Dozens of soldiers stormed concrete structures in the middle of the desert, firing blanks. They took cover in the doorways, moving from one gray single-story building to the next, crouching stealthily under the winter sun, and broadcasting messages on radio networks as the sounds of shots fired peppered the air.
The exercise represented an assault on a built-up area, in a battle arena to the north of Israel. It was soon followed by an aerial evacuation of soldiers “injured” in the “battle.”
One after the other, massive Yasur helicopters, piloted by the air force’s 669 Airborne Rescue and Evacuation Unit, descended on to the desert surface, blowing sand and small rocks in all directions. Soldiers secured the landing zones from simulated enemy artillery and anti-tank fire.
These warlike scenes, played out in southern Israel in recent days, at the Nahal Brigade Training Base at Tel Arad, represent the final acts in an eight-month advanced training course for the brigade’s Reconnaissance Battalion, an elite unit whose specialized combat skills should prove vital in any future conflict with Hezbollah, or in counter-terrorism operations in Syria.
The battalion’s companies will also play a key role in sensitive security arrests in the West Bank, and complex daily border security missions in the North. The soldiers train eight months longer than their ordinary infantry counterparts.
“We have a few minutes to treat the wounded and secure the landing zones for the helicopters,” Maj. Niv Assaf, commander of the Battalion’s Training School, told The Jerusalem Post as he watched his soldiers in action.
Assaf watched as “wounded” soldiers were loaded onto stretchers and rushed to the waiting helicopters, for a simulated airlift to the hospital from enemy territory.
He gave an account of the missions completed thus far during the non-stop, grueling training.
“We’re in the fourth day of fighting, after 36-straight hours. We’ve conquered a military target in Sansana Forest, launched a lookout and containment operation, and continued onwards, conquering an enemy command [represented by a structure in a nearby Beduin town]. Then we took on a rocket firing cell, using live fire to engage them,” Assaf said.
The forces moving in the desert were made up of three companies: one Reconnaissance Company, and two Orev Companies, which specialize in destroying tanks and armored fighting vehicles.
The companies themselves were made up a variety of soldiers; snipers, and troops bearing the Gil shoulder- fired missile, known internationally as the Spike man portable fire-and-forget guided missile. With electro- optic sensors, and a range of four kilometers, “it’s an expensive missile, to be fired only at quality targets like enemy command centers,” Assaf said.
Most soldiers carried the Micro Tavor assault rifle, while others were armed with the Negev light machine gun, FN MAG machine guns, Law shoulder-fired rockets, and grenade launchers. Many were carrying 50 kilograms on their back, and had been moving the weight around for days on end.
“This is a week of war,” said Sec.-Lt. Ely Halevi, a squad commander with a hoarse voice. “We’ve been marching a lot and not sleeping for 36 hours. The will to win is a driving force.”
Assaf stressed that training in urban warfare was crucial for the challenges he believed the IDF would be facing soon.
“The training is about getting everyone moving though a built-up area and in closed, confined spaces, where the enemy is recognized only when it is near, and engaged from close range. Fighting in orchards, forests and built-up areas all counts as closed spaces, where you can’t see more than 30 meters out.”
He listed additional activities undertaken in the training: “We simulated an attack-and-destroy mission against a rocket launching site, moved on to combat in open territory, and opened up a logistical route. There, the soldiers rested. Last night, we attacked a site used as a rocket firing center, and carried out a company-wide exercise in open territory, before conquering additional areas simulating a northern battleground.”
Later that night, the forces went on to launch a mock nocturnal attack, and were airlifted by Unit 669 to the nighttime combat zone.
On Thursday night, the soldiers walked up Kanaim Mountain for the all-important ceremony marking the completion of their advanced training.
“Training today has a new level of intensity. There are many more missions, due to an understanding that this is what will be required of us, to fight continuously.
This is what we understand we will encounter when we meet the enemy in a northern arena,” Assaf said.
Improving the battalion’s cooperation with the air force is also very important for battlefield performance, the commander argued.
Every squad had its own Digital Ground Army command- and-control system, which generates an interactive digital map, and informed squad commanders of the location of enemy positions.
“These are new command-and-control capabilities. We’ve never had them at the squad level before,” Assaf said.
“All of this hard work means that the combat soldiers will feel ready for the mission, and their confidence will grow. Now, they’re tired and hungry, and they covered a lot of ground. But on the weekend, they’ll feel much better,” he added.
The added training is what turns the soldiers into commandos, Assaf continued. “This is an elite unit. It fires better, it is more deadly with a range of weapons, and it knows how to get to combat sectors faster.”
Capt. Moshiko Gutliv, a company commander from the training school, took a momentary break from the training to speak to the Post. His face was covered in camouflage paint, and his uniform was coated with desert dust. “The guys here are working hard to complete this program. It’s turned them into professionals, and it’s been a pleasure to watch,” he said.
Tom Brodsky, 19, one of the trainees, spoke of the long marches with heavy weights on his back. He said, “We’re close to the end. War is a very extreme thing, and we’re preparing for it as accurately as possible.”
“Those who signed up for the Reconnaissance Battalion wanted to be here, and gave that much extra every day. Whether it’s taking on the weight on our back, or adhering to the extra discipline,” he said.
After training, the companies will divide up, and go on to serve in their various roles. They will spend eight months securing the northern West Bank, before being rotated to a different sector, likely a northern border.
Chaos and heavily armed adversaries lurk on the other side of these frontiers.