On Monday, the US and Israel launched massive military drills, which one Pentagon official speaking to NBC News described as the “most significant exercise between the United States and Israel to date.”
The drills, dubbed Juniper Oak 23, will last until Friday and will involve about 6,400 US troops, 1,100 Israeli personnel, 142 different types of aircraft, and 12 warships. The exercise is taking place in Israel and the eastern Mediterranean and is seen as a message to Iran and other US “adversaries” in the region.
The different types of aircraft include B-52 bombers, fighter jets, and refueling aircraft, and a US aircraft carrier strike group is among the warships participating. According to US Central Command (CENTCOM), the drills will involve a “large-scale live-fire event.”
“Juniper Oak is a 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,” said Gen. Michael Kurilla, the head of CENTCOM.
The Pentagon official who spoke with NBC said that the drills show the US has not forgotten about the region even as it is focused on its proxy war against Russia and a military buildup in the Asia Pacific aimed at China. “We still have the excess capacity to be able to flex to another high-priority area of responsibility and conduct an exercise on this scale,” the official said.
The official insisted the drills weren’t aimed at any particular country, but they come at a time of heightened tensions between the US and Iran. Over the past few months, the US has been increasing sanctions on Iran, expressing support for protests inside the country, and threatening military action.
The Pentagon official said Iran would take notice of the US and Israel’s capability and would likely respond. “My guess is the next time they do a military exercise, they’ll say, even if it was planned for months, they’ll say it was reaction to this,” the official said.
The drills also come at a pivotal moment in Israel as the new government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is stirring controversy over a judicial overhaul and plans to significantly expand settlements in the West Bank. “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 official said.
The massive drills only took a few months to organize and came after Israel’s former army chief visited Washington in November and said the US and Israel would expand joint military cooperation. Israel was brought under CENTCOM’s area of responsibility in 2021 following the normalization with the UAE and Bahrain, allowing more military cooperation between the US’s allies in the region.
The US and Israel’s ultimate goal is to expand normalization with more Gulf states to form an anti-Iran NATO-style alliance in the Middle East. Netanyahu is pushing for normalization with Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh insists it won’t happen until the Palestinians are granted their own state.