In a first, the United States deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system in Israel this past week as part of a joint exercise between the two countries.
During the drill at the Nevatim Israeli Air Force Base, troops from 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command (AAMDC) practiced defending Israel from a barrage of missiles.
Many aspects of this drill raised eyebrows. Israel and the U.S. hold a series of scheduled drills every year and cooperate on a wide range of issues, from counterterror, hostage rescue, urban warfare, and dogfight tactics. However, what made this particular exercise unusual is that it was reportedly planned on a very short notice.
According to reports in the Israeli media, not only was the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) not aware of the exercise months before, as is customary, it had only two days to prepare for the influx of U.S. troops. In fact, the final additions were still being put on the tents meant to house the incoming forces as the American C-130s touched down in southern Israel, in another sign that the joint exercise was out of the ordinary.
The timing of the sudden drill was also strange, as the U.S. and Israel just concluded the Juniper Falcon missile defense exercise a week before. Juniper Falcon trained U.S. troops how to coordinate defending the Jewish State against the very threats that this exercise simulated, raising questions as to why the two countries launched an apparently expensive yet redundant military exercise.
In addition, the decision to deploy the THAAD air defense system is significant. Developed after Israel and U.S. forces were pounded by Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War, THAAD is designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles via kinetic force and without detonating an explosive warhead.
While the X-Band radar system used by THAAD had been deployed in Israel before, this is the first time that the entire state-of-the-art missile defense system has come to Israel. In fact, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the THAAD’s importance, hailing it as “one of the most advanced systems in the world” that will assist Israel in “handling threats, near and far, from all across the Middle East.”
Likely, this sudden exercise and the introduction of the THAAD missile defense system is the Pentagon’s way of assuring Israel that it has not been abandoned by Washington, especially following President Trump’s announcement that he will pull all U.S. military forces from Syria.
Trump’s announcement had caused pandemonium among Israel’s defense establishment. Israel had viewed the American special forces in eastern Syria as a bulwark against Iranian weapons smuggling to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In recent years, Israel has played a cat-and-mouse game with Iran, which has attempted repeatedly to transfer game-changing missiles with pinpoint accuracy to Hezbollah.
With the U.S. picking up and leaving Syria, Israel’s leaders fear that Tehran would see the withdrawal as an encouraging sign and resume its efforts to turn Hezbollah’s arsenal of 150,000 non-guided rockets into highly accurate missiles.
While Hezbollah currently has a bigger arsenal than most NATO countries, the majority of its rockets are “dumb” bombs with a low rate of accuracy. Should Iran succeed in upgrading the aforementioned missiles into ones with pinpoint accuracy, all of tiny Israel’s air force bases and sensitive infrastructure would be under threat, potentially changing the balance of power between the two adversaries.
As such, the decision to launch a sudden missile defense exercise should be seen as an attempt by the U.S. to send a message to both Iran and Israel. In deploying the THAAD system, Washington is trying to tell Jerusalem that it had not been abandoned by its biggest military ally while simultaneously warning Iran that the U.S. will not countenance any weapons transfers to Hezbollah.