US Military in Israel for Largest Joint Exercise Ever

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Some 1,000 U.S. military personnel have begun arriving in Israel for what is being described as the largest joint missile defense exercise in the history of U.S.-Israel relations. 

Altogether more than 3,500 U.S. military personnel will participate in Austere Challenge 12 (AC12), including from locations across Europe and the Mediterranean through remote defense computer systems. About 1,000 Israeli soldiers will participate here.

The exercise was postponed in the spring and some said at the time the move was intended to allay regional fears that Israel and the U.S. were preparing for war. 

Now it's taking place just before U.S. elections and at a time when tensions are still running high in the Middle East with the growing threat of a nuclear Iran, civil war in Syria spilling over its borders and general instability generated by the so-called Arab Spring.

But U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the senior U.S. officer who will be here for the exercise, said it's is about "improving our U.S.-Israeli military capabilities" and "military teamwork."

"AC12 is not related to national elections nor any perceived tensions in the Middle East," Franklin said. "We are military professionals coming together to train for [a] defensive mission."

Without naming the major threats in the region, Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, who is running the exercise, said they are aiming to prepare for all potential threats.

"The scenario is going to deal with threats from all the fronts and [the] mission is to make sure that we know together how to deal with threats -- the potential threats coming from all fronts," Nuriel said.

The Israeli Iron Dome, short-range anti-rocket system, the Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile system and the Israeli and U.S. Patriot missile batteries will be tested in the drill, which networked together by the Aegis cruiser command and control system. Most of it will be carried out with computer simulations of incoming rockets and at the end, systems will be activated to shoot down a mock enemy missile.

The three-week exercise, which begins next week and continues into November, will cost the U.S. and Israel $30 million each. The last one of its kind, called Juniper Cobra, was held in 2010.

"It's not there to send a message. It's there to improve the defensive missile defense capability of Israel," Franklin said.

"Working together is a strong message by itself," Nuriel said. "I'm sure that the result of the exercise will once again will show that together we can achieve more."

Nuriel said the exercise will be considered a success if the all the potential enemy salvos would be intercepted "to reduce the damage to the Israeli civilian infrastructure."

The Jerusalem Post reported that Israelis might encounter disruptions in traffic due to military convoys on the roads throughout the exercise.

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Julie Stahl

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