January 24, 2023 | Insight

With an Eye on Adversaries, the U.S. and Israel Conduct Major Military Exercise

January 24, 2023 | Insight

With an Eye on Adversaries, the U.S. and Israel Conduct Major Military Exercise

The United States and Israel kicked off the week-long Juniper Oak 23 multi-domain military exercise on Monday in Israel. A senior U.S. defense official called it the “most significant” bilateral exercise between the two countries in history. The exercise will increase the readiness of the two militaries and strengthen their ability to operate together while sending important messages to allies and adversaries in the Middle East and beyond.

The U.S. contribution to the exercise includes roughly 6,400 personnel with approximately 450-500 American service members training at up to 10 bases in Israel and most operating at sea on six American ships, including the USS George H.W. Bush carrier strike group.

One hundred U.S. aircraft will participate in Juniper Oak 23. The U.S. contribution includes four B-52 bombers flying from the United States to simulate long-range, large-volume strikes against an adversary. It also includes four American fifth-generation F-35 fighters, which specialize in penetrating deeper into adversary airspace, as well as approximately 60 fourth-generation aircraft. Examples include F-15E, F-16, and F/A-18 aircraft that focus on defeating enemy aircraft, destroying air defenses, and conducting airstrikes as well as EA-18G aircraft that conduct coordinated electronic attacks to ensure the mission’s success. Two Reaper drones, approximately 20 helicopters, and six Air Force and Navy command, control, and reconnaissance aircraft will support the exercise.

Notably, two American KC-46 air refueling tankers will also participate. Their participation may provide Israeli fighter pilots with valuable first opportunities to practice refueling their aircraft with the KC-46 in a realistic training environment in anticipation of Israel receiving its own KC-46s in the next few years. Moreover, the KC-46s will be stationed at an Israeli air base for several days. That should provide Israeli pilots, crew chiefs, and maintenance personnel time to begin familiarizing themselves with the aircraft. That could help reduce the time between Israel’s receipt of their new air refueling tankers and their potential employment in actual combat operations.

Based on the distances between Israel and Iran, and Israel’s aging existing air refueling fleet, the KC-46 will provide enhanced, vital air refueling capabilities should Israel decide it must conduct a large-scale kinetic attack to ensure the Islamic Republic of Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

Israel, for its part, is contributing approximately 1,180 personnel, six ships, and an impressive array of aircraft to the Juniper Oak 23 exercise. They include six F-35Is, 18 F-16s, eight F-15s, two G550 reconnaissance aircraft, two B707 refueling aircraft, as well as two UAVs and four helicopters.

The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command emphasized that the exercise is taking place in all domains — meaning land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace assets are all supporting the exercise.

The specific missions Americans and Israelis are rehearsing this week include combined command and control, air operations in maritime surface warfare, and combat search and rescue as well as electronic attack, suppression of enemy air defenses, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and air interdiction. Those capabilities, augmented by additional tools of national power, are exactly what the U.S. and Israel would need to conduct a successful kinetic attack on Iran’s nuclear program.

The exercise will include live-fires expending 180,000 pounds of live munitions. American and Israeli fighters will join up with the B-52 bombers to conduct three successive waves of simulated attacks on adversary targets. That’s important because attacks on the Iranian nuclear program would likely require repeated re-attacks. The strikes will include the use of laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

To coordinate the large number of forces conducting complex maneuvers and live-fires, the U.S. and Israel established a combined coordination center that includes leadership and functional area representatives from both countries working side by side. Early reports suggest this coordination is going well and valuable lessons are being learned and codified.

In anticipation of the exercise, the two militaries also worked together to develop common special instructions for both forces related to training and safety standards and rules. These command, control, and planning activities will help move U.S. and Israeli forces further along the deconflicted-coordinated-integrated-unified spectrum, enabling more effective and lethal combined operations in the future.

More broadly, the scope, complexity, and size of this exercise should assure Israelis, Americans, and their regional partners, while making adversaries think twice before initiating aggression.

Indeed, the Biden administration is attempting to use the Juniper Oak 23 exercise to send messages to a variety of audiences. The message to Jerusalem is that the American commitment to Israel’s security remains rock solid. One can certainly compliment or criticize various Biden administration national security and foreign policies, particularly toward Iran, but the exercise this week represents a major and positive milestone in U.S.-Israel security cooperation — and the White House, the Pentagon, and U.S. Central Command deserve credit for making it happen.

In addition to the positive message this sends to Jerusalem about American commitment, Washington hopes America’s partners in the region — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others — take note. The administration’s intended message to them is that the United States military has not completely departed from the region, does not intend to depart from the region, and retains an unmatched ability to flow additional combat forces into the region quickly when necessary to conduct military operations. The Pentagon is eager to demonstrate that it can pull off such operations even as it conducts an extraordinary effort to arm Ukraine while trying to beef up U.S. military posture and operations in the Indo-Pacific.

Perhaps the most important message from the exercise is intended for Tehran and its terror proxies. “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,” a senior defense official reportedly remarked. The Biden administration wants Tehran to understand that the United States has both the military means and the political will to stand with Israel, secure American interests in the region, and conduct successful large-scale strikes if necessary.

The military muscle on display this week certainly demonstrates some of this capability. The ability to deter aggression from Tehran and its terror proxies, however, will depend on their perceptions of the willingness of Washington and Israel to actually use force if necessary. Unprecedented military capabilities will mean little if adversaries determine the United States will never use them. Convincing adversaries that the United States might actually employ force if pushed to do so offers the best path to effective diplomacy and the best means to avoid war.

But if that diplomacy fails or if a regime’s character prevents good-faith and verifiable compromise, the capabilities the U.S. and Israel are honing this week will be more necessary than ever. After all, the United States and Israel must never allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire the world’s most dangerous weapon.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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