Israel, US call off joint military drill

Jerusalem, Jan 15 (IANS) Israel and US have dropped plans for a large-scale joint exercise initially scheduled in May, Xinhua reported Sunday citing Israel’s Army Radio.

Thousands of US troops were due to be deployed in Israel for the largest joint manoeuvres in the allies’ history, dubbed “Austere Challenge 12,” during which they were to test their air defences against ballistic missiles.
The Israel Air Force planned to test its gamut of counter-missile and rocket systems, including Iron Dome, Arrow, Magic Wand and the US-made Patriot. The US was to bring along THAAD, a system for intercepting high-altitude missiles, as well as other hi-tech weapons platforms.
Army Radio quoted Israeli defence sources as saying that the main consideration behind the cancellation was the fear that the drill would potentially “create unnecessary headlines” at a time of increased tensions over recent Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic shipping channel linking the Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
Earlier Sunday, however, Israel Radio reported that the manoeuvre has only been delayed after Israeli defence officials last month cited budgetary constraints during the meetings with their US counterparts, and that both sides agreed to reschedule the drill for the last quarter of 2012.
While an official statement has not yet been issued, an Israeli defence ministry spokesman said that discussions on the matter are still going on and no final decision has been made.
“The possibility that the drill will be cancelled is not connected in any way to budgetary issues. Whether or not it will be held depends on the level of sensitivity and the amount of resources it will require,” Army Radio quoted a defence official as saying.
Meanwhile, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, is due to arrive in Israel later this week for meetings with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and other top defense and intelligence officials.
Observers said the visit aims to both coordinate strategy over Tehran’s nuclear programme and to assess Israel’s intentions regarding a potential military strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities in the near future.