining facility. It’s a great opportunity for us to build that glue that will make interoperability work,” he said.

American, Israeli troops deploy a Patriot missile defense battery during the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (US Army)

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,” Clark said.

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,” he said.

American, Israeli troops take part in a the 2018 Juniper Cobra air defense exercise in March 2018. (US Army)

The 2018 Juniper Cobra exercise was divided into three main parts, Haimovitch said. The first few days saw the American and Israeli “boots on the ground” prepare for the drill. The following two weeks will mostly focus on tabletop and computer-based simulations of a large-scale ballistic missile attack and the response by the air defense systems. The final portion will include the live-fire exercises of the Patriot and Iron Dome systems.

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

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

The David’s Sling missile defense system seen at the Hatzor Air Base, Israel. Sunday, April 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

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, will be 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.

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.

In addition to the missile defense exercise, the US troops will also participate in several drills outside of Juniper Cobra, like a medical drill simulating the response to an accidental gas explosion on an army base.

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