According to a senior defence official, 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 conflict in Ukraine and China’s threat to mobilise a large military force.
Juniper Oak 23 is “the most significant exercise between the United States and Israel to date,” according to the official, citing the massive number of aircraft, extensive coordination with the Israel Defense Forces, and the complex live-fire component.
A total of 6,400 US personnel have joined 1,100 Israeli personnel for the exercise, which will use 142 aircraft. 100 of them are from the US military, including four B-52 bombers, four F-35 fighter jets, 45 F/A-18 Hornet fighters, and two MQ-9 Reaper drones. Six US ships, including a carrier strike group, and six Israeli ships will also take part.
“Juniper Oak is a Combined Joint All-Domain exercise that improves our interoperability with our partners on land, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace, enhances our ability to respond to contingencies, and underscores our commitment to the Middle East,” said Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of US Central Command.
“What we think this exercise demonstrates is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” a senior defence official told NBC News, 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 flex to another high priority area of responsibility and conduct an exercise on this scale.”
The official stated that the exercise is not centred on a single country, but that regional adversaries such as Iran will pay attention.
“The scale of the exercise is relevant to a wide range of scenarios, and Iran may draw certain inferences from that,” the official said. “It’s really meant mostly to kick the tyres on our ability to do things at this scale with the Israelis against a whole range of different threats. But, you know, it wouldn’t surprise me if Iran sees the scope and nature of these activities and realises what the two of us are capable of.”
Unlike many military drills, this one is multi-domain, encompassing naval, land, air, space, and electronic warfare exercises. It will culminate with a live-fire exercise that will use 180,000 pounds of live munitions to simulate enemy air defence suppression, strategic air interdiction, and electronic attack. The US will use four US Army HIMARs rocket launchers, laser-guided bombs, and stealthy “low-observable” cruise missiles without payloads.
An exercise of this size would normally take a year or more to plan, but this came together in a matter of months, according to the official, not because of an imminent threat, but because of a window of availability.
“This is a sign that we continue to have Israel’s back at a time when there is a lot of turbulence and instability across the region,” the official said, adding that this is an opportunity to demonstrate that the US and Israel can work together on a large scale in a short period of time.
The exercise will last from Monday to Friday. The official could not predict how Iran would 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. They’ll probably do something in the information space.”
The exercise comes as the United States’ military footprint in the Central Command region is smaller than it has been in decades, thanks in part to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021 and fewer American service members remaining in Iraq. While the Pentagon and Central Command downplay the decrease, regional allies are concerned that the US is losing interest in the region.
According to a senior defence official, this drill is a signal to other nations that the argument is false.
“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 believe this will disabuse them,” the official said.
“I suspect Iran will take note of that, but not only Iran; China, Russia, and others will take note of it.”