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David Meital, a retired colonel from Hadera, has a close friend who makes sure to meet with him during his busy visits to Israel - General Peter Schumacher, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, former commander of the Delta Force - the American version of the Sayeret Matkal elite commandos - and chief of the U.S. Special Forces command. During his last visit three months ago, Schumacher met with another old friend, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. Schumacher did not find the time to meet Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, but made an effort to visit his friend Meital, the father of Lieutenant Colonel Amir Meital, who was killed as commander of the Golani Brigade in Lebanon in 1988.

Together with other Golani and paratroop officers, Amir Meital went to study at the U.S. Army Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, after the first stage of the Lebanon war. After his return, despite the difference in rank and age, Amir, then in command of the Golani's elite commando unit, became friendly with Schumacher, then commander of Delta. At the time, the Israel Defense Forces had a policy of keeping the Sayeret Matkal's existence under wraps, and letting the elite units of the Golani and the paratroops handle contact with the Delta Force.

Like Amir, Schumacher grew up in a military family. His childhood memories go back as far as the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the Korean War. His father spent a year and a half in Korea.

Schumacher's emotional ties to Israel and its officers is typical of the generation of American commanders who grew up during the past three decades. This connection goes back to the Entebbe rescue mission of 1976, after which the IDF Military Intelligence attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Colonel Yossi Langotsky, discovered that his hosts were eager to learn from Israeli experience in special and combined operations.

The American understanding that they needed to make substantial improvements in the preparation of their special forces, particularly in view of the Middle East as a potential battle arena, was reinforced 25 years ago by the failure of their operation to rescue the hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The two military commands responsible for these areas - SOCOM (Special Operations Command), and CENTACOM (Central Command), responsible for Iran-Iraq-Syria - share one U.S. Air Force base, MacDill, near Tampa, Florida. Since then two wars with Iraq and one with Afghanistan have come and not quite gone, and now there is new motivation for preparations by CENTACOM, SOCOM and STRATCOM (strategic command) - a possible conflict with Iran.

U.S.-Israel military cooperation is reflected in the joint exercise Juniper Cobra, which began across the country on Sunday and will last for about three weeks. In this exercise, Patriot missile batteries from the U.S. aerial defense support unit 69 will participate alongside a U.S. Aegis anti-missile missile boat and Israeli Patriot and Arrow batteries.

The scenario behind the exercise: Missiles are launched from a "red" country, whose identity is unknown, although the people speak Persian, at a "blue" country, or perhaps a "blue-and-white" one. The Israeli Arrow missiles must shoot down the attacking missiles, which are amazingly similar to the Shihab-3, and are carrying dangerous warheads (perhaps nuclear, perhaps chemical-biological, perhaps conventional), and if the Arrow fails - the Israeli or American Patriot missiles and the "standard SAM-3" from the American ship must try to stop the incoming missiles before Israeli cities and bases are hit.

One's attention is so focused on the details of the exercise, on the routine of joint training exercises and on the large amount of American activity in the region that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of turning Israel into another soldier in the army of U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, which is preparing options to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat - political, military, offensive and defensive.

Responsible for the series of Juniper Cobra exercises is the European Command of the U.S. Army, EUCOM. The group participating in the exercise is the main ground force of this command, V-Corps, headed by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who has returned from Iraq with his staff. V-Corps is subordinate to the U.S. Army Command under EUCOM, and Israel is one of 91 countries within EUCOM's area of responsibility.

EUCOM's deputy commander, Air Force General Charles Wald, visits Israel regularly. In the IDF's work with EUCOM, those responsible for coordination during an emergency are officers with the rank of major general - the head of the Operations Division of the IDF General Staff and the Chief of Operations of EUCOM, or alternatively, the Chief of Operations of the U.S. Air Forces (USAFI), which is part of EUCOM. Two years ago, during the early days of the Iraq war, the man who filled these two positions in succession, Major General Charles Simpson, commanded a liaison unit in Tel Aviv. If similar coordination is necessary in a conflict with Iran, the current chief operations officer of EUCOM, Rear Admiral Hamlin Talent, who is in charge of the combined operations force for Juniper Cobra, will be deployed to Tel Aviv.

4305 to the rescue

There is a simple reason for Israel's interest in EUCOM: Oplan 4305, an operational plan for defending Israel in time of emergency, which is one EUCOM's jobs, according to William Arkin, a diligent collector of military information, as reported in his book "Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations."

If Israel is in danger and the president instructs the U.S. Army to go to its aid, it will be up to EUCOM to carry out that mission. Therefore there is need for a common language, a combat philosophy and practice. EUCOM would not participate in offensive operations against Iran - that would up to CENTACOM, SOCOM and STRATCOM - but it would play a role if the war spread to Israel through the firing of Irani missiles at Israel.

Jerusalem's readiness and even enthusiasm to accept such a possibility indicates that the Israeli security philosophy has developed cracks, or at least that the mask has been removed from it. Israel has always been careful to avoid involvement in a war with Arab countries, especially those under Soviet protection, without the support of a major Western power; but the significance of this support was mainly political - in the United Nations and in other multinational frameworks, in the guaranteed provision of weapons before, during and after the war, and by deterring the Soviets from open and direct intervention, and from nuclear escalation.

From 1967 on, defense minister Moshe Dayan and other government spokesmen said that Israel did not want American soldiers to participate in its defense or to die for Israel. That was a nice figure of speech, of the type that Dayan regularly coined.

The refusal to rely on foreign forces - which were in fact not offered - increased the room for Israel to maneuver and left it with an illusion of independence from the bonds of a military alliance, whether bilateral or multilateral, as long as its activity did not endanger core U.S. interests. The illusion melted away in 1991 when the government of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was caught with its pants down, without deterrence against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, without a means to strike back and without leadership ability. That was when the Americans deployed Patriot missiles in Israel in exchange for giving up the option of a counterstrike and taking account of American considerations in general.

What was supposed to be a one-time exception, particularly as the Israeli Arrow missile project progressed, turned into a permanent situation during the 1990s. American (and Dutch) batteries became frequent visitors during the crises vis-a-vis Iraq. Israel abandoned pretension of self defense and added an asterisk: We will defend ourselves by ourselves, alone, except from ballistic missiles.

Arrow vs. Shihab

The Ministry of Defense says that the coming generation of the Arrow, which should properly be called the Arrow-3, is more sophisticated that its Iranian enemy, the Shihab-3, and will succeed in bringing it down. Israel's fond memories of the American-provided Patriot batteries and the Aegis ship would seem to put this certainty in doubt, or ignore it in order to chalk up additional gains, mainly improved coordination between the U.S. military and the IDF.

During Juniper Cobra, analysts will study the division of labor both between discovery, control and launching systems, and between the general staffs and commanders of the two armies. This information would be likely to prove very important during a live operation, whether defensive or offensive.

It is only in recent years that coordination between the American forces themselves (land, sea and air) has improved. Their next challenge is coordination with friendly armies such as those of Great Britain and Australia. A certain amount of experience with Israel was acquired in 2003, in Major General Simpson's liaison cockpit in his underground control post in Tel Aviv; the declared American ambition now, through NATO, is to have officers from allied armies man adjacent cockpits in the control and monitoring plane from which the operation will be run.

The main difficulty, which is also present during operations conducted by an individual nation's forces, and even one branch of its military, is in the creation of a "joint aerial picture" - a presentation of everything that in the air (planes, missiles, shells) in a manner that makes it possible to hit the right targets and to avoid hitting civilians or friendly forces. While Juniper Cobra is still being conducted in Israel, an exercise called Roving Sands will begin at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico with the participation of planes from the U.S. Air Force and Navy, and the Royal Air Force, to examine joint operations of combat aircraft and anti-missile missiles.

During the two exercises, in Israel and in New Mexico, the lessons of Iraq are supposed to be tested. A Pentagon investigation committee determined last year that the Patriot system functioned successfully and shot down all nine missiles launched at Western forces, but it also said that the problems that led to three friendly fire incidents had not yet been solved. Patriots brought down two friendly planes - one plane appeared on the radar as a ballistic missile and another as an anti-radiation missile on the way to attack the battery - and conducted one attack on an allied battery that appeared to be Iraqi.

These are unacceptable results, even considering the tremendous volume of activity - 14,000 sorties by Western planes (the Iraqi planes did not take off) and 60 Patriot launches. One explanations is the operating procedure of the missile system: It is programmed to fire first, without human intervention. That is a logical approach against volleys of Scud missiles, but not when the ratio of aerial movements between friendly planes and offensive missiles is 4,000 to 1, so that the fear of hitting a friend is vastly increased.

The head of the Missile Defense Agency at the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Trey Obering, reported to Congress last week that during 2004, about 100 ballistic missiles were launched the world over (outside the United States), of which 20 were long-range, 10 medium-range and 70 short-range.

In order to monitor such launches in real time, radar will be installed in Alaska that is so powerful that were it to be anchored in the Chesapeake Bay, near Washington, D.C., it would have the power to discover a flying object the size of a baseball in the skies over San Francisco. The threat, said Obering, comes from North Korea, which has nuclear capability, and from Iran, which is showing signs of acquiring nuclear capability. The country that specialized in taking hostages to engage in blackmail is liable to use nuclear missiles to take entire cities, with their millions of inhabitants, as hostages.

Long-range Iranian missiles still cannot reach the U.S., but there is already fear that a short-range missile will be launched from a ship toward Washington, New York or Boston; and that such a missile, fired from a vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, perhaps a suicide ship that would be sunk after the launching, is liable to hit Tel Aviv.

If there is anything new in the scenarios visualized by the participants in Juniper Cobra, it is an awareness of the need to choose among the various threats and to focus on those with the most potential to inflict disastrous damage. The threat of missiles carrying nuclear, chemical or biological warheads will be addressed, while threats from missiles armed with conventional explosives, which represent a danger similar to that of a terrorist attack on an urban bus, will be neglected.

And there is always the threat from Lebanon: a Hezbollah initiative, encouraged by Iran, to fire hundreds or even thousands of rockets at Israel, just when the IDF is busy evacuating Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria.