US-Israeli military drills designed to send message to Iran

Live-fire exercises include 6,400 US personnel and included F-35 fighters and B-52 bombers

Israeli and US air power joined forces for exercises this week. Reuters
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The most significant US-Israeli military drills in recent years sent a clear message to Iran that the allies are not too distracted by war in Ukraine and the threat from China to mobilise a large force in the Middle East, analysts said.

The exercises over Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean which started on Monday and will last until Friday, involve live fire and 6,400 US personnel, most of them aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush.

About 450 troops are on the ground in Israel, an official said.

Besides B-52 bombers, US air power includes F-35s, F-15s, F-16s and F-18s. Drills involve land, sea, air and space operations, the US military's Central Command (Centcom) said.

“I think the sheer scale of the exercise does make it one of the largest in years. But this isn’t just a question of numbers — though they are impressive,” Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst based in Bahrain, told The National.

“It also has to do with the kind of assets used. The joint exercise combines an aerial, ground and naval component on a scale that I think we haven’t seen in years.”

More than 140 aircraft, 12 navy vessels and artillery systems from both countries are part of the drills, Centcom said.

Planning for the exercises began a couple of months ago, a US official told NBC News, before conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regained office on December 29.

Drills of such size usually take up to a year of planning, defence analysts said.

“I think it's a strong message of reassurance. If any, it follows, I would say, the visit of US President Joe Biden to Israel last summer. Both countries are committed to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran,” Jean-Loup Samaan, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, told The National.

Mr Samaan said the drills also sent a message to the wider region that no matter what happens geopolitically in Europe or Asia, the Biden administration is prepared to reinforce its commitment to Israel’s security.

“That is the golden rule in a sense of US policy,” said Mr Samaan, who is also a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.

“That no matter what happens in Ukraine, no matter what happens in Asia, the US will still provide the military capabilities for Israel's security efforts on regional policy goals, in this case, preventing the nuclear proliferation in Iran.”

When it came to military equipment, the use of F-35s, B-52s and tanker planes stood out.

“F-35s stealth fighters would be used to evade air defences and pave the way for other aircraft to carry out missile strikes,” Mr Horowitz said.

“B-52 bombers are capable of carrying some of the newest bunker busters that could be used to target deeply entrenched Iranian nuclear facilities.”

Tankers would be also be used in a strike against Iran, by avoiding time-consuming flights back to base.

Israel could attack Iranian nuclear sites in two or three years, outgoing defence minister Benny Gantz said in December in candid comments about a timeline.

“In two or three years, you may be traversing the skies eastward and taking part in an attack on nuclear sites in Iran,” Mr Gantz said.

Iran has stepped up its uranium enrichment programme as efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with six powers appear to go nowhere.

Western powers claim it has a large stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 per cent, one step from nuclear weapons grade material.

But the US and Israel’s ability to quickly deploy military assets on such a scale is only half of the message to Iran, analysts said.

“The [main] message is: 'We’re flexible enough that, if the decision is taken, we’ll be able to mount a successful strike against Iran’s nuclear programme,'” Mr Horowitz said.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that Israel or the US want to strike Iran, but as Iran is now closer to a nuclear breakthrough, and with the prospect of reviving the nuclear deal being as low as ever, there is a need to enforce some red lines through deterrence.”

The exercises began days after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan's visit to Israel, where Iran was at the centre of discussions with Israeli officials.

The latest drills can also be seen as a message from Israel to its partners in the Gulf, an analyst for another US think tank said.

“Israel’s new and emerging military partners in the Gulf can look at the high level of interoperability and raw capability of the US and Israeli militaries and see that as a future goal for their own militaries — to be able to execute at that level and with seamless integration,” Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 1:53 PM