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.
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
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.
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."