NORTHERN ISRAEL, AUGUST 17: Under a starry night sky, on a pitch black field, a slice of Israel’s formidable military firepower lie silently in wait.
Dozens of massive armored personnel carriers (APCs) sit parked side by side. Behind them, a row of Merkava Mk 4 tanks.
Down below, past a steep slope, infantry soldiers have already crossed the Jordan River and proceeded to secure the area for the armored vehicles that will follow them.
Soon, the powerful war vehicles will rev up their engines and begin travelling into the darkness. Eventually, they will cross the river over a bridge hastily created by the IDF Engineering Corps.
This large-scale nighttime drill is being held by the Golani Brigade’s Battalion 13 (also known as the Gideon Battalion). The complex maneuver has a clear goal: to practice a blitz invasion of southern Lebanese territory with ground forces, eliminate Hezbollah resistance lines and proceed onwards, crossing Lebanon’s Litani River, where Hezbollah has constructed a network of outposts.
This, military planners have concluded, is the surest way to halt Hezbollah rocket barrages on Israel, which could follow a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program sites.
“The next war will be decided by land maneuvers, not from the air or the sea,” a senior defense source says.
“The targets will be difficult to destroy from the air. We’ll have to physically get to the targets and blow them up.”
Another army source says of the drill, “There's a new emphasis here. We’re practicing overcoming natural barriers in the northern arena. This is the first time infantry are holding a drill like this together with the Armored Corps and the Engineering Corps.”
As he speaks, an imposing armored D-9 bulldozer switches on its light and begins descending toward the river.
The IDF has been working for years to improve communications between its branches, in line with the belief that various components of the military should be coordinating with one another in real time during a future war.
The armored personnel carriers used in the exercise, known as the Namer (“leopard” in Hebrew), are the IDF’s latest infantry combat vehicles.
The size of a tank and built partially out of tank components, the vehicle is armed with heavy machine guns. It is now in the service of the Golani Brigade’s Battalion 13.
The Golani Brigade recently completed its latest “shift” – defending the Gaza border – and is now deployed on the Golan Heights, taking up poll position in a future potential front with Hezbollah.
Now Golani is preparing to meet the Shi’ite terror organization, should it have to.
“We’re going to head toward the obstacle [the river],” the battalion’s commander tells a group of young soldiers gathered around him for a briefing before the exercise begins.
“There will be injured. There will be enemy attacks. We’re not stopping along the way. We reach our destination – in any situation.”
The sleep-deprived soldiers look on, absorbing his every word.
In any real ground offensive, the air force would play a crucial component as well.
Unlike it did in 2006, however, this drill suggests that the IDF will not rely mainly on airpower to eliminate Hezbollah rocket fire on Israeli civilian targets.
“This is going to be a sprint,” a senior army source says.
Away from the vehicles, a large tent lit up by the glow of LCD screens serves as the field command and control centers. The army’s radio network crackles with APC and tank drivers reporting their positions and receiving orders from commanders.
“The battalion knows how to proceed on foot. The idea is to challenge them [using armored vehicles] and have them work with other forces,” another senior source adds.
The army knows that if and when it needs to reach the Litani River, its forces will be exposed to intense sniper fire and hit-and-run attacks from Hezbollah.
Hence, in the drill, infantry soldiers on foot have practiced surrounding the crossing point, eliminating terrorists they meet along the way and clearing the path for the APCs and tanks.
“We’re aiming to gain control of the territory. We’ve been thinking about the Litani scenario for many years,” the army source says. “This is a barrier that needs to be crossed.”
The source says that despite the many challenges that could lie ahead, “We are calm. The fighters have not stopped training. They come prepared.”
More generally, the source says, the chaos engulfing Syria (and now Lebanon) is becoming increasingly tangible.
“We can hear the Syrians shelling,” the source says. “It adds to the awareness of the soldiers. We understand what period we’re in.”
During a brief respite in the drill, a soldier roasts coffee in a cezve, handing refreshing glasses of the beverage to the exhausted journalists who have come to witness the drill. As the sun comes up, shining brilliantly over the Golan, more APCs line up to cross the river, waiting for the cue from a soldier on the bridge controlling the traffic with a flashlight.
The drill goes on to include the entire Golani Brigade and more tank battalions.
The next week, news emerges that Hezbollah held its largest ever drill, involving 10,000 trained fighters, in southern Lebanon, most likely in the Litani River area. The report drives home the fact that Golani is not preparing for a virtual enemy, but rather for a determined terrorist organization in firm control of southern Lebanon, despite the UN presence there.
Hezbollah’s confident presence in the region may well change, however, if Israel’s tanks, APCs and infantry units are ordered to advance over the northern border.