U.S. Marines 'Storm' Israeli Beaches As Part Of A Major Exercise
The three-week-long exercise highlights ever more public ties between U.S. and Israeli forces in the face of regional threats, especially from Iran.
Elements of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps recently kicked off an amphibious exercise with the Israel Defense Forces that have placed American forces on the ground in Israel to train. Though the United States and Israel have strong and long-standing military ties, the actual interactions between the two often have been discreet in the past for political reasons. This has been changing in recent years, and this exercise comes less than a month after both countries said they were exploring a possible "Plan B" with regard to Iran if the regime in Tehran did not return to compliance with a multinational deal over its nuclear ambitions.
The Navy's Task Force 51 and the Marine Corps' 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) will oversee the forces from their respective services in this exercise, which officially began on Nov. 1. Task Force 51 is in charge of all amphibious operations in the Middle East, as well as around the Horn of Africa and in parts of the Indian Ocean, as part of U.S. Fifth Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT). The 5th MEB is a deployable expeditionary headquarters that supports Marine Corps activities in these same regions. 5th MEB is a component of Task Force 51 and they are often referred to singularly as Task Force 51/5th MEB.
Right now, it is known that the San Antonio class amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland — which official Israel Defense Forces (IDF) accounts have erroneously referred to as an "aircraft carrier" and a "helicopter carrier" — is participating in the exercise. Pictures of Portland docked in Israel's southern port city of Eilat, on the Red Sea, the hub for this exercise, show CH-53E Sea Stallion heavy-lift helicopters on its rear flight deck. It's unclear if the ship is carrying any other aircraft.
Beyond its normal weapons and other systems, Portland is equipped with a directed-energy laser weapon that is intended to provide additional defenses against swarms of small boats and small unmanned aircraft. It can also blind or confuse optical sensors or seekers on incoming weapons and has full-motion video cameras that can be used for surveillance, as well as detecting and tracking targets.
"Approximately 500 personnel from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit [MEU], including one logistics battalion detachment, one infantry rifle company, a light armored reconnaissance company, and a HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] platoon," will take part in the exercise, according to 5th Fleet/NAVCENT. The 11th MEU and Portland are both in the region on a regular deployment as part of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), which has the Wasp class amphibious assault ship USS Essex at its core.
It is unclear how many IDF personnel from which units will take part in this exercise, which is scheduled to continue over the next three weeks. "The exercise includes military operations in urban terrain, infantry live-fire training, [HIMARS] live-fire and rapid maneuvering training, as well as professional exchanges on various topics including engineering, medical, and explosive ordnance disposal," 5th Fleet/NAVCENT said.
"This exercise is part of the next chapter in the U.S. Navy’s and Marine Corps’ longstanding relationship with Israel that is so vital to stability and security in the region,” Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, the commander of Task Force 51/5th MEB, said in a statement. The Red Sea, in and around which this exercise will take place, is highly strategic, with the Suez Canal at its northern end and the Bab Al Mandeb Strait in the south forming chokepoints for the movement of maritime forces and commercial shipping.
This body of water has been a flashpoint on numerous occasions in recent years, especially in the southern end around Yemen. Iranian-backed Houthi militants in that country regularly launch drone and missile attacks on military and civilian targets, including at sea and in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Concerns are growing about the potential threat that group might pose to southern Israel, including Eilat.
As already noted, U.S. military cooperation, including participation in exercise in Israel, has been increasingly public in recent years. Just last month, U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets touched down in the country to take part in its biennial Blue Flag aerial combat exercise, which also includes a number of other foreign allies and partners. In October, an Air Force B-1B bomber circumnavigated the Arabian Peninsula, flying alongside Israeli jets at one point.
Earlier this year, the U.S. military shifted regional responsibility for activities in Israel from U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). What might seem like an innocuous administrative decision in fact reflects changes in political attitudes within the United States and in the Middle East. A number of Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel in recent years, and others may do the same soon. This has imparted significant changes to the still-complicated political landscape in the region that have made it easier on some levels for American forces to work with their Israeli counterparts more freely and openly.
The exercise is, if nothing else, a prime example of how the U.S. military and the IDF are likely to train and otherwise interact more publicly as time goes on. It also comes at a time when both countries have been heavily engaged in discussions over how to respond to Iranian aggression in the Middle East and beyond, as well as that country's nuclear and missile programs, along with a host of other regional security issues. The United States and Iran have been in a diplomatic stalemate for months over the future of a 2015 deal regarding Tehran's nuclear aspirations. The U.S. government withdrew from that agreement unilaterally in 2018 and Iran is now violating all of its key tenets.
“We will look at every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the press in October around a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyanin in Washington, D.C. "And we continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that. But, it takes two to engage in diplomacy, and we have not seen from Iran a willingness to do that at this point."
Israel, as well as American forces in various locations around the Middle East, regularly face threats from the regime in Tehran and its proxies, including from the aforementioned Houthis in Yemen. In particular, drone attacks on various military and civilian targets have become almost routine. It was reported last week that U.S. officials believe, unsurprisingly, that Iranian proxies were responsible for a recent drone attack on a facility in Syria near the borders with Iraq and Jordan where American troops work alongside local forces. The U.S. military also blamed Iran, or elements acting under its direction, for launching a fatal drone attack on an Israeli-operated tanker ship earlier this year. This was the latest incident in a tit-for-tat shadow war between Israel and Iran that has seen the two countries attack each other's commercial and military ships.
This three-week-long U.S.-Israeli exercise in and around Eilat only underscores the ties between the American and Israeli militaries, which are only becoming more and more public, in the face of various regional threats, especially those emanating from Iran.
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