US-Israel Military Exercises Spawn Mixed Messages

09.04.12 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Updated below

Throughout much of this year, the U.S. military has been conducting joint military exercises with Israel or planning such exercises.  A descriptive listing of 2012 U.S. exercises with Israel bearing codenames like NOBLE MELINDA and RELIANT MERMAID was recently published in a House Armed Services Committee hearing volume on the FY2013 budget request for U.S. European Command (EUCOM).  The listing was current as of March 2012; the schedule has shifted somewhat since then.

Whatever their intrinsic military value may be, the exercises also serve a messaging function.  They constitute signals to internal and external audiences concerning the state of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

The “robust bilateral and multilateral military exercise program offers the Israel Defense Forces strong reassurances of the United States’ strong commitment to the security of Israel,” said Adm. James G. Stavridis, the EUCOM Commander.

However, the specific content of the messages being sent by the exercises is sometimes ambiguous and subject to contrasting, divergent interpretations.

Time Magazine reported on Friday that the pending exercise known as AUSTERE CHALLENGE was going to be reduced in scale.  The downsizing of the exercise was perceived by some as an effort to discourage any unilateral Israeli attack on Iran as well as a signal of a U.S. loss of confidence in Israel. “Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you’,” an Israeli official told Time.  (“U.S. Scales-Back Military Exercise with Israel, Affecting Potential Iran Strike” by Karl Vick and Aaron J. Klein, August 31.)

But the New York Times reported Sunday that pending military exercises were meant to reassure Israel, to strengthen military pressure against Iran and to reduce incentives for unilateral action.  (“To Calm Israel, U.S. Offers Ways to Restrain Iran” by David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, September 2.)

In the newly published responses to questions for the record from the House Armed Services Committee, US EUCOM Commander Adm. Stavridis disputed the assertion by Rep. Robert J. Wittman (R-VA) that threats to Israel had “increased in the last year.”

“While Israel is certainly in a volatile region of the world, I would argue that the threats to Israel have not increased in the last year,” Adm. Stavridis wrote.

“If you take the broad view of the history of the modern state of Israel, it is certainly more secure now that it was in 1948, 1967, 1973, or even during the First or Second Intifadas. Israel currently has signed peace treaties with two of its four neighbors. A third neighbor, Syria, is currently undergoing a period of serious internal unrest and is in no position to threaten Israel militarily. The terrorist threat posed by Lebanese Hezbollah from within the fourth neighbor has been deterred from overt attacks since the war in 2006. Moreover, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has renounced violence. Unrest in the West Bank has subsided significantly over the last few years,” Adm. Stavridis wrote.

Update: The Department of Defense responded to the Time Magazine story about AUSTERE CHALLENGE at a September 4 news briefing:

“Austere Challenge 12 is a bilateral ballistic missile defense exercise between the United States and Israel that provides important training for the defense of both nations. The exercise was originally scheduled for May. However, at the request of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Israeli Defense Forces, the exercise was moved — was moved to late fall of this year. That decision was addressed by Secretary Panetta from this podium in January, as well as others, including me, in subsequent media briefings.”

“When the exercise was moved, the United States notified Israel that, due to concurrent operations, the United States would provide a smaller number of personnel than originally planned, and Israel reiterated its request to postpone the exercise until late fall. The fact of the matter is that this exercise remains the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous exercise a few years ago. The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned. All deployed systems will be fully operational with their associated operators, including the missile interceptors.”

“As Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly said, the U.S.-Israel defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been, and we couldn’t agree more. This exercise is a tangible sign of our mutual trust and our shared commitment to the defense of our two nations.”