United Arab Emirates Special Operations Forces conduct close quarters battle drills during Eager Lion 24 at King Abdullah II Operations Training Center, Jordan, May 12, 2024. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Brandon White.)

BEIRUT — Despite the conflict raging in the Middle East, US and partner nations have gone ahead with the biannual Eager Lion exercise in Jordan, with nearly three dozen participants this time around. Beyond the practical benefits of testing interoperability between militaries, experts said the exercise also sends a clear message to Iran that the US is still a center of power in the region.

“No other country is able to organize exercises of such scale in the Middle East,” Jean Loup Semaan, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Breaking Defense.

Norman Ricklefs, who leads geopolitical consultancy NAMEA Group, agreed the “large number of participant nations demonstrates the key role that the US holds in supporting the majority of Middle Eastern militaries, and those of other allied countries including Poland, Australia, and Japan.”

This year’s Eager Lion 24 began last week and will run through May 23, according to US Central Command. The last iteration, in 2022, involved 27 nations. CENTCOM also bills the exercise as the “most important exercise” between the US military and the Jordanian air force in particular.

The exercise has been long in the planning, but Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East analyst at the RANE network, noted it comes amid “considerably more interest” in air defenses in light of Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel last month. In that case the US, Britain, France and Jordan aided Israel in its defense.

“The US showed that through intense regional coordination, it is capable of shooting down a mass barrage attack launched by a rival like Iran,” he said.

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Bohl told Breaking Defense that partner nations are not looking, “of course, to just counter the Iranian threat, but also potentially the Russian one given how many of the systems they share or which are similar.”

In addition to host Jordan, 10 Arab countries are reportedly participating in the drills, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Lebanon. Western countries including France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Cyprus, are also taking part in the drills.

U.S. Army Soldiers, Jordanian Special Operations Forces, Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service members and Saudi Arabian Special Operation Forces train together during Eager Lion 24 at the King Abdullah II Operations Training Center in Jordan. #EagerLion24 is a multilateral exercise,… pic.twitter.com/OdorBCj1AV

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) May 16, 2024

CENTCOM said exercise will include a field training exercise with a combined-arms live-fire, command post exercise, and a senior leader seminar to facilitate information sharing at tactical and strategic levels. It will involve air, land, sea and cyber drills, focusing on training and interoperability between military and interagency organizations.

“The exercise will train participants to prepare against cyber threats from fictitious adversaries, advance development of partnered counterterrorism skills, expand Integrated Air and Missile Defense synchronization, and sharpen proficiencies in maritime and border security,” the statement highlighted.

As for whether having all those assets and personnel in Jordan amid the conflict in Gaza and an increasingly aggressive Iran presented a threat, Semaan was doubtful.

“This is not a new drill, it has been going on for a long time, and I don’t think Iran would be tempted to use the drills to launch attacks on them. But perhaps the Houthis might,” Semaan said.

He added that CENTCOM has been very careful to communicate about the drill and its purpose to avoid any misunderstanding.

“This doesn’t mean that miscommunication is impossible — historically, big military exercises have sometimes triggered miscalculation — but right now, this would seem unlikely,” Semaan said.