By YAAKOV KATZ
US Navy missile ships started arriving in Israel on Sunday ahead of next month's joint missile defense exercise between the IDF and the American military's European Command.
Called Juniper Cobra, the exercise will include the Arrow missile defense system as well as three American systems - the THAAD, Aegis and PAC3 - that will all be deployed in Israel for the duration of the exercise.
Defense officials said the exercise would not begin for a few weeks, but that the ships were already arriving to begin preparing the infrastructure for the joint drill, the largest since Israel and the US began holding the biennial Juniper Cobra drill in 2001.
The arrival of the ships began a day before Defense Minister Ehud Barak was scheduled to fly to Washington for talks with his American counterpart, Robert Gates. Defense officials said that their talks would focus on the Iranian threat, Israeli-US defense cooperation as well as the role Israel will play in the new American missile defense shield announced last week.
Expectations in Israel are that the US will deploy several Aegis ballistic missile ships - that are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles - in the Mediterranean and Red seas. Israel is already home to the advanced X-Band radar that the Bush administration gave as a farewell gift last October.
Officials said it was possible that the US would decide to leave some systems in Israel following the drill to bolster Israeli defenses in face of the Iranian threat. One possibility under discussion is that Aegis ships, that carry SM3 missile interceptors, will be deployed in the Mediterranean and Red seas.
On Sunday, Gates wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he contended that the new European defense plan - which won't include a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, as per the US announcement last week - was a reworking of the previous proposal, and provided more protection in light of the current threat assessments.
Gates said that while the previous plan would not have provided any protection before at least 2017 - and likely later - the new program will begin providing some level of protection by 2011, will receive a significant boost in capability by 2015, and will be built over time to create "an increasingly greater zone of protection."
"The new approach to European missile defense actually provides us with greater flexibility to adapt as new threats develop and old ones recede," Gates wrote.
He challenged critics who have slammed the new plan as a concession to Russia, which had vehemently opposed placing a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
"Russia's attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue," Gates said. "If Russia's leaders embrace this plan, then that will be an unexpected, and welcome, change of policy on their part. But in any case the facts are clear: American missile defense on the continent will continue, and not just in Central Europe."
"This proposal is, simply put, a better way forward," Gates summed up his position. "It is a very real manifestation of our continued commitment to our NATO allies in Europe."
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to the report.
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