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Source: NBC News

Jan 23, 2023

A senior U.S. defense official said that the exercise is not oriented around a particular threat but that regional adversaries like Iran will take notice.

By Courtney Kube

The United States and Israel began a massive joint military exercise in Israel on Monday to show adversaries like Iran that Washington is not too distracted by the war in Ukraine and the threat from China to mobilize a large military force, a senior defense official said. 

Juniper Oak 23 is “the most significant exercise between the United States and Israel to date,” the official said, citing the enormous number of aircraft, extensive coordination with the Israel Defense Forces, and the complicated live-fire component. 

About 6,400 U.S. personnel have joined 1,100 Israeli personnel for the exercise, which will employ 142 total aircraft. Of them, 100 aircraft are from the U.S. military, including four B-52 bombers, four F-35 fighter jets, 45 F/A-18 Hornet fighters and two MQ-9 Reaper drones. Six U.S. ships, including a carrier strike group, and six Israeli ships will also participate.

Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, said, “Juniper Oak is a Combined Joint All-Domain exercise which improves our interoperability on land, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace with our partners, enhances our ability to respond to contingencies, and underscores our commitment to the Middle East.”

“What we think this exercise demonstrates is we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” the senior defense official who spoke to NBC News said, citing the focus on China and the roughly 100,000 forces in Europe to support NATO and Ukraine.

“We still have the excess capacity to be able to flex to another high priority area of responsibility and conduct an exercise on this scale.”

The official said that the exercise is not oriented around a particular nation, but that regional adversaries like Iran will take notice.

“The scale of the exercise is relevant to a whole range of scenarios, and Iran may draw certain inferences from that,” the official said. “It’s really meant mostly to kick the tires on our ability to do things at this scale with the Israelis against a whole range of different threats. But, you know, it would not surprise me if Iran sees the scale and the nature of these activities and understands what the two of us are capable of doing.”

Unlike many military drills, this one is all-domain, meaning it includes naval, land, air, space and electronic warfare exercises. It culminates with a live-fire exercise that will expend 180,000 pounds of live munitions while simulating suppression of enemy air defenses, strategic air interdiction and electronic attack. The U.S. will use four U.S. Army HIMARs rocket launchers, laser-guided bombs and stealthy “low-observable” cruise missiles minus payloads. 

An exercise of this size would normally take a year or more to plan, but this came together in a matter of months, the official said, not because of an imminent threat but a window of availability. 

“This is a sign that we continue to have Israel’s back at a time where there’s a lot of turbulence and instability across the region,” the official said, and this is a chance to show that the U.S. and Israel can work together on a large scale in a short period of time. 

The exercise will run from Monday through Friday. The official could not say how Iran may react to the drills.

“My guess is the next time they do a military exercise, they’ll say, even if it was planned for months, they’ll say it was reaction to this. I mean, they’ll do something probably in the information space.” 

The exercise comes as the U.S. military footprint in the Central Command region is smaller than it has been in decades, in part after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021 and fewer American service members left in Iraq. While the Pentagon and Central Command downplay the decrease, allies in the region worry the U.S. is less committed to the area.

The senior defense official said this drill is a signal to other nations that argument is not true.

“If there’s a sense that the Americans are distracted, or the Americans are going away from the Middle East, and therefore they have free rein for their malign activities. I think this will disabuse them,” the official said.

“I suspect Iran will take note of that, but not only Iran, China will take note of that, Russia will take note of that, other folks will take note of it.”

Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

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