The IDF’s tank Battalion 53 has known many wars in its long history. Starting out as an infantry unit in 1948, it moved on to the Armored Corps and became a tank force, taking part in every major battle fought by Israel since its founding, including the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the First Lebanon War.
The battalion, also known as the “Sufa,” has become part of the Armored Corps’ Barak (Lightening) 188 Brigade and is served by a fleet of Merkava 4 tanks, renowned for their tough fortification against outside threats and excellent maneuverability on the battlefield.
Most recently, during the Second Lebanon War, the battalion maneuvered into Lebanese territory together with Golani infantry brigade soldiers.
Today, the battalion’s tanks and their drivers are intrinsic to the IDF’s intensive training on the Golan Heights, which continues as regional tensions with Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah rumble.
Battalion commander Lt.-Col. Dvir Edri told The Jerusalem Post last month that his forces have completed training programs at all levels, from the company, the battalion, all the way through to the brigade level. “We’re drilling for a range of expected operational scenarios,” Edri said.
The training has been tough, and prolonged. Tank crews remain in their vehicles for extended periods of time, facing mental and physical challenges. “The aim is to simulate combat techniques, to improve [responses], while dealing with pressure and simulating possible combat scenarios,” he said.
At times, tank crews remained in their vehicles for as long as two days. “They have become accustomed to it. It’s not a natural environment, to be inside this closed space without privacy with three other people for a long time. [They] have to learn how to eat, how to shower, how to sleep while sitting up.”
In the midst of all of the drills, a new presence appeared on the training fields of northern Israel.
Soldiers serving in the battalion’s logistics company, who are responsible for keeping supply lines open to tank crews during fighting, held their own special exercise.
Each battalion in the military has its own logistics company, which is responsible for logistical supplies, food, ammunition and medical services. Prior to the Second Lebanon War, the soldiers at these headquarters were not drilled together with regular forces, and the result was that when fighting erupted in 2006, critical supply lines failed to materialize.
Commanders were hesitant to place them in the fighting arenas. “We all saw the results on TV,” says Capt. Alex Hazin, commander of Battalion 53’s headquarters company, referring to jarring reports of gaps in food and basic equipment supplies.
“Now, there is an understanding that the supporting troops will have to enter the depth of fighting with the battalion. We are practicing with the aim of winning the next war, and nothing less than that,” he added.
To understand why the change is important, it is worth examining what a battalion logistics company does. In addition to arms and medical services, it also responsible for communications and computer equipment, the kitchen, and vehicles.
“Logistics run the battalion,” Hazin explains. During peacetime, the supplies run smoothly, but during times of war, the picture changes dramatically. Tank crews are off base, in far away fields of combat.
But they still require their basic logistical supply lines.
Keeping those lines running is essential in order for the tanks to advance. The imposing Merkava 4 tanks lose their power if the personnel inside lose access to food, ammunition, fuel, or medical care.
“We have to keep it all moving forward so that soldiers can fight. If soldiers are injured, they need to be replaced. If fuel is spent, we come in with the supplies,” Hazin explains. “It has to move non-stop. My job is to ensure that the wheels keep churning.”
And the logistics staff can’t rely solely on helicopters to get them to where they need to be during combat.
That’s why they spent two weeks in August doing something they had never done before: Running their own combat exercise.
Hazin took the company into the field, briefed them and set them off into uncharted territory.
“It wasn’t easy for them psychologically. At night we sent them to a shooting range, and they fired MAG machine guns. This isn’t their normal routine. But they have to have a basic knowledge of this firearm,” he says.
After the Second Lebanon War, it became obvious that even logistics crews will have to move through hostile terrain.
“Everyone must have the ability to operate basic weapons in such territory,” he continues.
“What happens if we get hurt? We have to treat ourselves,” he adds, recalling how, during the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah shells fell in the vicinity of logistics crews. “Because of that, the system almost collapsed,” he says.
The soldiers also drilled following orders without necessarily understanding the reason behind them – a vital skill in the battlefield.
“My soldiers don’t enjoy the glory of combat fighters. We don’t look into the whites of the enemy’s eyes. But we keep the fighting forces going.”
Looking back, the officer adds, the exercises proved highly useful for both his soldiers and himself. “They learned many things about the battalion. I think it’s important to continue with this education and to drill them as much as possible in the field in conditions they’re not used to.
I can say that the training was a success, for my commanders and for their soldiers,” he said.