WASHINGTON — The United States and Israel are embarking on the largest exercise in their long military relationship, against a backdrop of tension with Iran and sharp rhetoric in the U.S. presidential election.
An air defense drill planned late this month will involve more than 3,500 Americans and 1,000 Israelis, practicing their ability to work together against a range of threats facing the main U.S. ally in the Mideast.
American forces have started arriving in Israel and others will participate from positions around Europe and the Mediterranean in what the military is calling Austere Challenge 2012, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said Wednesday via telephone from Germany.
He said the drill has been planned for more than two years and "is not related to national elections nor any perceived tensions in the Middle East."
Still, it comes as the Iranian nuclear program tops the international agenda. Israel has threatened to strike Iranian nuclear facilities if Iran's uranium enrichment does not cease.
President Barack Obama's administration has been at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how close Tehran might be to producing a weapon and on the timing of any military strike to halt the program. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been sharply critical of Obama's policy on Israel and has pledged greater support for Israel.
The U.S.-Israeli exercise will test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets from places as far away as Iran.