Home Front Tel Aviv - Ofer Vaknin - 03112011
Soldiers from the Home Front Command keeping a watchful eye on flares simulating incoming missiles, in Tel Aviv Wednesday night. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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All the military tests and exercises conducted over the past few days were planned months in advance, and have nothing to do with recent media reports about a debate within the government over whether to attack Iran, defense officials stressed on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, it's hard to view the proximity of all these events as strictly accidental.

On Wednesday, Haaretz broke the news of a large-scale aerial exercise that took place over the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, some 2,300 kilometers from Israel. The five-day joint exercise, which ended last Friday, involved fighter jets, midair refuelers and airborne warning and control systems from the Israeli, German and Italian air forces. Following Haaretz's report, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office published pictures and additional details of the exercise.

A lieutenant colonel from the Israel Air Force identified only as Yiftah said such exercises are important, because flying over unfamiliar territory "prepares people for battle over unfamiliar ground."

But he stressed that the exercise was planned eight months ago and did not involve flying over terrain similar to what an attack on Iran would entail, nor was Iran ever mentioned during the exercise.

"We train for long-range flights and prepare ourselves for every type of terrain," he said.

The exercise was the latest in a series of similar drills that the air force has conducted over the last three years, in countries such as Italy, Greece and Romania. These exercises give the IAF practice not only in long-range flights over unfamiliar ground, but also in combat against air forces that use different planes and tactics than Israel does.

News of the Sardinia exercise came just hours after the test launch of a ballistic missile from the Palmahim air force base. The test was not announced in advance, and the Defense Ministry did not release any details after the launch.

But foreign reports say Israel has been working on the Jericho 3 missile, which can carry a 1,300-kilogram nuclear warhead and travel thousands of kilometers, meaning it can strike anywhere in the Middle East.

A similar test launch was carried out in early 2008, a senior defense official confirmed, adding that the current test "was planned far in advance and has no connection to the [media] reports of the last few days."

Such tests are not trivial affairs: Each costs tens, if not hundreds, of millions of shekels and involve a sea of manpower. They also necessitate closing large swaths of Israel's air and sea space, since the missile is launched out to sea.

The Home Front Command also began a major exercise in the central Gush Dan region last night that simulates missile strikes on civilian targets. Last night's events included shooting off flares to summon rescue forces, and today's events include a test of the emergency sirens, which will go off at 10:05 A.M.

The Home Front Command also stressed that the exercise is a routine drill planned last year, one of a series of regional drills meant to test the preparedness of different parts of the country to cope with emergencies.

Col. Adam Zussman, the home front commander for the Gush Dan region, told Haaretz earlier this year that while the entire country is "in range of the enemy, the terrorist organizations' capabilities and motivation are directed at Gush Dan."

All these exercises coincided not only with media reports of the government's deliberations on Iran, but also with an apparent new closeness in Israel's defense ties with Britain. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew to London for meetings with senior British defense officials, while Britain's chief of staff visited Israel this week for a round of similar meetings. Neither government released details of the talks, but senior Israeli officials confirmed that Iran "topped the agenda."

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: צירוף מקרים או הכנה לתקיפה? על התרגילים והניסויים האחרונים בצה"ל