The US and Israel announced that US CENTCOM and the IDF were conducting a large military exercise this week. “Today, US Central Command and the Israel Defense Forces begin Exercise Juniper Oak in Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea,” Washington said. The drill, which is raising eyebrows in the region and also across the ocean in America, shows how the US-Israel partnership is key to the region’s stability.CNN has reported that this is the largest joint military exercise ever between the two countries, which is interpreted as a “clear signal to Iran.” Tehran is clearly one of the issues involved, but the overall drill and context goes far beyond just the issue of the Iranian threat.This is an unprecedented drill that also builds on other similar but smaller ones over the years. One of the main elements here is that Israel is now part of the area of operations of US Central Command.Israel’s move to CENTCOM was carried out over the last several years. It is important because Central Command deals with key operations and military relationships in the region. Prior to the Abraham Accords, it was less easy for Israel to officially be in CENTCOM because so few countries in the region have relations with the Jewish state.Instead, Israel was part of European Command, as is Turkey. For instance, Israel hosted Blue Flag, a drill that has taken place every two years since 2013. That drill has included Israeli, German, Italian, French, Indian, Greek and American air forces in the past. Israel has also hosted the Noble Dina naval exercise that has included Cyprus, Greece and France.
Military drills in progress
Juniper Oak comes in the wake of other drills as well, but it also comes in the wake of challenges that other drills have confronted. Last year we noted in a report that the international Juniper Cobra exercise by the IDF and the United States Army that had been scheduled to take place in March 2022 was postponed. This was “due to a variety of considerations and [it] will take place at a later date, which will be announced later,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit tweeted at the time.Despite COVID-19 challenges, Israel also took part in Juniper Falcon in 2021 alongside Germany and US European Command. In 2021, Israel also hosted a first-of-its-kind drone drill called Blue Guardian. This included participation by the US, UK, Germany, Italy and France, all of which sent soldiers to Israel’s Palmachim Airbase.Considering this context, what does Juniper Oak mean for the Middle East? First of all, it is a big drill – and it is also large in the context of just having two countries participate. It is one thing to have a hundred or hundreds of aircraft at a drill when numerous countries bring a dozen aircraft each; it’s another to have just two countries with 140 planes at one drill, as this current exercise has.For instance, the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in Asia brings together 26 countries and is hosted by the US Navy. The last RIMPAC had some 38 ships and 170 aircraft. So this current drill is clearly sending a message in terms of air superiority.And what kind of air superiority is this?The USS George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier strike group is taking part in the drill, CNN reported. “We can’t really find another [exercise] that even kind of comes close,” a senior US defense official told the news network. That report noted that “nearly 6,500 US personnel will participate in the exercise, as well as more than 1,100 Israeli personnel.”CENTCOM head Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, said that the Combined Joint All-Domain exercise, which “improves our interoperability on land, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace with our partners, enhances our ability to respond to contingencies and underscores our commitment to the Middle East.” This shows clear ramifications for the region and the Eastern Mediterranean.It is about “interoperability” and also contributing to regional stability, the US said. This will bring improved security.The drill comes just a few days after reports said there was a drone attack on the US garrison at Tanf in Syria. The garrison has been attacked in the past but it is part of a larger pattern of Iranian drone threats to the region. Iran released several reports in January boasting about its drone and missile capabilities, including showing drones striking a model of an Israeli Sa’ar 6 ship.What are some of the key aspects of Juniper Oak in terms of showcasing the power of the US and Israel to the region?The drill brought together US strategic bombers as well as fighter aircraft. The countries trained for air operations over maritime areas. They also conducted search and rescue drills and practice for refueling in the air and electronic warfare, according to the CENTCOM statement.Another drill that is taking place looks at the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. Israel has practiced SEAD with the US in the past. At Blue Flag in 2021, it hosted elements of the 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from Germany that included “wild weasels” or pilots trained in confronting air defenses.The current drill also includes ground long-range precision fire, a reference apparently to the use of the HIMARS system, which has gotten a lot of attention because it was sent to Ukraine and has been very effective.The fact that the current exercise includes such a wide range of aircraft – from fifth-generation F-35s to B-52s, as well as F-15s and F-16s along with C-130 transports and a dozen naval vessels – shows how much effort to combine all these forces is being put into reality. Israel’s Momentum Plan and its recent focus on digitization and AI have meant that it is trying to become more effective at combining forces on the battlefield and bringing them together quickly in case of a conflict.
Showcasing joint abilities
Knitting together drones, aircraft, ground forces and precision artillery along with intelligence is all about moving quickly on the battlefield and combining forces. The US and Israel working together are showcasing their various abilities and also how technology underpins modern warfare.From Israel’s side of things, the Israelis brought their Sa’ar 5 ships, as well as Re’em refueling aircraft. The IDF statement says the US brought the KC-46 refuelers – a plane Israel has also ordered – that will modernize Israel’s refueling fleet. The military’s statement also says that “RPAs” were involved in the drill, a reference to drones.For other countries in the region watching Juniper Oak, the message is clear. This is not only the largest public gathering of forces in a drill like this for the first time by the US and Israel, but it clearly illustrates how far Jerusalem and CENTCOM have come in terms of joint operations. There’s a lot of trust here – in terms of the partner forces – bringing together so many complex and advanced systems, along with some historic systems like the Israeli refuelers and American B-52s.Today’s operations are all about combining assets along littoral spaces. Such combined operations at sea, along the coast and in the environment near the coast, means that air forces on a carrier can support ground forces and every aspect of the land-sea-air power works together.When we look across the Middle East at Israel’s new peace partners in the Gulf and also the Eastern Mediterranean, the littoral area is of great importance in terms of security and stability. For instance, the US navy has interdicted arms being shipped from Iran to Yemen and Tehran has frequently threatened shipping in the Gulf of Oman.The message of these drills shows how far the Israel-US partnership has come in the last decades since the Gulf War and the Global War on Terror. Juniper Oak is a curtain raiser on the future of combat in the Middle East.