TEL AVIV, Israel - Nearly five hundred Soldiers, Sailors and Airman from the United States' European Command and the Israeli Defense Forces recently took part in a 10 day training exercise geared to hone their skills in joint missile defense tactics against a wide variety of aerial threats, to include missiles carrying nuclear and chemical weapons.
The biennial exercise, called Juniper Cobra, is the fourth such exercise held in the region since 2001. Although American troops have been in Israel since mid-February, the actual training mission ran from March 10 to 20.
According to Maj. Shana Peck, the operations officer for the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the exercise is held every two years because of the extremely intense planning involved.
"The planning cycle extends from the end of one exercise, all the way to execution of the next," she explained. "It gives us time to adequately plan the objectives so we can do a good execution every two years."
The operations officer added that it is important to understand the exercise is designed to train on the United States military's integration into the existing Israeli missile defense architecture.
"When you're talking about realism and training, as we usually do when we bring our equipment," she said. "It's important to be able to deploy our equipment to battle positions, so that if we do have to exercise a contingency plan, we've already been on the ground and we've exercised the architecture for a real-world crisis."
Traditionally, the Wurzburg, Germany based air defense brigade would deploy several of its Patriot Missile firing battery's from 5th Battalion, 7th ADA, to pre-positioned locations within Israel as part of the mission and training scenario.
Unlike previous Juniper Cobra exercises however, this year's was scaled down dramatically in size and was for the most part computer simulated.
Currently the U.S. Army plans to upgrade all Patriot Air Defense battalions to the newer and more lethal PAC-3 Patriot weapon system.
"Because we know that in the future we're going to be fielded with the PAC-3 systems," Peck said. "We're posturing ourselves using a simulation exercise venue to take a look at some of those enhanced capabilities and how we're going to integrate those once we get our equipment."
The primary focus of Juniper Cobra 2007 was integrating the United States Army's Patriot missile systems with Arrow-2 missile-defense systems operated by the Israeli Defense Forces. Each system is designed to intercept and destroy incoming tactical ballistic missiles at different altitudes.
The Arrow-2 is considered a tier-two weapon system capable destroying hostile missiles at high altitudes. The idea behind this is to have any debris left over by the intercept burn up in the earth's atmosphere and avoid any collateral damage on the ground below.
The Patriot is a tier-one system that operates at lower altitudes and is regarded as the last line of defense against tactical ballistic missiles.
The exercise also included the simulated use of two tier-3 weapons, the U.S. Navy's Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense combat system, and for the first time in Israel, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense missile system.
"We have the standard systems that we have used for the previous Juniper Cobra exercises," Peck said. "We also introduced the upper-tier systems like the THAAD and the Aegis BMD and have exercised them in a contingency framework."
Each of these different systems has the capabilities to detect inbound missiles at various stages of flight from launch to impact.
Peck explained that the computer simulation used for Juniper Cobra 2007 is similar to the computer simulation used in 2005.
"It's important to note that although we had equipment present at JC 05," she said. "We had a command post exercise that was also a simulation. It's the same type of simulation for JC 07 - what we're doing now."
During the simulation a computer feeds a wide range of threat scenarios to the air defense system operator's radar screens. Launched from fictitious countries, these threats are tracked and engaged by the various defense systems at all altitudes.
Simulations like these create an environment where the United States and Israeli missile defense units can exercise their systems and processes and take a look at their tactics, techniques and procedures. They also combine engagement and staff procedures so they can learn and progress from each other.
"The capabilities that are being tested, or shall we say exercised here in a simulation environment on the engagement control side of the house, are linked to the enhanced capabilities of the PAC-3 system," Peck said. "On the force operations side we are exercising our US-Israeli combined military decision making processes - in other words, interactions with our staffs as we support engagement operations with our weapon systems."
Unlike previous exercises, this year's Juniper Cobra was conducted without an actual live-fire missile engagement.
"The live fire has never been an actual Juniper Cobra requirement to achieve its objectives," Peck explained. "Traditionally it's been a target of opportunity with the equipment on the ground here."
"This year," she said. "Because this is a transitional exercise, there was no way to do a live fire with our Patriot equipment being postured for the PAC-3 fielding in the near future."
The United States maintains a plan, that if needed during an emergency, it will deploy Patriot systems to Israel.
"They're one of our strongest allies," Peck said. "We are committed to providing them support in missile defense if required."
The 69th ADA Brigade's commander, Col. Mark McConkey, explained that Israel is in the EUCOM area of responsibility and because of this, it is part of the their engagement strategy.
"So we're not down here in response to any particular thing that you would read in the newspapers," he said. "We come down and do cyclic, pre-planned training. So its specific focus or timing to real world events is purely coincidental."
The Patriot missile system was originally designed in the late 1970's as an antiaircraft weapon similar to the Nike Hercules. With changing world threats however, it was modified to serve as a defense weapon against incoming short range ballistic missiles. The yet-to-be battle-tested system made headline news during the Gulf War when it intercepted and destroyed several Iraqi Scud missiles fired at Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Although some critics question the Patriots success during the Gulf War, the system has become much more accurate and has greatly improved over the past sixteen years through a series of upgrades and standard improvements, based on technology and lessons learned.