JERUSALEM — Israel and the United States are holding a major joint military exercise amid growing tensions with Iran over its nuclear program.
More than 3,500 military personnel from the United States have joined about 1,000 Israeli troops in an exercise dubbed "Austere Challenge 2012" to test missile defense systems. The forces are simulating short- and long-range missile attacks that Israel could face in a regional conflict.
Anti-missile batteries have been deployed around Israel, including the Israeli-made Arrow and U.S.-made Patriot. The U.S. has also deployed an AEGIS ballistic missile defense ship off the Israeli coast. These systems track incoming missiles and launch interceptor missiles to shoot them down.
“We are highly appreciating the opportunity to have this exercise that will assure that if and when a real test will come, we will be much better deployed and much better prepared to work together to protect Israel against missile attacks," said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The exercise comes amid growing tensions between Israel and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program. Israel and the West accuse Iran of working toward developing nuclear weapons, something the Jewish state sees as a threat to its existence.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. But Israel believes Iran could achieve nuclear capability as early as the middle of next year, and it has threatened to launch a preemptive strike on Tehran’s atomic facilities.
If Israel attacks, Iran has threatened to retaliate with ballistic missiles, and it could be joined by its Islamist allies: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, who are armed with tens of thousands of rockets.
At the U.S. presidential debate this week that centered on foreign policy, both candidates talked of how best to back Israel.
Republican contender Mitt Romney said the Obama administration has undermined Israel as it faces threats from Iran and Islamist militancy.
But President Barack Obama vowed America would protect Israel.
“I will stand with Israel if they are attacked," Obama said. "And this is the reason why we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history. In fact, this week we will be carrying out the largest military exercise with Israel in history.”
Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg says Israel and the U.S. are sending a strong message to Iran.
“It means that if there is a military action to stop the very dangerous Iranian nuclear weapons program, Iran cannot count on being able to fire back with missiles and do serious damage because there will be a joint American-Israeli interception process," he said.
The joint missile defense exercise will last for three weeks.