Jul 20, 2022 - World

CENTCOM chief: Middle East integrated defense with Israeli involvement is a "priority"

U.S. Gen. Michael Kurilla and Israeli soldiers. Photo: Handout/IDF

U.S. Gen. Michael Kurilla and Israeli soldiers. Photo: Handout/IDF

Integrated air and missile defense in the Middle East with Israeli participation is “a priority” for the U.S., Gen. Michael Kurilla, the head of the U.S. Central Command, told Axios after a visit to the region.

Why it matters: Missile and drone attacks by Iran and its proxies have become the main threat to the U.S., Israel and Arab countries in the region.

  • The Biden administration wants to enhance cooperation between these countries to counter the threat through integrating their early warning, intelligence and interception capabilities.

Driving the news: Kurilla visited Israel on Sunday after making stops in Jordan and Syria. It was his second visit to Israel in two months and his fifth trip to the region since becoming CENTCOM commander earlier this year.

  • Kurilla met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi and discussed their shared security concerns. But he focused on Israel’s air and missile defense systems and the threat from sophisticated unmanned aerial systems and ballistic missiles.
  • Kurilla stressed that integrated air and missile defense remains a goal for CENTCOM and U.S. partners in the Middle East. “This is critical to defending our forces, our partners, and our interests. It is a clear priority, one we discussed during our engagements in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem," he said.
  • A senior Israeli official said Gantz told Kurilla the most important priority for the Biden administration should be “strategic attention” to pushing for Israeli-Gulf air defense cooperation.

Kurilla also spoke to Israeli missile defense crew members and battalion commanders, which he said allowed him to see and understand the Israeli forces and security strategy from the perspectives of the troops on the ground.

  • “This was not a series of powerpoint meetings in an office: we visited IDF facilities and operations centers, spoke with the men and women who make Israel’s defense systems work, and engaged in deep discussions about innovation and technology," Kurilla said.

Between the lines: Senior Israeli officials had hoped President Biden would make a public call during his meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia last week for military cooperation between the U.S., Arab countries and Israel against Iran.

  • But after several countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia, distanced themselves from the idea and others raised concerns in private, Biden didn’t mention Israel in his speech from Jeddah.
  • The White House did say, however, in its readout of Biden’s talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the president affirmed the U.S. would accelerate cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other partners in the region to counter unmanned aerial systems and missiles and work to integrate and enhance security cooperation.
  • The issue was also mentioned in the joint statement issued by the U.S. and the Gulf states at the end of the summit in Jeddah.

What he's saying: Kurilla's biggest challenge is countering the perception that the U.S. is leaving the Middle East and reassuring countries in the region that the U.S. remains committed to helping ensure their security.

  • “CENTCOM’s commitment to the region is ironclad. … This region is at the center of America’s strategic competition with Russia and China," Kurilla stressed.

What’s next: Kurilla said the region “is observing the early fruits” of Israel being part of CENTCOM’s area of responsibility.

  • But he stressed this is a long process and will take time to build a robust and inclusive security cooperation system between Israel and Arab countries in the region.
  • “By linking together militaries with mutual security concerns, the Abraham Accords may serve a great benefit to regional security," he added, referring to the Trump administration-brokered accords that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations.
  • "The accords allow us to focus on the areas in which our security interests align. In that, there is great promise."
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