HATZOR AIR BASE, Israel — Brig. Gen. Tzvika Haimovich, commander of Israel's Air Defense Forces, told reporters Thursday that "the Russians are not an enemy" and that the Israeli Air Force "has no intention to create needless friction" with Russian air power plying the skies of neighboring Syria.

Speaking alongside US Lt. Gen. Timothy Ray, 3rd Air Force commander and the man charged with commanding a US-Israel Joint Task Force for air and missile defense, Haimovich acknowledged that Russian aircraft had violated Israeli air space at least twice in the past half year.

When asked, however, if that constituted a change in Israeli air defense policy, Haimovich said his mission is to "prevent enemy penetrations in any form at any time" and to do so "with professionalism and good judgment."

"The Russian presence in the Middle East in recent months is a fact. Russia is not an enemy of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or the Israel Air Force," Haimovich said. "We are trying to avoid all unnecessary friction."

Against a backdrop of Israel's Arrow, David's Sling and Iron Dome active defense intercepting launchers, Haimovich and Ray briefed press Thursday on the ongoing Juniper Cobra (JC16), a biennial US-Israel air defense drill that is scheduled to wrap up at the end of the month.

Planned nearly 18 months in advance, the monthlong drill is the eighth in a series of joint exercises dating back to 2001. The two generals repeatedly insisted that the drill is not a response to any particular real-life events.

"We have over 1,700 soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines that are training side by side with IDF personnel," Ray said. "This is our nation's premier exercise in this region. It's EUCOM's highest priority exercise in 2016."

"The purpose of this exercise is to improve interoperability of our air defense forces and our combined ability to defend against air and missile attack," the visiting US three-star said. "Our presence and participation here increases military readiness. ... And just as importantly, it signals our resolve to support Israel and strive for peace in the Middle East."

Ray noted that this year’s event is focused on computer simulations, and that, while US personnel would participate in support of Israel’s live-fire portion of the drill, US European Command did not bring its own intercepting batteries for the live-five finale.

Ray said this year's exercise, which builds upon previous drills, allows a rapid transition to Joint Task Force operations, with all US air defense units to be deployed in Israel in times of emergency reporting to him.

"As we look at what we've done in the past, there has been a marked improvement in our technology, tactics and procedures as we work together," Ray said. "We've improved our organizational structure in the US so we can transition from joint defense of Israel to a Joint Task Force. … This allows us to do a better job."

All layers of Israel's active defense network — Arrow-2 and Arrow-3; Patriot PAC-2 air defense batteries; Iron Dome; and the not-yet-operational David's Sling Weapon System — are taking part in simulations against coordinated and sustained salvo attack from multiple fronts.

They were joined in simulated battles by the Aegis destroyer Carney DDG-64 Aegis destroyer and THAAD and Patriot PAC-3 batteries participating via data links from the US and Europe, respectively.

In addition, all supporting elements from US and Israel intercepting systems — including the US AN/TPY-2 radar stationed in Israel, the Israeli Super Green Pine radar and the Multi-Mission Radar — have been connected via US-supplied Link 16 and fiber optic ground communications.

Israeli air defenders are scheduled to begin the live-fire portion of the drill on Feb. 28. That concluding part of the exercise will involve a single Iron Dome battery, with command and control support from David's Sling and Arrow.

Email: bopallrome@defensenews.com

Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.

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