US-Israel war game scaled back (Updated)

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Update: The Defense Department belatedly issued a statement Friday noting the exercise still remains the largest ballistic missile defense exercise ever undertaken by the US and Israel.

The Pentagon has scaled back a joint US-Israeli military exercise scheduled to take place this fall,  Time‘s Karl  Vick and Aaron Klein exclusively report:

…Well-placed sources in both countries have told TIME that Washington has greatly reduced the scale of U.S. participation, slashing by more than two-thirds the number of American troops going to Israel and reducing both the number and potency of missile interception systems at the core of the joint exercise.

“Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you,’” a senior Israeli military official tells TIME.

The reductions are striking. Instead of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops originally trumpeted for Austere Challenge 12, as the annual exercise is called, the Pentagon will send only 1,500 service members, and perhaps as few as 1,200.  Patriot anti-missile systems will arrive in Israel as planned, but the crews to operate them will not.  […]

U.S. commanders privately revealed the scaling back to their Israeli counterparts more than two months ago.  The official explanation was budget restrictions.  But the American retreat coincided with growing tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations on Israel’s persistent threats to launch an airstrike on Iran. ….

The back story: Late last year, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to cancel the exercise, which was originally scheduled to take place this past spring, defense sources previously told Al-Monitor. Panetta agreed to the request only if the exercise was rescheduled, not canceled entirely. So the Pentagon was deeply annoyed when Israeli officials left the false impression that the US was responsible for the war game being postponed. “It was Barak,” a US official told me.

Update: The Pentagon disputed the interpretation offered by Time for the scaled back exercise in a statement late Friday afternoon, noting Austere Challenge-12 will still represent “the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise” between the United States and Israel.

“The exercise was originally scheduled for May, however at the request of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Israeli Defense Forces, the exercise was moved to late Fall of this year,” Ltn. Col. Wesley P. Miller IV, a Defense Department spokesman, told journalists in a statement sent out late Friday afternoon, several hours after guidance had been sought on the Time report.

“When the exercise was moved, the United States notified Israel that due to
concurrent operations, the United States would provide a smaller number of
personnel and equipment than originally planned. Israel reiterated its
request to postpone until late Fall,” Miller continued.

However, “Austere Challenge-12 remains the largest ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009,” Miller continued. “The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned.”

“As Israel Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has repeatedly said, the US-Israel
defense relationship is stronger than it has ever been,” Miller said. “The United States
agrees. Austere Challenge is a tangible sign of our mutual trust and our
shared commitment to the defense of our nations.”

(H/T Zvika Krieger)

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (2nd R) and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak pose with Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)