Operation Juniper Cobra, the joint ballistic missile defense (BMD) exercise between Israel and the United States, is scheduled to conclude on Nov 5. Judging by the scope of the exercise and several statements by U.S. and Israeli commanders involved in the affair, the exercises are anything but routine and in many ways have a near-deployment feel to them.
Extensive U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) exercises known as Juniper Cobra are under way in Israel, and are scheduled to last through Nov. 5. Though this is a regular exercise, the 2009 iteration is of unprecedented scale and scope, attempting to integrate the latest U.S. and Israeli BMD systems. The exercise is clearly intended to test joint capabilities and ensure mutually supportive interoperability in defending Israel from ballistic attack. But the scale and timing of the exercises remain important.
For the past three months, tensions between Iran and the West have been ratcheting up over Tehran's nuclear program. While Iran has been busy stretching out the ongoing nuclear negotiations, the Israelis –– seeing themselves as the most likely target of any potential Iranian nuclear weapon –– have been pushing the United States to take an ever-firmer hand in constraining the Iranian nuclear progress. STRATFOR sees Juniper Cobra as an element of that pressure, not simply to highlight for the Iranians that the Israelis have military options (and cover from the United States), but that the Americans are deeply committed to the region and are refining the military capability to provide that cover.
While most media reports have emphasized the routine nature of exercises, recently, the Israelis have been direct about the possibility of this being less an exercise and more of a deployment. On Oct. 23, Israeli Air Defense Corps commander Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish said: "In time of need, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will protect our country. However, if decided, our defenses will be enhanced by the United States' capabilities." Furthermore, no IDF representative has shied away from mentioning that scenarios involving Iran form a substantial portion of the exercise.
The United States' tight-lipped denials of anything out of the ordinary have recently shifted; Com. Carl Meuser of the guided missile destroyer USS Higgins (DDG-76) said Nov. 2: "We're here for some very specific reasons, some specific threats that the Israelis are interested in, that we're interested in. And that's as far as I want to go down that road."
However, even going back to the opening days of Juniper Cobra, it has been clear that the Americans have more on their mind than simply working out technical kinks. U.S. Army Col. Anthony English, a deputy commander of Juniper Cobra, made it clear Oct. 27 that the exercise was not simply about Israel: "We are trying to integrate that (Aegis) capability here with the X-band radar and the THAAD weapon system, along with the Patriot system, into some sort of European missile defense system. We are going to learn a lot of lessons here that directly apply to what they want to do in EUCOM (U.S. European Command)." He added, "This is the most complete air- and missile-defense exercise that we have done."
Put simply, no country has dealt more actively with a broader range of ballistic threats than Israel. Two things are happening. First, the United States has set up the groundwork and has run tests to ensure that it can quickly and effectively reinforce Israeli BMD in a crisis. Second, the United States generally has learned a great deal about deploying its own BMD technologies in a comprehensive way. The result of Juniper Cobra is that even if all U.S. BMD forces withdraw quickly after the conclusion of the exercises, they can return faster and be active sooner. Additionally, U.S. forces have gained valuable experience that will help ensure that they deploy more effectively in the future, even if the destination is not Israel.
This exercise is by no means routine, and has quickly risen to much higher levels of significance; on Nov. 2, the commander of the U.S. Army European Command, Adm. James G. Stavridis, arrived in Israel for a three-day visit. Stavridis would not visit only to ensure that the software bugs had been worked out. Judging from Iran's behavior in the nuclear negotiations thus far, Tehran may not realize the gravity of these exercises just yet, but official leaks coming from Israel and the United States on the deeper purpose of these exercises are designed to drive that message home.