The Israeli military is gearing up together with U.S. forces for a major missile defense exercise, the Israeli military announced Thursday, as tension between Iran and the international community escalates.
The drill is called "Austere Challenge 12" and is designed to improve defense systems and cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli forces. It follows a 10-day Iranian naval exercise near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Israel's military said the drill with the U.S. was planned long ago and is not tied to recent events.
Both Israeli and U.S. officials said the exercise would be the largest-ever joint drill by the two countries.
The Iranian war games came as the West was adopting new sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, charging it is making weapons. Iran insists its program is peaceful.
Israel considers Iran a strategic threat because of its nuclear and missile programs and support of violent groups in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as frequent references by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Israel's destruction.
The Israeli military spokesman did not give a date for the drill Thursday, but a senior military official said it would be in the next few weeks. He said it would be the biggest missile defense drill ever held. He was speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The Israeli official said thousands of American and Israeli soldiers from different units would take part. He said the drill would test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets. Israel has deployed the "Arrow" system, jointly developed and funded with the U.S., designed to intercept Iranian missiles in the stratosphere, far from Israel.
"The U.S. European Command and the Israel Defense Forces periodically conduct routine exercises in Israel," the Israeli military said in a statement. "U.S. European Command routinely works with partner nations to ensure their capacity to provide for their own security and, in the case of Israel, their qualitative military edge," it said.
Thousands of U.S. and Israeli troops held a similar exercise in 2009, code-named Juniper Cobra 10, designed to test missile defense technology.
Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Thursday that the drill was intended not only to practice military maneuvers but also to pressure Iran.
"Defending against an attack is not something that you improvise from today to tomorrow. it's something you have to prepare, you have to rehearse, you have to prepare for," Van Creveld said. "This, among other things, is an exercise to show Iran, the people in Tehran, that Israel and the United States are ready to counterattack," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta previewed the exercise in a speech last month, saying it would be an example of unprecedented levels of defense cooperation that the Obama administration has achieved "to back up our unshakable commitment to Israel's security."
Panetta said the drills will enhance the ability of the two military forces to operate together and test new ballistic missile and rocket defenses. "Those new capabilities are themselves a product of this unprecedented defense cooperation."
Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said in a November speech that the upcoming exercise will be "by far the largest and the most significant exercise" involving the two nations.