As the sun climbed over the desert mounds at the Tze’elim IDF training base in southern Israel last week, the deep bass thuds of mortar shells exploding a kilometer away splintered the air. The sounds traveled through one’s entire body – a testament to the enormous firepower on display.
Nearby, soldiers crouched in the sand and fired bursts from their M-16s. To the right, a column of Merkava Mark 3 tanks began advancing.
These sounds and sights of war signified the start of an event that occurs three times a year – the IDF’s Ground Forces’ live-fire exercise for budding battalion and company commanders.
The simulated battle represents the peak of 12 weeks of preparations, during which the officers studied battle doctrines, IDF values and command techniques. Now, their ability to lead forces was being put to the test.
Lt.-Col Dotan Razili commanded the exercise. “In our profession, you can’t qualify by taking written exams. This is how we teach them. The enemy is ahead, and the battalion under your command is behind you. In a short period of time, you must advance,” he said, as he walked between soldiers and offered them tips and instructions.
The end-goal is simple enough: to storm the enemy’s position, kill hostile combatants, and seize their territory. If completed successfully, thirty battalion commanders and 120 company commanders will join the ranks of the Ground Forces.
In the drill, the commanders were given paratroopers to command over, as well as vehicles from the Armored Cops, and cannons from the Artillery Corps.
Their simulated enemy ranged from various evaluations.
“The North isn’t known for its sand-colored features. We also train on the Golan Heights, though we don’t have this kind of space there. Training space is narrower in the North, because of nature reserves,” he added.
Sufficient space is important for this kind of training, as most ground battles will progress at the same pace that soldiers are able to push forward on foot.
If ground forces walk ten kilometers a day in a battle, that places them eight days from Beirut and six days from Damascus.
In either scenario, enemy positions will have to be stormed.
A major challenge facing officers in the drill revolved around the constantly changing orders being transmitted over the radio. This was the only way the army could be sure the new officers knew how to make the right decisions in an uncertain, stressful, and confusing environment.
“On the battlefield, not every mission is clear,” Razili said.
Col. Asher Ben Lulan, commander of the live-fire training center at Tze’elim, concurred. “They are told to achieve one objective, and suddenly, they’re told to head elsewhere. The change in objectives involves logistical changes as well. Our basic assumption is that there will be surprises,” he said.
In the distance, a tent housed a command-and-control room. From there, orders and coordinates were sent to artillery gunners who were positioned far behind the “front line.” The soldiers took extra care in directing the artillery shells, which have a range of 10 kilometers.
Tze’elim saw two fatal training accidents in the early 1990s. No soldier wants to be associated with any more costly errors.
The shelling is designed to “soften up” enemy positions before infantry and tanks charge forward. Suddenly, one soldier aimed a shoulder-held launcher, and fired a Gil anti-tank missile, which has a four-kilometer range, at a distant desert hill top.
The flash was visible long before the deafening roar of the explosion.
“You just saw NIS 250,000 blow up,” Razili said.
The Gil is a precision-guided weapon, capable of striking a home being used by Hezbollah in a south Lebanese village. It provides a roving infantry unit with the ability to launch a long-distance strike on an enemy position without having to call in the air force or artillery.
“The commander has a dilemma – how close should he be to the enemy? He needs to be in a forward position, but not so close to the enemy that he can’t take decisions,” Razili stated.
Soon enough, the paratroopers received the expected signal, and charged forward, firing as they went, as another line of soldiers stayed back to cover them.
As the tanks, cannons and machine guns roared, Razili compared the intricate ground offensive being played out around him to an orchestra.
“Every instrument has to follow the right timing. Each contributes its own unique function,” he said, as he walked past a team of snipers crouching in the sand on a hilltop.
“Snipers are a very significant force multiplier,” Razili said, adding that the IDF has increased its reliance on snipers in full-scale battles over the past two years.
“In the past, some of our former snipers were Russian immigrants. Now, everyone’s involved.”
The intensive drills represent one of the most important lessons learned by the IDF after the Second Lebanon War. During that conflict, the ground forces discovered that they had become rusty in their combat techniques, since they spent much of their time on counter-terrorism and riot dispersal missions in the West Bank.
“When we stopped training, before 2006, we discovered a big gap [in communications] between infantry and tanks. This is dangerous,” Razili said. Now, however, regular, combined training has eliminated that gap, he added.
During the drill, reservists and conscripts practiced together – a first for the IDF, and another measure aimed at improving cross-forces cooperation.
In the past, a drill would last around ten hours, but now, they go on for up to 24 hours, as part of the army’s effort to prepare commanders.
As Razili’s jeep drove us away from the simulated ground offensive, his “orchestra” continued its rehearsal, preparing for the day when it might have to give a real performance.