Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday visited the air force's command center for managing the large US-Israel "Juniper Oak" joint drills, viewed by many as a not-so-veiled threat to Iran in the ongoing nuclear standoff, as well as to other adversaries.
Netanyahu said that the drill “manifests the unbreakable strategic partnership between Israel and the US and constitutes another stage in building Israel’s military power.
“Israel will always defend herself, but obviously praises the powerful cooperation with our great ally,” added the prime minister.
The US and the IDF on Monday launched what has been described by some Israeli and US officials as the most significant large-scale joint exercise to date.
Though the Jerusalem Post was informed by multiple senior officials of the exercise weeks ago as being extremely significant, it was under the condition of not publicizing it until it was officially announced.
Though The Jerusalem Post was informed by multiple senior officials weeks ago that the exercise would be extremely significant, it was not permitted to publicize it until it was officially announced.
What is Juniper Oaks?
The exercise, known as “the Juniper Oak” drills, will involve thousands of forces, a dozen ships, significant numbers of attack and intelligence collection drones and 142 aircraft, including nuclear-capable bombers, and it runs through this entire week.
These drills are meant to demonstrate and deepen integration between the US and Israeli militaries, a senior US defense official said earlier in the week, and come at a time of growing tension over Iran’s nuclear program.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant took part in Netanyahu’s visit and said on Wednesday that “the IDF’s power is what facilitates living ordinary life in our land,” while also praising the partnership with the US as enhancing Israel’s capability to project power.
Although IDf chief-of-staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi was also part of the visit, he did not issue any statement on Wednesday, nor did Air Force Chief Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar or other top military and national security officials who were present.
Critical for any potential strike on the Islamic Republic, the exercise will involve midair refueling aircraft, including, the IDF said, the KC-46 aircraft which Israel will eventually receive from the US.
In addition, the IDF said earlier in the week that there would be special refueling drills at sea with the Sa’ar 5 ships, to increase the IDF’s maritime operational umbrella.
Moreover, the IDF said earlier in the week that the US High Mobility Artillery Rocket System would be used along with various similar Israeli attack rockets. The HIMARS has around a 480 kilometer range and is said to be highly accurate within a range of 300 kilometers.
Although the drills will likely draw interest from Tehran, a US official said earlier in the week there would be no mock-ups of Iranian targets and that the exercises weren’t oriented around any particular adversary.
“I do think that the scale of the exercise is relevant to a whole range of scenarios, and Iran may draw certain inferences from that,” the official acknowledged.
“It’s really meant mostly to kick the tires on our ability to do things at this scale with the Israelis against a whole range of different threats.”
Earlier in January, the Post witnessed a range of American F-15s and Israeli F-35s taking off and maneuvering at Nevatim Air Base in the South in a drill relating to striking “deep targets” – a frequent Israeli euphemism for Iran. Last November saw yet another large joint drill involving the US and Israel.
The drill will include live-fire exercises and involve 6,400 US troops, many of whom will be aboard the US aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush strike group. Some 450 troops will be on the ground in Israel, the official said.
BEYOND B-52 BOMBERS, the US aircraft will include F-35s, F-15s, F-16s and F-18s. Drills will take place over large distances, involving land, sea, air and space, the official said.
The planning for the exercises began only a couple of months ago, before Netanyahu regained the premiership on December 29, but it certainly sends his desired message of strength toward the Islamic Republic.
Israel has opposed US President Joe Biden’s attempts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, concerned that it would fail to stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon.
But those negotiating efforts have been set aside for now while Washington pressures Iran to stop providing drones to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine and seeks to stop a crackdown on Iranian demonstrators.
Netanyahu has expressed optimism about the converging positions of the two countries on Iran after recently meeting in Jerusalem with visiting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
A senior US official said on Monday that America’s commitment to Israel’s security was “ironclad.”
“We have Israeli governments of one flavor or the other. They come and go. But what doesn’t change is our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” the official said.
“So this is a sign that we continue to have Israel’s back at a time where there’s a lot of turbulence and instability across the region.”
The Iranian nuclear program remains a concern.
“I think it’s fair to say Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced now than it’s ever been. Their breakout time lines are more compressed. Their knowledge and know-how has gone up,” the official said. “So the challenge has gone up.”
The official said the drills would show how the United States could effectively surge large numbers of battle-ready forces into the Middle East, even as Washington focuses on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intensifying competition with China.
"As our adversaries and competitors are sizing up the US military, I suspect they will take note of our ability to do this because, frankly, no other military on Earth could do this," the official said. "Not while they're doing everything else that we're doing around the globe."
Reuters contributed to this story.