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US troops land in Israel for in-person part of so-far virtual air defense drill

Militaries to hold second stage of the Juniper Falcon exercise, the first part of which was held in February remotely

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)

American transport planes touched down in Israel on Tuesday night, bringing US Air Force troops and equipment to take part in an in-person follow-up to an air defense exercise that was held virtually earlier this year, the US Air Force said.

In February, the Israel Defense Forces and US European Command (EUCOM) launched the Juniper Falcon exercise, simulating the threat of ballistic missile attacks. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the exercise was largely held remotely, with IDF troops operating in Israel and US soldiers in Germany, where EUCOM is based.

“This long-planned event is a continuation of [Juniper Falcon 21], which took place earlier this year,” the US Air Forces in Europe and Africa said in a statement.

The exercise is “designed to test simulated emergency response procedures, ballistic missile defense and crisis response assistance in the defense of Israel,” according to the statement.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed the exercise was taking place, saying it was due to start at the beginning of next week.

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 hands of terror groups in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria, in addition to the more advanced ballistic and cruise missiles held by Iranian proxies in Yemen and Iraq.

Last week, the IDF released updated intelligence assessments on the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group, showing that the organization had between 130,000 and 150,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenals and would be capable of launching some 3,000 projectiles at Israel every day for at least a week in a future conflict.

“Planning for [the exercise] began in 2020, and while the exercise is driven by overall dynamics in the Middle East, it is not in response to any recent developments or specific real-world events,” the US Air Force said.

The Juniper Falcon exercise has been held roughly every other year by the IDF and EUCOM in Israel since 2001. This year’s drill took on additional significance, coming both 30 years after the first case of Israeli-American air defense cooperation in the 1991 First Gulf War, when US air defense batteries were deployed in Israel to protect the country from Iraqi Scud missile attacks, and after the announcement by the US military that Israel would be moved from EUCOM’s area of responsibility to the Middle East-focused Central Command (CENTCOM).

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