To defend against Iran missiles, US and Israel conduct joint exercises
Amid high international tensions over Iran's nuclear program, the US and Israel are engaged in three weeks of virtual wargames aboard the USS Higgins, a missile-defense warship.
The USS Higgins, a warship fitted with the US Navy's most sophisticated missile-defense system, is docked so nonchalantly between the comely cruise ships and workaday shipping vessels of the Haifa port that one could hardly tell it's in the throes of the largest-ever joint military exercises of their kind.Skip to next paragraph
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Western nations are on edge after last week's inconclusive nuclear talks with Tehran, which has upped the ante in recent months with numerous missile tests. Israel, too, has increased its saber rattling toward Iran, repeatedly making clear that a military option for containing Tehran's nuclear ambitions remains on the table. Any attack by Israel would probably result in Iranian (and Hizbullah) missiles fired at Israel.
While it's widely assumed that Israel would not attack Iran without at least tacit US approval, any military engagement between the two enemies would put significant pressure on Washington to back up its ally. Amid intensified international concern over a possible Iranian missile strike, the joint US-Israel exercises offer a window onto how effectively the two allies would be able to defend against such an attack.
What they learn, says the US ship's commander, will be applicable to a NATO missile-defense shield planned for Europe. President Obama recently said that such a shield is key for defending against Iran's ballistic-missile arsenal, which he noted is capable of reaching the continent.
"We work with armies [that] we might have to go in and work with in a combat situation, so the first time we're talking to each other is not when we've got a missile coming in at Mach 10," said Cmdr. Carl W. Meuser as he led reporters around the vessel early Thursday, Day 9 of the three-week maneuvers. "We're exercising against the threats that the Israelis are interested in ... which will help as we build towards the European missile defense system."
Meuser's quip may sound like a joke. But the importance of being prepared was a lesson learned from the first Gulf war in 1991, says Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom (ret.). The US-provided Patriot batteries meant to knock Iraqi-launched Scud missiles out of the sky were untested and unsuccessful.
"In 1991, the Patriot batteries deployed to Israel were completely ineffective. One major reason for that is that there was no prior preparation," says General Brom, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.
During the course of that war, 39 Scud missiles hit Israel, and the Patriots failed to stop them. Israel now has the Arrow II Ballistic Missile Defense System, which will also be tested as part of the joint exercises.
USS Higgins's damp, dark combat operations center