JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States and Israel will hold a major missile defense exercise in Israel this month, sending a message of close cooperation as both countries weigh their options over Iran's nuclear program.
The three-week exercise, the largest the allies have ever held, will simulate a variety of long and short-range missile attacks that Israel could face during a regional conflict, said the commanders in charge.
Asked whether it sent a message to Iran, which has warned of an all-out war should Israel try to strike its nuclear facilities, Israeli Brigadier General Nitzan Nuriel said: "Anybody can get any type of message from this exercise."
"The fact that we are practicing together and working together is a strong message by itself," Nuriel said during a conference call with reporters.
Offering a more guarded response, his U.S. counterpart, Lieutenant General Craig Franklin said the exercise, "is not there to send a message", adding that it has been in planning for more than two years.
"This exercise will improve the cooperative missile defense of Israel and will promote regional stability and help ensure our military edge," he said.
More than 3,500 U.S. personnel will take part in the drill, about 1,000 of them in Israel, Franklin said. The U.S. will spend $30 million dollars and Israel about 30 million shekels ($7.90 million) on the exercise.
The weapons will include U.S. Patriot missile batteries and an AEGIS ballistic missile defense ship, along with the multi-tiered missile defense system that Israel has been developing. All but one of the launches will be simulated.
Martin Dempsey, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will observe part of the drill, said Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Wendy Snyder.
Dempsey confounded some Israeli leaders in August when he told reporters the United States did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran.
He also warned that go-it-alone military action risked unraveling an international coalition that has applied progressively stiff sanctions on Iran, which insists that its ambitious nuclear project is purely peaceful.
An Iranian military commander said last month the Islamic Republic would make no distinction between U.S. and Israeli interests and will retaliate against both countries if attacked.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing the United States to set Iran an ultimatum or risk seeing Israel launch unilateral strikes. Washington says it will not allow Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons, but has not set out its own red lines.
($1 = 3.7969 Israeli shekels)
(This story corrects Israel spending 30 million shekels, not dollars)
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Jon Hemming)