JERUSALEM — A joint Israeli-U.S. military exercise put an already tense region on edge Tuesday morning, when Russian news media reported that Russian radar had detected two ballistic “objects” flashing across the Mediterranean Sea.
Hours later, Israel’s Defense Ministry confirmed that it had, with assistance from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, completed a first test of a new version of the Sparrow target missile. The U.S.-designed Sparrow was fired toward the Israeli coast as the Arrow ballistic missile defense system tracked its path, the ministry said.
The Arrow system, jointly funded by the United States and Israel, is designed to protect Israel from incoming missiles, the kind that might be launched by Syria, Iran or Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday’s test had “nothing to do with” the U.S. consideration of a military strike against the Syrian regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons.
“The test was long planned to help evaluate the Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system’s ability to detect, track, and communicate information about a simulated threat to Israel,” Little said in a statement.
“This test was likely planned many months ago, and there is really no reason for Israel not to continue on with this important exercise,” said Arieh Herzog, former head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization. “Israel does not, at the moment, have much connection to what is going on in Syria, but we do have a serious interest in focusing on developing our missile-defense capabilities.”
Reports of the test came less than an hour after Israeli media said the Israel Defense Forces had decided to lower an alert level along the northern border and remove the Iron Dome defense system from the outskirts of Tel Aviv in light of President Obama’s decision Saturday to postpone a military strike on Syria until after a vote in Congress.
Regular soldiers and those called up for emergency reserve duty last week will be allowed home for the Jewish New Year, which begins Wednesday night, the news reports said. Additionally, the flood of Israelis hastening to claim their state-issued gas masks had all but stopped Tuesday as people prepared for the Jewish holiday.
Although most of Israel’s leaders have remained quiet about Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for a Syria strike, President Shimon Peres defended it Monday, saying he felt confident that the United States would act.
“I don’t think sound judgment is indecisiveness,” he told Israeli Army Radio. “I think it’s permitted to carefully consider a decision beforehand rather than after, and I trust him on anything connected to Israel.”
The Israeli-U.S. test came just days after American warships gathered in the region ahead of a possible strike on Syria.