A planned American-Israeli missile defense exercise is receiving special attention on the heels of a 10-day Iranian naval exercise and Iranian threats of closing the Strait of Hormuz through which a sixth of the world’s oil passes.
Before the weekend, the AP and other news outlets provided more details on the plans for the largest ever joint exercise between the countries that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced last month. In a statement e-mailed to the press, the Israel Defense Forces tried to play down the timing of the announcement, calling such periodic exercises “routine:”
“These exercises, which are part of a long-standing strategic partnership, are planned in advance and part of a routine training cycle designed to improve the interoperability of our defense systems. Like other bi-lateral exercises, Austere Challenge 12 represents another milestone in the strategic relationship between the US and Israel, as well as a step forward in promoting regional stability.”
Trying to temper speculation the drill is in response to Iranian moves, the statement added:
“The exercise scenario involves notional, simulated events as well as some field training – and is not in response to any real-world event.”
Driving home the point, an IDF source tells The Blaze, “The exercise has been planned for at least two years and therefore has no relevance to any world events.”
The AP quoted a senior military official:
He said it would be the biggest missile defense drill ever held. He was speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The Israeli official said thousands of American and Israeli soldiers from different units would take part. He said the drill would test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets. Israel has deployed the "Arrow" system, jointly developed and funded with the U.S., designed to intercept Iranian missiles in the stratosphere, far from Israel.
In a speech last month, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta previewed the exercise, citing it as an example of what he called the administration’s “unprecedented levels of defense cooperation with Israel to back up our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.”
On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Panetta stated two red lines for the U.S.:
“…our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us…I think they need to know that -- that if they take that step -- that they're going to get stopped…We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz. That's another red line for us and that we will respond to them.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on the same show said he believes Iran has the capability, “for a period of time,” to block the Strait of Hormuz, “but we would take action and reopen the Straits.”
For some perspective, The Blaze spoke with Efraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, who says that even if not intended as a response to Iranian moves:
“Any military exercise has political implications. The military organ is always connected to political even if that’s not the intention on the part of the Americans or Israelis. It’s a clear political signal to the bad guys. After we saw the military exercise by the Iranians last week, everybody with political sensitivity tends to believe this is a counter-flexing of muscle.”
In light of the large number of U.S. troops expected to participate, Inbar also addressed expressions of isolationism in the U.S., now gaining more media attention due to the presidential campaign of GOP candidate Ron Paul:
“This type of exercise expresses the importance of Israel to the U.S. particularly when the U.S. is seen as being weak in the region. It is leaving Iraq, it is on its way out of Afghanistan. Israel is probably the only place a U.S. military airplane will eventually be able to land … in the Middle East.”
“U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation is beneficial to both sides. The U.S. is a super power and we are a small state but in our area – contrary to what isolationists say in the U.S. – we all still need allies, or what used to be called ‘calling stations.’ Israeli ports are open to the U.S. In fact, the only port where the U.S. can probably bring ships safely in the Eastern Mediterranean is to Israel. Looking at the other countries: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, the Mediterranean is becoming an Islamist lake.”
In an interview to Israel Hayom, an Israeli Air Force officer emphasized not only Israel gains from the relationship: "The Americans are eager to conduct this exercise, we are their 'laboratory' in the field [of missile defense]." A laboratory because Israel has extensive firsthand experience absorbing incoming rockets and missiles from Hamas and Hezbollah and regularly activates its Iron Dome system to combat the threat.
The joint American-Israeli exercise, expected to occur in the spring, is just one of a number of weekend developments with a cumulative effect of sending warnings to Tehran. The Telegraph reported from London that the UK will deploy its largest warship, the HMS Daring, to the Persian Gulf to “send a significant message to the Iranians...” It will arrive later this month.
This as Reuters reported Western powers this week readied a contingency plan to tap a record volume from emergency stockpiles to replace nearly all the Gulf oil that would be lost if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz.
The Iranians are continuing to convey signals of their own. Iran launched a military maneuver near its border with Afghanistan on Saturday called "Martyrs of Unity," per the official FARS news agency, days after completing its naval exercises in the Gulf. It’s unclear if this was meant to send a message to U.S. and NATO troops serving there.
After the 10-day drill that ended last week, Iran announced it was planning another massive naval exercise in February dubbed “The Great Prophet.”
Additionally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is visiting Latin American allies starting Sunday with Venezuela. Later, he travels to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.
And the head of Iran’s atomic energy program says a new uranium enrichment facility in Fordo near the holy city of Qom will soon become operational, and continues to insist its nuclear program is peaceful, even as the U.S. and its allies adopt new sanctions:
Emphasizing the stakes for Israel which Ahmadinejad has said should be destroyed, last week, the Jerusalem Post quoted IDF estimates that in the event of war, Israel could come under fire from as many as 15,000 missiles from Iran and its allies Hezbollah and Hamas.