HAZOR AIRBASE, Israel ― U.S. and Israeli contingency plans for a joint response to an Iranian missile attack could be activated at any moment, with U.S. forces arriving in Israel from Europe in 72 hours, officers from both countries explained.

“It depends on the scenario at some point, but we will have fighting forces moving within 72 hours,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, 3rd Air Force commander, told reporters at Hazor Airbase on Thursday during Juniper Cobra, a biannual air defense drill aimed at honing the ability of both nations to operate as a joint task force, or JTF, against an Iranian missile attack.

“We can phase in our forces as required, but almost immediately, we can start moving forces.”

And given the growing and evermore direct involvement of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps beyond Israel’s border with Syria, this year’s Juniper Cobra ― the ninth held here since 2001 ― marks a dress rehearsal for a joint response that is becoming less hypothetical.

“For us, we call it a dress rehearsal because we understand that this can happen, and [the joint task force] can be activated at any moment,” Lt. Col. Tal Kaduri, head of cooperation for the Israel Air Defense Force, told Defense News.

According to Kaduri, who has played an active role in planning multiple Juniper Cobra drills, scenarios driven by the Iranian threat are increasingly relevant. “It’s not just Iran’s involvement in Syria, but everywhere. We understand Iran has its arms spread around a lot of places in the Middle East, and we can safely say that’s our main threat.”

The main goal of Juniper Cobra 2018, Kaduri said, “is to see how both forces can answer the evolving threats that Iran is posing.”

To that end, the two allies have put in place Joint Task Force—Israel to plan and command thousands of interoperable land- and sea-based forces, all training in a common doctrine, language and rules of engagement.

U.S. Air Force Col. Justin Hickman, chief of staff of JTF—Israel, said the two countries have honed tactics, techniques and procedures to a point of very rapid interoperability.

“We use the JTF format. It allows us to bring our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines together to train that way. It’s in our doctrine,” he said. “Especially given the immediacy of the threat in Israel … we welcome the opportunity to work together in a challenging training environment.

“From the moment we get here, the Israel Air Defense Forces are all working together in a combined effort. Those relationships you have to build up over time. You can’t just get here and expect to work together effectively. That’s why we have these exercises every two years, with routine conferences and meetings in between.”

This year’s Juniper Cobra drill involves about 2,500 U.S. forces deployed in Israel from Europe. And while that’s slightly less Americans on the ground than in previous years, Kaduri insisted that it doesn’t indicate lower priority, but rather improved interoperability mastered by both sides.

“It’s not only the forces physically deployed here in Israel, but forces stationed in the [U.S. European Command] arena in Germany. We connect via communication lines and other methods of interoperability. So the fact that you’re not seeing them on the ground here doesn’t mean they aren’t here. The mission is much, much bigger, with a larger network of participants even though they’re not physically here.”

Hickman noted that it’s not only Israel that benefits from the joint training and contingency planning.

“We benefit from bringing the soldiers here for realistic training, improved mobility and the lessons we learn from working with our Israeli partners. They have the Arrow, David’s Sling, Iron Dome. We have Patriot, THAAD and Aegis. It’s amazing technology, and we all gain from interoperability,” he said.

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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