The U.S. and Israel will begin their largest joint air and missile defense exercise by the end of this month, sending a message of solidarity between the nations to Iran and to American voters just before the Nov. 6 presidential election.
The U.K. and Germany also will participate in the three-week “Austere Challenge” exercise involving as many as 3,500 U.S. personnel in the region along with 1,000 members of the Israel Defense Forces, Navy Lieutenant Commander Wendy Snyder, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement.
“The exercise will include missile defense elements, as well as combat-service support units” and participants from all four U.S. military services, she said.
The allied exercise is “no doubt intended at least partly to showcase that extensive U.S.-Israeli military cooperation continues despite the differences between the two nations over the immediacy and scope of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear enrichment program,” Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in Washington, said in an e-mailed statement.
President Barack Obama’s administration has openly disagreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran’s progress toward the capability to produce a nuclear weapon and the timing of any military strikes to stop a program that Iran’s leaders say is for civilian purposes. Iranian officials have said they will strike Israel if it attacks nuclear facilities in Iran.
Netanyahu has called for setting “red lines” for military action if Iran continues to enrich uranium, while the U.S. has resisted setting deadlines and is focusing on pressure through economic sanctions with European allies.
“Each opportunity to train together is an opportunity to further improve our military capabilities,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro said in an e-mail today. “Austere Challenge 2012 represents another milestone in the strategic relationship.”
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said in a foreign policy address on Oct. 8 that Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu “has suffered great strains,” and Romney pledged to “increase our military assistance and cooperation.”
Obama has assured Netanyahu that that the U.S. is committed to Israel’s security and the two leaders are in “full agreement” on the goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the White House said in a Sept. 28 statement following a phone conversation between the leaders.
“The prime minister welcomed President Obama’s commitment before the United Nations General Assembly to do what we must to achieve that goal,” according to the White House statement.
The U.S.-Israeli exercise, which was postponed from earlier this year, follows a U.S.-led exercise completed last month that involved more than 30 nations in the largest mine-clearing demonstration in the Middle East. Iranian officials have periodically threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil is shipped daily.
Iran’s forces conducted three war exercises earlier this year “meant to show offensive and defensive” missile capabilities, the Pentagon said in a June 29 report to Congress.
“Iran would likely choose missile delivery as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons should it choose to build them,” James Miller, the Pentagon under secretary for policy, wrote members of the House Armed Services Committee Aug. 3.
The exercise will include personnel and a mobile tactical operations center from the year-old 10th Army Air & Missile Defense Command in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported in August, citing Captain Michael Bux, chief of passive defense for the unit.
“We’re not going to get into the details regarding the operations until after the exercise begins,” said Snyder, the Pentagon spokeswoman. She said 1,000 of the U.S. personnel will participate from within Israel.
While the exercise will be the largest such effort between the U.S. and Israel, the number of troops participating “is standard for this type of an exercise,” she said. “The U.S. holds major bilateral exercises with its allies in various parts” of the U.S. European Command’s area of responsibility, which includes Israel, she said.
Iran’s military continues to improve the accuracy and killing power of its long-and short-range ballistic missiles, including designing a weapon to target vessels, the Pentagon said in its report to Congress.
“Iran has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing system loads” that extend the destructive power over a wider area than a solid warhead, according to the report signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Iran continues to develop ballistic missiles with the range to reach regional adversaries, Israel and Eastern Europe, including an extended-range Shahab-3 and a 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) medium-range ballistic missile, according to the report.
Citing the Iranian threat, the Obama administration shifted from the Bush administration’s plans to place missile-defense sites in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic to an approach that would place closer to Iran some Aegis-class Navy missile defense vessels, ground radar and eventually land-based Navy Standard Missile-3 interceptors.