'Decreased US presence in drill not sign of change'

Pentagon confirms fewer soldiers to take part in exercise, dismisses report linking decision to 'mistrust over Iran.'

Patriot anti-missile system 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Patriot anti-missile system 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Washington’s decision to scale down its involvement in an upcoming joint ballistic missile drill with Israel is not a sign of change in bilateral relations, a senior Israeli defense source told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday.
Time magazine reported on Friday that initially about 5,000 US troops were planned to be involved in Austere Challenge 12 but that the number was being pared back to between 1,200 and 1,500.
It quoted an unnamed Israeli military official as saying the change was a sign of US mistrust of Israel due to disagreements on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Responding to the report, the defense source said, “All of the commentary on this has been wrong. There is no great significance. Nothing has changed.”
The source stressed that the drill is still the largest held by the US and Israel to date, even with the smaller American force.
“Defense cooperation between Israel and the US has never been better,” the source added.
The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that fewer US military personnel will take part than initially planned, but it rejected the claim that “mistrust” of Israel was behind the change.
The exercise is being planned amid increasing talk of war in the media and reports that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are debating a unilateral attack on Iran to knock out its nuclear installations. Washington has cautioned Israel against going it alone.
“Austere Challenge 12 remains the largest-ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009,” said US Air Force Lt.-Col. Jack Miller, a Pentagon spokesman.
“The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned. All deployed systems will be fully operational with associated operators,” Miller said.
Miller said US-Israeli ties were strong and Austere Challenge “is a tangible sign of our mutual trust.”
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to say how many US personnel would be involved in the exercise but said the reported figures were wrong and the change in scale was far smaller than indicated.
An Israeli defense official briefed on the exercise told Reuters the drill “will be held on a similar scale as when it was last held, two years ago.”
The Israeli official said the size of the exercise was initially slated to be larger but added that “the changes are within the framework of the drill’s requirements and nothing more.”
“These things are planned over a long time and changes are not uncommon,” the official said.
Miller said the exercise was initially planned for May but earlier this year, Israeli defense officials approached the US about shifting the date until late autumn.
“When the exercise was moved, the United States notified Israel that due to concurrent operations, the United States would provide a smaller number of personnel and equipment than originally planned.
Israel reiterated to postpone until late fall,” Miller said.