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Source: Breaking Defense

Jul 26, 2023

How to increase deterrence messaging to Iran with the next US-Israel military exercise

Bradley Bowman and Ryan Brobst of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argue that the US should expand the next Juniper Oak exercise to send a strong signal to Tehran.


While Israel may be going through political turmoil, the US has sought to keep its strong mil-to-mil relationship going. That was on display with the recent iteration of the Juniper Oak exercise. In the op-ed below, Bradley Bowman and Ryan Brobst of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies lay out how they believe the next exercise could send a more powerful signal to Iran. 

The United States and Israel held a combined, multi-domain Juniper Oak 23.3 military exercise this month in Israel. The exercise, which focused on a range of capabilities relevant to a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, follows a previous iteration of the effort in January that a Pentagon spokesperson called the “largest US-Israel partnered exercise in history.”

While the exercise this month was much smaller than the exercise in January, Juniper Oak 23.3 further increased the readiness and interoperability of US and Israeli forces. More than that, even as Iran continues to inch toward a nuclear weapon capability, the exercise reiterated an important message to Tehran regarding combined US-Israel military capability.

There are unquestionable benefits to the exercise as constructed. But there are also opportunities to make changes for the next Juniper Oak in order to strengthen military readiness and make Iran think twice about escalating its aggression or moving even closer to a nuclear weapon capability.

A significant focus of the most recent exercise was refueling — which Iran should correctly interpret as showing off the ability to project power in the region. The US contribution to the July 10-14 exercise included F-16 fighter aircraft as well as KC-10 Extender and KC-46 Pegasus tankers. Israel contributed its aggressor unit, the 115th “Flying Dragon” Squadron as well as other fighter squadrons, including the 109th and 119th squadrons, according to the Israel Defense Force.

The American KC-10 refueled Israeli fighter aircraft in-flight, while the KC-46 participated in a formation flight that included Israeli fighters but did not refuel any of them. Aerial refueling helps fighters conduct long-range combat operations and loiter long enough to re-attack targets or strike multiple targets. For that reason, Israel has ordered four KC-46 aircraft to replace its aging fleet of Boeing 707 “Re’em”

In addition to aerial refueling with the KC-10, the militaries practiced agile combat employment (ACE), long-range strategic strike missions, electronic warfare, area defense against hostile aircraft, and cyber incident response. These capabilities are critical to conducting a successful strike against Iran’s nuclear program and defending against any response from Tehran and its terror proxies.

ACE is a concept for “launching, recovering, and maintaining aircraft from dispersed forward operating locations in concert with allies and partners,” according to US Air Forces Central Command. ACE seeks to make the US Air Force less reliant on “large traditional main overseas bases” that are increasingly easy for adversaries to target with missiles and drones. Rehearsing the ACE concept in the Juniper Oak exercise with Israel can help the US Air Force employ the approach more effectively in the Middle East and elsewhere, including in the Indo-Pacific.

The Juniper Oak exercises this year, as well as the Red Flag-Nellis 23-2 combined aerial military exercise that was held in Nevada in March, demonstrate a significant and persistent commitment (despite recent drama in the political domain) in both capitals to deepening US-Israel security cooperation and ensuring that the two militaries can operate together with increasing effectiveness.

Washington wants Tehran to understand that the United States has both the military means and the political will to stand with Israel, secure American interests, and conduct successful large-scale strikes. But the effectiveness of these exercises in sending a deterrent message to Tehran will depend on its perception of the political will of Washington to actually use force if push comes to shove. For many in the Middle East, that is an open question when it comes to the United States.

Notably, recent events in which Iranian naval forces trying to seize commercial vessels backed down when US forces arrived suggest that Tehran understands that direct conflict with the US military would not go well for the Islamic Republic.

As military planners turn their attention to the future, they should explore several ways to strengthen the next Juniper Oak.

The exercise’s next iteration should include refueling Israeli fighters with American KC-46s. American KC-46s and Israeli fighter aircraft flying together in formation, as they did this month, creates a nice photo opportunity. However, actually refueling Israeli fighters with American KC-46s would have more military training value for both Americans and Israelis and send a stronger message to Tehran.

Another way to improve future exercises would be to add forces from more nations, especially Arab partners. US Central Command (CENTCOM) Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Gregory Guillot stated in February 2023 that a goal of CENTCOM is to hold more multilateral exercises between Middle Eastern partners. Maj. Gen. Paul J. Rock, Jr., the commander of United States Marine Corps Forces Central Command, recently signaled a similar eagerness to move toward such multilateral exercises.

Expanding Juniper Oak to include countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and eventually even Saudi Arabia, which are also threatened by Iran and its proxies, would help build a unified and militarily capable coalition to counter aggression. Inviting the UAE and other Arab partners to send forces to the Israel-hosted Blue Flag exercise in October would be a good step.

More multilateral exercises that involve Israel and include Arab partners could help reinforce US and partner efforts to build a regional security architecture to deter and defeat Iranian aggression — a perennial regional problem for Americans, Arabs, and Israelis alike.

Iran loves to keep its adversaries distracted and divided. Future US-Israel military exercises of increasing complexity and training rigor that also include select Arab partners could help increase the difficulty and costs for Tehran associated with future aggression.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, DC. Ryan Brobst is a senior research analyst at FDD.

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