WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Israel are embarking on the largest exercise in their long military relationship, against a backdrop of tension with Iran and sharp rhetoric in the American presidential election.
An air defense drill planned for late this month will involve more than 3,500 Americans and 1,000 Israelis, practicing their ability to work together against a range of threats facing the main U.S. ally in the Mideast. Officials briefing reporters on Wednesday would not specify the exact date for security reasons.
American forces have started arriving in Israel and others will participate from positions around Europe and the Mediterranean in what the military is calling Austere Challenge 2012, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said via telephone from Germany.
"It's about teamwork," Franklin said, noting the drill has been planned for more than two years. The exercise, he said, "is not related to national elections nor any perceived tensions in the Middle East."
Still, it comes as the Iranian nuclear program tops the international agenda. Israel has threatened to strike Iranian nuclear facilities if Iran's uranium enrichment does not cease. The West and its allies fear the enrichment process could lead to nuclear weapons development. Iran denies that and says its nuclear ambitions are only for peaceful purposes.
President Barack Obama's administration has been at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how close Tehran might be to producing a weapon and on the timing of any military strike to halt the program. Obama's Republican presidential rival, Mitt Romney, has been sharply critical of Obama's policy on Israel and has pledged greater support for Israel.
The military exercise was originally scheduled for April but was postponed at Israel's request. No reason was given but it came amid growing talk of Israel preparing to attack Iran and of tension between the U.S. on Israel on the issue.
The odds of an Israeli attack in the near term now appear to have lessened, with Netanyahu now saying the world has until next summer to act against Iran.
The US-Israeli exercise will test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets from places as far away as Iran.
The systems include the "Arrow," jointly developed and funded with the U.S. and designed to intercept Iranian missiles in the stratosphere; Iron Dome, designed to intercept shorter-range rockets that might be launched against Israel by Palestinian and Hezbollah militants; Patriot air defense batteries; and an Aegis ballistic missile defense ship.
Joining Franklin in Wednesday's press conference, Israeli Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel said the ground and computer-simulated drill is to practice teamwork in dealing with potential threats "from all fronts."
Isaac Ben-Israel, a retired Israeli air force general and a former head of the Israeli space agency, said the main goal of the exercise was to improve coordination between the two military's technological capabilities.
In the 1991 Gulf War, for instance, he said Israel relied on American satellites detecting rocket launches from Iraq and that the information was then transferred in an unwieldy fashion.
"The process now is much more direct and includes integrated systems. These need to be tested," he said.
Heller reported from Jerusalem