U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in partnership with the Israel Defense Forces on Jan. 23 kicked off Juniper Oak 23.2, the biggest joint U.S.-Israel exercise in history. An ominous formation of B-52 bombers was seen by plane spotters this week while en route to the event where the aircraft joined a wide array of other assets to support readiness and interoperability between the two allies.
In the awesome clip shared on Twitter on Jan. 25, seven B-52 Stratofortress bombers can be seen flying east across the sky over New Jersey. It is now known that three of these planes, at least some acting as spares, returned to their home base before pushing on toward Europe, while the remaining four completed the trip out to Israel to take part in Juniper Oak 23.2. It has also been reported that at least some of those four B-52s have since headed back from Israel.
“Juniper Oak is a Combined Joint All-Domain exercise which improves our interoperability on land, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace with our partners, enhances our ability to respond to contingencies, and underscores our commitment to the Middle East,” said Gen. Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla, commander of CENTCOM, in a press release. CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) broadly encompasses the Middle East, parts of Central and South Asia, and North Africa.
Held in Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, Juniper Oak 23.2 will involve over 6,400 U.S. and more than 1,100 Israeli personnel, including special operations and infantry forces. The exercise, which will include live-fire drills, is set to employ 142 aircraft (100 of which are American), a dozen naval vessels, 180,000 pounds of live munitions, and a number of artillery systems. Only High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) were listed explicitly as being among the artillery that will be used.
The fleet of aircraft, on the U.S. side at least, will include the aforementioned B-52 strategic bombers, F-35 Lightning IIs, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Vipers, F/A-18 Super Hornets, an AC-130 gunship, KC-46 Pegasus tankers, MH-60 Seahawks, and AH-64 Apaches. Airborne early warning, surveillance, and electronic warfare aircraft will also be in play, like the Air Force’s RC-135 reconnaissance plane and the Navy’s EA-18 Growlers.
The Air Force’s E-11 BACN communications node also appears to be part of the action based on flight trackers’ observations. The E-11s have been active in this area as of late, which is a new operating location for the type.
While CENTCOM didn’t specify which 12 vessels from both nations would be participating, the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, its air wing, and accompanying strike group are major players in the exercise. Israel's Sa'ar family of corvettes and Dolphin class submarines also appear to be involved.
Israel's F-35s, F-16s, F-15s, AH-64s, 707 tankers, Gulfstream surveillance jets, and more are also taking part.
Air and Space Forces magazine provided a full list — down to the quantity — of each specific aircraft that will be employed by both the United States and Israel throughout Juniper Oak, which is worth its own look.
Space Force assets will also be heavily leveraged during the exercise. The service officially activated its CENTCOM component, known as SPACECENT, last November to help better support the command’s need for capabilities like satellite navigation, communications, and missile warning.
A list of primary focuses for Juniper Oak outlined by CENTCOM included joint command and control, maritime air operations, combat search and rescue, electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, air interdiction, and strike coordination.
"This exercise is focused on interoperability and strengthening our security relationship in terms of working together," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder in a Pentagon briefing held on Tuesday. "As evidenced by … most recently, the counter-ISIS campaign, the ability to pull air forces together seamlessly and operate in a way that is going to be effective is vital. This is one aspect of that, although the exercise is obviously more than just about airpower."
All told, Juniper Oak is another notable showcase of the deep military relationship between Israel and the United States and just how integrated the two forces can be during a time of war. The increasing interoperability between U.S. forces in the region and Israel grew even further in 2021 when CENTCOM realigned its AOR to include Israel. Before then, Israel fell under the U.S. European Command’s AOR.
“The realignment, announced by the Defense Department in January strengthens the strategic U.S-Israeli defense relationship and offers opportunities to deepen operational collaboration between the Israel Defense Forces and CENTCOM's many partners in the region,” a CENTCOM statement read.
Above all else, this large multi-domain exercise that includes a U.S. carrier strike group is aimed largely at Iran. It comes at a time when friction between Tehran, Washington, and Jerusalem has grown even greater. This is especially so as nuclear deal talks have stalled out and as Iran cozies up even closer to Moscow, supplying deadly drones and other materials to help rain destruction down on Ukraine. An operation against Iran’s nuclear capabilities, especially if it was executed as a coalition alongside the U.S., would feature similar capabilities as what is being exercised this week.
Juniper Oak is slated to wrap on Jan. 27.
Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com