Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Bark poses with American soldiers of the 10th Army Air and Missile Defence Command during a joint exercise drill with the Israeli army near Jerusalem, on Oct. 23.The largest Israel-U.S. air defense drill concluded last week under combat conditions as simulations and preplanned live fire were conducted amid actual rocket salvos from Gaza and escalation along Israel's long-dormant border with Syria. (AFP)
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TEL AVIV — The largest Israel-U.S. air defense drill concluded last week under combat conditions as simulations and preplanned live fire were conducted amid actual rocket salvos from Gaza and escalation along Israel's long-dormant border with Syria.
Multifront engagement scenarios designed for the thousands of U.S. and Israeli forces participating in Austere Challenge 2012 grew exceedingly realistic in the closing days of the biennial drill, as operators and joint task force commanders from U.S. European Command (EUCOM) witnessed at least four operational intercepts by the Israeli Iron Dome.
By the time the drill culminated Nov. 12 with live fire from U.S. Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (Pac-3) missiles, more than 120 rockets — including extended-range Grads — had been fired at the Israeli homefront, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents within 40 kilometers of the border into shelters. On Nov. 14, a day after the drill officially concluded, the Israeli military launched "Operation Pillar of Defense," a widespread aerial campaign aimed at reducing the rocket and missile threat from Gaza.
In parallel, Israeli forces last week fired their first shots into Syria since the 1973 war in response to stray shells from the ongoing Syrian civil war that landed in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.
Israeli military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said the two separate engagements with Syria — warning shots Nov. 11 and a direct hit on a Syrian artillery launcher Nov. 12 — offered a clear message to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel would not tolerate spillover from internal Syrian clashes into Israeli territory.
At week's end, as most of the 1,000 or so U.S. military personnel stationed in Israel for the drill were making their way back to Germany, Israel's Northern Command remained on high alert for threats from Syria. Down south, Iron Dome batteries were activated against the rocket threat while the Israel Air Force intensified airstrikes against weapon storage sites, smuggling tunnels and other targets throughout the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip.
"These are very difficult days [which require] further bilateral cooperation in defense against future missile threats, as well as persistent operations against Hamas and the Iranian terror threat in Gaza, which is likely to intensify and expand," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters.
Barak hailed the Austere Challenge drill for underscoring the deep cooperation between the two militaries and for bolstering Israeli deterrence.
In a press call before the drill, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force and regional air defense commander for EUCOM, said the $30 million drill, known as AC12, marked the largest in the history of U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation. It involved Pac-3 batteries, an Aegis cruiser, the U.S.-operated AN/TPY-2 X-band radar deployed here and advanced communications links enabling simulated joint task force operations.
Overall, more than 3,500 U.S. military personnel, from multiple locations across Europe and the Mediterranean and in Israel, took part in the drill, which involved a logistics-centric deployment phase, extensive simulated joint task force operations against salvos on multiple fronts and Patriot live fire against simulated targets.
The Israeli contribution was estimated at 30 million shekels ($76.4 million). It involved nearly 2,000 personnel and all layers of Israel's planned multitiered active defense intercepting network, including the Arrow, Iron Dome, Patriot and Pac-2, used against air-breathing targets, and command-and-control elements of the developmental David's Sling.
Franklin insisted the scenarios simulating salvo attacks on multiple fronts were notional and "not related to any particular recent world event."
Nevertheless, representatives from both countries said last week's barrage of Gaza-launched rockets, combined with fire across the Syrian border, injected real-life urgency to simulated joint operations.
"AC12 took place in a realistic threat environment, to say the least. Many of us will remember it as the nexus between simulation and actual combat," an Israel Air Force officer said.
In the coming weeks, U.S. and Israeli officers will conduct post-drill evaluations and apply key lessons to the planning of the next major bilateral drill, scheduled for 2014.
Israel Air Force Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish, recently retired air defense commander, said the drill and ongoing exercises between drills were strategically significant in honing the ability of both countries to operate jointly against evolving threats.
"We're not waiting for every other year to exercise together. Today we have a standing relationship with all the commanders, and we conduct a lot of small-scale training on a regular basis," Gavish said.