Tag Archives: Israel

U.S.-Israel military exercise quietly underway

I added the classified Sixth Fleet sponsored exercise Noble Dina 12 exercise to my list of military exercises today.  This year’s U.S.-Israel exercise runs from March 26-April 5.

The exercise, ongoing since at least 1999, focuses on submarine and anti-submarine warfare in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  Greece has been a participant since last year, and the exercise, according to the Greek press, is based out of Souda Bay naval base on Crete.

Last year, Noble Dina 11 took place from April 3-14 and included reportedly included two Greek submarines and four Greek Air Force F-16 Block 52 fighters.  According to the U.S. Military Sealift Command, during last year’s exercise fleet replenishment oiler USNS Kanawha conducted astern refueling with two Israeli ships, while Maritime Prepositioning Force ship USNS LCPL Roy M. Wheat served as a “high-value unit” for the surface action group operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, presumably a simulated target.

According to defencenet.gr and the Greek Reporter, the U.S., Greece, Israel exercise has all sorts of anti-Turkish political messaging involved.  Defencenet.gr says that the scenario for Noble Dina this year from Crete to Haifa “bears great resemblance to the Turkish aeronautical forces in this particular military operation scenario.”

The Turkish press reports that the “first phase will take place near the island of Meis, a small island close to the southern Turkish district of Kaş, and south of Cyprus before proceeding to Israel’s Haifa port.”  It says that Greece was invited to the war games this year by Israel.

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Jordan is Eager: But For What?

The U.S. and Jordan will hold their largest military exercise ever in May, according to the state-run news agency Petra.

Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force and commander of the Marine component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is in Amman this week meeting with Jordanian military officials to prepare the 17 nation exercise.  One of those participants will be Iraq, sending its military outside the country for the first time.

The theme of the exercise, officials say, is guerrilla warfare and “strategic threats.”

As one Arab commentator asks: “So who exactly will be this “Eager Lion” target?

“Strategic threats”?  “Guerrilla warfare?”

The first Eager Lion exercise in this series – Eager Lion 11/Infinite Moonlight 11.2 – was held last year from June 11-30, and involved 14 other countries spread operating at six locations inside Jordan.  This exercise also focused, according to CENTCOM, on “irregular warfare, special operations and counterinsurgency.”

But behind the scenes, the Army’s 20th Support Command from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland participated.  The official name of the 20th is Support Command (CBRNE) for chemical biological, radiological, nuclear and high yield explosives.  The unit was activated in 2004 to consolidate Army WMD response and search capabilities, and in Eager Lion last year, it held biological warfare identification exercises and radiological and nuclear response and civil defense training.

Military exercises happen all the time – check out my list of exercises – and some might just dismiss all of them and this one as well as routine, opportunities for militaries to get together, familiarize themselves with each other, practice basic skills.  But every exercise of this size also includes so-called “strategic” purpose, a scenario that is generally made up to guide decision-making.  Some country is made up – say Irandia, fighting with another made up country, say Israelandia – and they fight a nuclear war, or some external event in say a place like Syria spreads to Jordan.

Just because Iran, Israel, and Syria are in the news right now, and just because WMD are being bandied about doesn’t necessarily mean that this exercise is intended to mimic an actual real world scenario.  After all, if the focus of this year’s exercise is also counter insurgency, one has got to mention the Palestinian population of Jordan or even the Jordanian people themselves, who might just spring into action someday.  What “skills” do you think the U.S. is sharing?

The reality is that despite all of these questions, Eager Lion is also just an exercise, scheduled each year in the late spring/early summer, one that takes a year to prepare, to schedule the units to participate, to agree on all of the rules and complete all of the paperwork, etc., etc.  In some way, however, it is also the making of foreign policies and the subtle steering of the future.

It once was the case, during the days of Saddam that these U.S.-Jordanian exercises were highly secret, proving cover for preparations for U.S. forces to deploy to Jordan in order to fight Iraq (which they did in 2003).  Saddam is gone now, but the neighborhood is ever more complicated.  I wonder what they are cover for now?

When Does Preparation Become War?

Today in Secret History: February 10

As people continue to fret about an Israeli (or American) attack on Iran, is there some lesson we can learn from pre-Iraq war history?

On February 10, 2003, the main body of the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) arrived at H-5 airfield in the eastern desert of Jordan in preparation for the second Gulf War (All Roads Lead to Baghdad, p. 97), an in-the-shadows unit, in support of a non-existent special operations task force, at a secret base in a classified country.  Though in hindsight it looked like a war to depose Saddam Hussein was a certainty, at the time, there was still quite a public and international debate.

Of course, from Baghdad’s perspective, war seemed more and more certain, what with the accelerated bombing already taking place under the cover of Operation Southern Focus, with CIA and special operations forces inside Iraq, and special operations deployments building up along the Iraqi border in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the conventional military deployments centered in Kuwait.  In hindsight, as crazy as it might seem, it looks like everyone’s preferred outcome – everyone in the U.S. and Iraqi governments, that is – was war.

By the time the shooting officially started a month later in mid-March, this secret Joint Special Operations Task Force West (JSOTF-W), also known as Task Force Dagger, had built up to include these special operations helicopters of the 3rd Battalion, the 5th Special Forces Group from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, a company from the Army Reserve 19th Special Forces Group, British and Australian special operations forces, elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment, a quick reaction force from the 82nd Airborne Division, a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System [HIMARS] battery, and the even more secret Task Force 20 (TF-20), the black Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) task force given the mission of finding Iraq’s WMD.

According to the official Army special operations history, the Jordanian-based task force had two missions: “deter the launch of Scuds from western Iraq, and support conventional forces in their attack in southern Iraq.”  I love the use of the word deter here: Deter what?  Ignore for a moment that there were no Scud missiles to be found in Iraq anyhow, and certainly none deployed in western Iraq — an intelligence analysis failure that drove a lot of effort — but how does a secret mission deter?   Of course, the sage explanation for the sensitive Jordanian deployments – and Jordan denied the presence of any U.S. military forces in the country – was to keep Israel out of any war, which is to say, to convince Israel that the United States was doing all it could do to prevent Iraqi attack, just as it had done – and failed to do – in 1991.

It’s a head-hurting house of secret cards: a highly visible and officially secret coalition special operations force preparing to infiltrate into a country even prior to the “outbreak” of war.  Retired Gen. Mike Delong, the deputy commander of U.S. forces, says in his autobiography Inside CENTCOM (p. 93) that up to 300 commandos, “dressed as native Iraqis” infiltrated into Iraq prior to March 19.

When the special operations forces found no Scuds, they moved on to Iraqi airfields and Hadithah Dam – which intelligence speculated might be intentionally blown up to flood the Euphrates River valley; again no explosives were found to corroborate such speculation.  Some commandos headed for Saddam’s western palaces, others for suspected WMD sites.  It wasn’t without cost on the U.S. side: Three Rangers were killed at Hadithah in what was probably the first suicide car bombing of the long war.

Did the deployments make war more certain?  Would they have changed the public (or international) debate had they been known?  Do these clandestine special operations undermine or enhance diplomacy?  Why do we fall back on rote words like deterrence when in fact the mission was destruction and prevention?  All good questions still very much unanswered today.

Today in Secret History: January 31

(From my own archives; here’s a DOT.MIL column published at Washingtonpost.com on January 31, 2000.  I was already thinking about Code Names and the cost of secrecy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 period.)

Making a Molehill out of a Mountain

William M. Arkin

Last September, the USS Kamehameha pulled into the Jordanian port of Aqaba, the first U.S. Navy submarine ever to visit the Hashemite Kingdom. The next day, the crew “manned the rails” in a solemn ceremony while King Abdullah Bin Al-Hussein and other dignitaries piped aboard and toured the submarine from end to end.

The Navy’s press release announcing the visit stated that the crew participated “in several community relations projects, prepared … for their next underway, and explored the sites in Jordan.”

But Kamehameha is no normal submarine, and the visit was neither tourism nor pomp and circumstance. The purpose was to conduct the very secret “Early Victor” exercise.

Early Victor is just one of hundreds of exercises and operations conducted annually by the U.S. military around the globe. Some are well-known, and most, when they are reported, are portrayed as mom and apple pie opportunities for training and good works.

But more often than not there days, there is a secret side to exercises where little more than some felicitous code name is revealed. It is without a doubt the busiest and most vivid engagement in American foreign policy. Or, I submit, in some ways it is American foreign policy.

The Secrecy Factory

What do Diagonal Glance, Promise Kept, Nectar Bend, and Eager Initiative all have in common? They are not they latest porno websites. They are classified exercises where the who and the where and the why can’t be known. An unclassified fiscal year 2001 Pentagon budget document leaked to washingtonpost.com lists hundreds of such exercises conducted with militaries and police forces and intelligence establishments overseas.

The document provides only a hint as to the day-to-day life of the military machine. The focus, according to sources, is increasingly counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics, and counter-proliferation, and counter-information. So many cons one wonders who’s being conned, and what commitments are being sown in the name of military preparedness.

Atlas Gate, Dimming Sun, Eastern Eagle, Ellipse Echo, Frequent Storm, Noble Piper, Phoenix Jomini, Sacred Company, Trojan Footprint. All were held in 1999 – the details remain classified. In the coming months, more secret exercises with names like Blue Advance, Clean Hunter, Earnest Leader, Inferno Creek, Inherent Fury, Initial Link, Inspired Gambit, Juniper Stallion, Lucky Sentinel, and Ultimate Resolve will be held.

The mountain of secrets seems to have only gotten bigger with the end of the Cold War.

One has to wonder how many involve operations that by their very existence suggest covert commitments to foreign countries undertaken for the benefit of access to bases or exchanges of information or “training” opportunities.

Early Victors, Late Losers

Back in Jordan, after the bunting was stowed away on the Kamehameha, Navy SEALs emerged from special compartments, joining Jordanian commandos to conduct their annual Early Victor Red Sea exercise.

The Kamehameha is no stranger to secret missions. The nuclear-powered submarine was commissioned in December 1965 to launch Polaris ballistic missiles. For almost 30 years, it stealthily plied the waters of the Atlantic, remaining underwater for as much as 60 days at a time, always ready to fire its nuclear weapons in a moment’s notice at the Soviet Union.

Kamehameha had a good Cold War run, but in July 1992, the aging boat was modified for the post-Cold War era. Its missiles were removed and the spaces converted to accommodate Navy SEALs and divers, with special shelters and underwater vehicles able to stealthily place American commandos on an enemy shore. Exercises like Early Victor in Jordan undoubtedly hone these skills, but at what cost?

Special Operators

Early Victor is one of a dozen classified special forces exercises with Middle East commando units. The grand-daddy of secret operators is Special Operations Command. From its headquarters in Florida, SOCOM as it is called, controls the Navy SEALs and Green Berets and Delta Force elite.

SOCOM has a mind-boggling list of classified exercises and operations: Stablise, Skilled Anvil, Desert Sprint, Elegant Lady, Project 46, Link Acorn, Constant Gate, Able Sentry, Assured Response, Promise Kept, Polar Moon, Utopian Angel, Poise Talon, Operation Maraton, Present Haven, Silver Wake, Guardian Retrieval, Bevel Edge, Shepherd Venture, Joint Anvil, Autumn Shelter, Shadow Express. One wonders how many of these are building covert ties to governments and elites who may prove to be on the wrong side of democratic forces and change in the future.

Human rights activists may focus their ire on the military’s School of the Americas for training tomorrow’s secret policemen and dictators in Latin America, but these are whole extension campuses that get to tutor in utmost secrecy.

The secrecy exists because each of the so-called unified commands, such as SOCOM, sets their own priorities for building relations in their area of responsibility. The number of exercises and secret operations is so large, moreover, it is doubtful that many people, even inside the government, can see the forest for the trees.

Another Foreign Policy

I’m a believer that the more secrecy you have, the more likely you are to get into trouble. If there is even more secrecy in military relationships and exercises today than there was during the Cold War, there has to be a good explanation. Is all the secrecy necessary because our security is at stake as it was in the Cold War? Is it required to thwart countermeasures on the part of potential adversaries? Or is it merely avoidance of public involvement and political oversight?

In the Middle East, secrecy is the product of relationships which operate under the constraint that our friends get to call the shots with regard to candidness. The fact that the U.S. military exercises with Israel and Jordan and Egypt all at the same time makes for local sensitivities. Whether the ostensible benefit really enhances anyone’s security, or human rights, or democratic values, seems hardly considered.

The monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East (and elsewhere) are not interested in any details of their covert relations with the United States to get out. Thus the regional commands have particularly full plates of secrets they must manage. The web of relationships, regardless of the real return on investment, become its own justification for both the activity and the secrecy. Thus the Pentagon’s mountain of secrets is also a slippery slope.

(This article was originally published January 31, 2000.)