Though the military exercise was geared toward Iran, it suggests much more strategic calculations.
In late January, U.S. and Israeli forces staged a military exercise called Juniper Oak, their largest, most complex exercise to date. Planned in just 90 days, the U.S. and Israel sent nearly 150 aircraft, a dozen warships, advanced artillery systems, and just shy of 8,000 soldiers, including infantry and special operations forces, to simulate a large-scale attack by land, air, sea, space and cyberspace. An exercise of that magnitude – assembled that quickly – drew the attention of pretty much every country in the world, many of which couldn’t help but see it as a simulated attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. After all, tensions are rising, nuclear negotiations are dead in the water, and the U.S. and Israel are likely considering every option.
Several U.S. military and defense officials denied that Juniper Oak had anything to do with Iran, but the scope, scale and complexity of the exercise suggested otherwise. It incorporated combatant command elements, executing missions on command and control, maritime surface warfare, air operations, combat search and rescue, cyber and electronic attacks, and strike coordination, reconnaissance and air interdiction. Live-fire exercises were conducted in waves to simulate repeated missile, bomb and HIMARS attacks. The U.S. deployed KC-46 air refueling tankers – an aircraft that would absolutely be involved in an attack on Iran – allowing Israeli pilots to familiarize themselves with the planes before they receive their own. Other aircraft that would be used to penetrate Iranian air defenses were notably absent, but all told Juniper Oak checked a lot of the boxes, including support assets, mechanics and logistics, that would be vital in any large-scale assault against Iran.
Though Iran was an important element of the exercise, it wasn’t the only one, and perhaps not even the most important one. As the exercise concluded, CENTCOM officials promised to build upon Juniper Oak, accelerate regional interoperability, expand to include more participants, and eventually institutionalize the combined exercise. From this there is only one conclusion: that the U.S. has every intention to follow through with its drawdown in the Middle East, and that it hopes to steadily build a security architecture where regional partners assume more responsibility.
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