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.
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Known as Juniper Cobra 10, the exercises are virtual war games that won't even require the 8,300-ton USS Higgins to leave the pier. Instead, they simulate attack from a variety of potential missile threats.Skip to next paragraph
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Although heightened media attention on Juniper Cobra is being viewed by many "as preparation in case the dialogue with Iran fails," Brom says, the exercises have a "a very important practical component." In short: "If the two militaries are not capable of working together, the results will be extremely important to know ahead of time."
So far, things are largely going swimmingly, as might be expected: They've been in preparation for the past 18 months. And of course, much changes in 18 years. Since the first Gulf war, the Aegis Combat System – which makes the USS Higgins such a powerful vessel - has greatly advanced. Though the Aegis system – named after a Greek word denoting a shield – was first designed for the threat of Soviet cruise missiles, it's now capable of not only intercepting missiles, but of attacking land targets with Tomahawk missiles, ships with Harpoon missiles, and hostile submarines with what the USS Higgins staff boasts is "the most advanced ship-born antisubmarine warfare system in the world."
That's because down in the nerve center of the ship is the SPY 1 Delta Radar, which Commander Meuser says is "really the heart of the Aegis system." In the combat operations center – a cold, dim, and damp place that feels much like the state-of-the-art cockpit of a submarine – Meuser and his subordinate officers explained to a few reporters (no accompanying photographers or cameramen allowed) how the vessel's advanced radar system works. On several screens, a map of Israel's Mediterranean coast glowed, with spokes of the radar showing the various directions in which the radar was ostensibly searching.
If a missile were incoming now, explained Lt. Jason Watson, a combat systems officer, "all we need to do is find it and put another hunk of metal moving at supersonic speeds into that missile."
Wild cards remain
In reality, of course, the art of war is much more complicated. Some longer-range missiles are much more difficult to intercept, and depend on where the ship is at the time of the incoming missile. If it's intercepted over a large city like this one, Meuser notes, it could still cause massive damage from the fallout.
"This isn't a Martian death-ray out of H.G. Wells, it's an Aegis," says Meuser. "We're not omnipotent."
Pressed further on what, in additional to radar signals, is being broadcast by these exercises, he added: "You want to inspire your friends and you want to discourage your enemies." Who specifically? "Anyone who's watching."
Obviously, that includes Iran. According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Iran has a range of advanced missile capabilities that are gradually growing. These include long-range coastal antiship missiles, submarine-launched and airborne versions of antiship missiles, and long-range ballistic missiles, to name a few, according to the Middle East Military Balance, a database maintained by the INSS. Yiftah Shapir, the director of that project, says that as much as Israel knows, the various unknowns remain troublesome wildcards in the deck of Middle East war games.
"How these systems can stand against the Iranian missiles is a big question," he says. "Inherently, all these systems have their own limits. The actual data, of course, is highly classified."
"You know that such a system can defend against so many missiles, between such and such a period of time," he explains. "If more missiles than that will be fired, it would exceed the capability of this system. So it's a kind of constant race of uncertainty over who will be on top."