Israeli Air Force pilots joined their American counterparts this week in the skies over Nevada as the “Red Flag” advance aerial combat training exercise got underway.
The exercise, set to run for the next two weeks, is taking place at the US Air Base in Nellis, Nevada.
‘Red Flag’ takes place several times a year, offering air combat training for military pilots and flight crew from the US and allied nations.
A US Army spokesperson told reporters that the exercise will involve different types of training, such as “strategic attack in depth, achieving aerial superiority in space, joint attack aircraft, defense of field cells, interception of enemy aircraft, low altitude flight and attack in unfamiliar terrain rich in anti-aircraft defenses.
“In addition, there will be a joint aerial refueling in which Israeli refueling planes will refuel American fighter jets, and Adir (F-35I) planes will be refueled using American KC135 refueling planes,” the spokesperson said.
“For the first time, seven Adir planes and two Ram (Boeing 707) planes will participate in the exercise in US skies,” he added.
‘Red Flag’ Follows Massive ‘Juniper Oak 23’ Exercise
The exercise is taking place just two months after a joint Israel-US “Juniper Oak” exercise that was the largest such joint drill ever held with the IDF and US Central Command (CENTCOM).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time that the ‘Juniper Oak’ drill “manifests the unbreakable strategic partnership between Israel and the United States, and constitutes another stage in building Israel’s military power.”
US CENTCOM commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla told reporters that the drill was aimed at showing adversaries “like Iran” that Washington is not too distracted by the war in Ukraine and the threat from China to mobilize a large military force.
This year’s ‘Juniper Oak’ exercise was a large-scale live fire event with more than 140 aircraft including B52s, F35s, F14s, F16s, FA-18s, AC-130, AH64s, 12 naval vessels, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. Approximately 6,400 US personnel joined 1,500 Israeli personnel for the exercise.
IAEA: Iranian Nuclear Threat Clearly Growing
The ‘Red Flag’ exercise comes in the wake of a report by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warning that its inspectors had found traces of uranium enriched to 83.7 percent purity – barely a breath away from the 90 percent purity required for an atomic weapon.
In its February 28, 2023 report to the IAEA Board of Governors, the agency said it had asked Iranian officials to clarify the origin of the particles and was told that “unintended fluctuations in enrichment levels may have occurred during [the] transition period” at the time of commissioning the process of 60 percent enriched uranium in November 2022, or “while replacing the feed cylinder.”
Equally disturbing was the IAEA’s statement that since February 16, 2021, “the Agency has not been able to verify Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile.”
Based on the information gleaned during the agency’s limited inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, the IAEA estimated that as of February 12, 2023, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was 3,750.8 kilograms, an increase of 87.1 kg since the previous quarterly report.
The estimated stockpile reportedly includes:
• 1555.3 kg of uranium enriched up to 2% U-235 (–289.2 kg since the previous quarterly report);
• 1324.5 kg of uranium enriched up to 5% U-235 (+294.6 kg);
• 434.7 kg of uranium enriched up to 20% U-235 (+48.3 kg); and
• 87.5 kg of uranium enriched up to 60% U-235 (+25.2 kg).
Since February 23, 2021, the IAEA said in its report that it also has not:
• had access to the data from its on-line enrichment monitors and electronic seals, or access to the measurement recordings registered by its installed measurement devices: on 10 June 2022 this monitoring equipment was removed and placed in storage at the respective locations under Agency seals, and therefore ceased operation (para. 67.1);
• been provided with any information or access to data from containment and surveillance measures relating to the transfer to UCF of UOC produced in Iran or obtained from any other source (para. 68);
• had access to the data and recordings collected by its surveillance equipment installed to monitor the production of UOC, and since 11 June 2022, when this surveillance equipment was removed, has ceased operation;
• been provided with any information on the production of UOC or on whether it has obtained UOC from any other source (para. 69).
The IAEA also noted in its report that Iran had failed to inform the agency of a “substantial” change to the interconnections between the two cascades, or clusters, of centrifuges enriching uranium to up to 60% at Fordow. Several diplomats told the Reuters news agency that the change meant Iran could quickly switch to a higher enrichment level.
“Iran’s decision to remove all of the Agency’s equipment previously installed in Iran for surveillance and monitoring activities in relation to the JCPOA has also had detrimental implications for the Agency’s ability to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” the IAEA wrote.
“Regarding the origin of the particles enriched above 60% U-235, identified after the implementation of the new cascade configuration at FFEP, discussions with Iran are still continuing.”
US, Israel Vow to Prevent Iranian Nuclear Breakout
During US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel last week, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned at a joint news briefing that “pressing and important decisions” will soon need to be made regarding Iran’s race to an atomic weapon.
“Iran aims to gain nuclear weapons and threatens not only Israel, but the entire world,” Gallant noted.
“Mr. Secretary, it is our duty to take all measures necessary to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. In this matter, our capabilities and our cooperation have great meaning and power.”
In response, the US defense secretary noted that Iran “remains the primary driver of instability in the region and we remain deeply concerned by Iran’s support for terrorism, its dangerous proxies, its nuclear advances, its aggression at sea, its cyber threats, and its proliferation of attack drones and advanced conventional weapons.
“We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said, but added that “As President [Joe] Biden has repeatedly made clear, the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
In the subsequent exchange with reporters, Gallant emphasized, “One thing has to be made clear – loud and clear. Israel will not allow Iran to possess weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons aimed at Israel.”