Wherever the next conflict breaks out, chances are the IDF’s ground forces will have to deal with an enemy that moves on foot, appears and vanishes quickly, is armed with deadly shoulder-held missiles and operates in an urban setting, filled with noncombatants.
The Jerusalem Post spoke to three commanders of Ground Forces Command training centers, to gain a glimpse into how the IDF is preparing the next generation of combat soldiers for this difficult and evolving challenge.
Col. Barak Cohen, commander of the Combat Intelligence Collection training center at Sayarim training base in the southern Negev, described a far-reaching process of “adjusting all of our programs to new threats.
The Combat Intelligence Collection Corps places units in the field to collect a range of visual intelligence and maintain advanced electronic sensors that feed into control centers.
“We are preparing for real situations, and what we expect combat soldiers and lookouts to confront,” Cohen said.
“We drew many lessons from the summer war. How should we deal with an enemy in an urban arena? This is where combat is heading; there is a big challenge in distinguishing the enemy from civilians.
“We are going to build urban warfare training facilities, and set up lookouts in and around them. This is happening in every Ground Forces school; this is the main combat scenario in almost all sectors. We have to prepare cadets for dealing with urban warfare, and that is not a simple challenge. They will face this in Lebanon and in Gaza.”
Operation Protective Edge’s 50 days of combat held few surprises for the training center, Cohen added. “We knew we were going to fight in built-up areas; we knew the enemy was going to fight out of tunnels. Training for this began before [2012’s] Operation Pillar of Defense, and gained a bigger significance afterward,” Cohen said.
“Our goal is to ensure that soldiers from the battalion are not surprised by anything they see. We train lookouts [who will staff control centers] on simulators that are virtual control centers, fed by a multisensory security system known as MARS. We take real situations and use them to set up training scenarios.”
In the field, camouflaged Combat Intelligence Collection units undergo intensive training, to provide them with the basic tools to carry out low-profile intelligence-gathering missions on behalf of their battalions.
Col. Guy Hasson, commander of the Armored Corps school at Shizafon in the northern Negev, is training the IDF’s future tank crews to deal with the same threats and challenging environments.
The school forms a brigade-sized unit, and all of its members fought in Gaza during last summer’s conflict.
“During emergencies, the school turns into an operational brigade,” said Hasson. “This in turn influences training positively. We experienced the fighting and gained much experience, enabling us to check how relevant our training is.”
Like the Combat Intelligence school, Hasson’s training center is focused on simulating combat in closed areas and hilly terrains. “These are the territories we are going to fight in. We are investing a lot in training. This includes checking how well we hit our targets. We hold live fire drills and dry exercises; we leave the training base to experience other forms of terrain,” he explained.
During training, state-of-the-art military networking technology is playing a bigger role. “We use a classified Internet network for command-and-control capabilities. It covers everyone from the individual soldier to the brigade level, and everything in between,” Hasson said. “It’s been proven that those who can use a digital network are well-positioned during combat.”
The enemy is “mostly on foot. From our perspective, this is very challenging. We adapted all of our techniques to deal with an infantry enemy, which is very hard to identify. Even if you identify them, they are very hard to hit. If you miss, the enemy vanishes. We simulate a variety of fire situations,” he continued.
Since the Second Lebanon War, the school has focused on training against a “vanishing enemy that lives underground and fires a lot of projectiles at us and at the home front. We understand that built-up areas will be very significant.”
After Operation Protective Edge, the Armored Corps school expanded its training programs aimed at creating cooperation with other IDF forces. “We are focusing on cooperation with other forces among lower-ranking officers, not just among the higher ranks. We need to work with the Infantry, Engineering Corps, Artillery Corps and the air force,” the commander said.
Another new feature of training is based on the fact that the tank has become more independent, and can operate on its own in built up areas, according to Hasson. “We are training the crews to give them confidence to fully utilize their tanks. We invested in this in the past, but not enough, in our view.”
The installation of Rafael’s Trophy active defense system on Merkava tanks enables them to enter urban areas with far greater ease, and to quickly complete sensor-to-shooter cycles, he noted. “Not all of our tools have this. We work around where this [active defenses against anti-tank missiles] does not exist.”
“If the Second Lebanon War created a fear of introducing many tanks into the battlefield because of the threat of anti-tank missiles, Operation Protective Edge placed the Armored Corps in a much better place,” he argued. “We have more recruits, and their confidence is high. The ability of the tank to operate in a closed area has a place of honor. Tanks played a role in searching for tunnel threats together with infantry [in Gaza]. The ability to absorb enemy fire, and take the lead, puts in us in a good position.”
Col. Yuval Ben-Dov, commander of the Artillery Corps school at the Shivta training base in the central Negev, said the recent lengthy conflict with Hamas could be felt on all levels at his training center.
“We received a lot of tailwind from the summer war,” he said, referring to a “good numbers of recruits. We are in a good situation in terms of the numbers of cadets seeking to join the Artillery Corps; the whole of the ground forces had a good draft. The atmosphere of Operation Protective Edge is still in the air.
“Many come focused on the goal of wishing to contribute in a combat role. They are highly motivated. Numbers of recruits have been rising steadily. There are units in the Artillery Corps that are attractive to them.”
During Operation Protective Edge, Artillery Corps cadets joined combat, while continuing to train.
“We are evaluating our performance, though our view is to prepare for the next war,” Ben-Dov said. “The era of old wars against multiple armies – I’m not sure this is the scenario the State of Israel has to face. But it’s clear to everyone that we have to be ready for a number of scenarios. Artillery remains very relevant as the forward firepower force, and the assistance provider to the ground forces.”
Additionally, radar technology is playing an increasing role in both training and combat techniques.
Ben-Dov could not go into detail due to the classified nature of the radars, but did note that new radars give exact positions to enemy fire.
“We displayed maximum precision during the summer operation. Part of achieving this is... getting the coordinates of enemy fire sources. We have very sophisticated radars to give us a precise picture of this. This is playing a bigger role today.
“The sensor-to-shooter cycle today is more advanced; it’s not based on paper [maps]. The information flows rapidly, and there are less mistakes,” he said.
The school is also preparing to train cadets in firing precision shells – a weapon that is due to enter the Artillery Corps in the coming years, and join the older type of munition.
Like other Ground Forces training centers, cooperation with other IDF forces has become a vital component of training. “It’s better to work together. We tell the other forces to talk to us, and tell us what they need,” Ben-Dov said. “We have been working on this dialogue for years.
No one works in a vacuum. If all of the forces combine their efforts, this will result in maximum strikes to targets. The more we work on this in training, the easier it is to go into emergencies together and understand what each side requires.”
Concluded Ben-Dov: “Intelligence- based combat is the future direction, everyone understands this. The Artillery Corps is taking huge steps forward as time goes by; very advanced technologies are coming into service.
“But teaching the old and good artillery techniques continues, too.”