For Israelis, joint air-defence exercises with the United States are a local affair, aimed at clear — if undeclared — regional adversaries like Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.
This time around, the Americans involved in the Israel-based drill dubbed Juniper Cobra believe the exercise could also be of interest to Europe, where the Obama administration plans to deploy a revamped missile shield crowned by the Aegis ballistic interceptor.
Over three weeks of manoeuvres, Israel’s Arrow II missile shield is being meshed with Aegis as well as other U.S. systems designed to spot and shoot down missiles at various altitudes.
U.S. Army Colonel Anthony English, a deputy commander of Juniper Cobra, made clear that while the United States was honing ties with Israel, there was a further unilateral boon.
“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 defence system,” English told reporters at a battery site near Tel Aviv.
“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).”
In the first phase of the plan unveiled by President Barack Obama last month, the Aegis — which can blow up missiles above atmosphere and is currently deployed aboard U.S. Navy ships — would be posted at key Mediterranean and North Sea passages.
A land-based version of Aegis’s missile, the SM-3, would be developed by around 2015, and the Pentagon has said it could be stationed in countries like Poland and the Czech Republic.
English’s remarks suggested that the United States might complement those systems with the THAAD and the Patriot, which provide lower-altitude coverage, for a multi-tier shield.
According to a senior U.S. officer taking part in Juniper Cobra, THAAD and Patriot can be deployed at short notice if airlift facilities are available.
The same applies to the X-band, a strategic radar that can spot missile launches and which the United States stationed in Israel’s southern desert last year as part of efforts to reassure its ally in the face of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Though Iran denies having hostile designs, its growing short- and intermediate-range missile arsenal is Washington’s stated reason for the planned European shield.
Obama’s review of a Bush-era plan for longer-range defences in Poland and the Czech Republic followed protests from Russia, which feared seeing its own nuclear capabilities blunted.
A boosted global role for Aegis, SM-3, THAAD and Patriot would be a windfall for their U.S. manufacturers, Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Co.
English said that this Juniper Cobra — the drill has been held every two years since 2001 — saw the first operational deployment of THAAD. The exercise will culminate with a live shoot-down of a target missile by a Patriot next month.
“This is the most complete air- and missile-defence exercise that we have done,” English said.
Neither Israeli nor U.S. officials would be drawn on which Middle East countries are envisaged as the enemy in Juniper Cobra, but the exercise comes as world powers try to talk Iran into a deadline for a nuclear compromise.
Israel, assumed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, believes that should there ever be a showdown with Iran, its allies Syria and Hezbollah would join in with missile salvoes.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle)