Earlier this month, Nahal infantry field commanders hunkered down in a field in northern Israel, pinned down by mock enemy fire.
They were on a “mission” to destroy targets similar to a rocket launcher hidden in a building in the middle of a Hezbollah-controlled village in southern Lebanon.
In this scenario, the ground forces were unable to proceed, so they transmitted their data to Apache combat helicopters hovering in the sky a short distance away. The Apaches “fired” precision-guided missiles at the targets, destroying them swiftly.
The ground forces continued to their next objective.
These scenes played out at the Eliakim Training Base in the Yokne’am region, and represent a key aspect of warfare that the IDF is investing heavily in to improve. The ability of Ground Forces and the Israel Air Force to work closely together is a top focus in the military’s preparations for war in Lebanon, Gaza, or even in potential arenas such as Syria, where Ground Forces would face a wide array of threats and surprises on the ground.
The IAF’s Training Center for Cooperation, based at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, is spearheading these preparations.
Its core goal is to enable the IDF to make full use of air power to assist ground combat.
The center’s instructors travel around bases and training areas all over the country to spread the work on how fighter jets and helicopters can come under the direct command of infantry and armored commanders who need them most.
Throughout the year, the center brings together ground forces and air force units, as it did last week, when Nahal Brigade members and Armored Corps units from the 401 Brigade joined forces with pilots from an Apache helicopter squadron, as well as transport helicopters.
Capt. Ro’i (full name withheld) heads the Air Branch of the Training Center. Previously a paratrooper for nine years, he moved to the IAF Training Center for Cooperation, drawn by the challenge of improving the air force’s ability to integrate with ground operations.
In past years, the IDF was filled with jokes describing the IAF as “the friendliest foreign military,” Ro’i recalled, referring to the gaps that separated the two branches.
“Now, we are in a totally different era,” he argued. “A platoon commander can activate a combat helicopter, or guide a transport helicopter to its landing spot. The Ground Forces understand that the IAF will help them in their next maneuver,” he said.
“I wanted to open my mind to a new role. I had the opportunity to join this special unit. We have three former Ground Forces officers here, who are now fully IAF. We act as the knowledge centers on Ground Forces,” Ro’i said.
“Our role is to train blue [air force] officers in how to work with green [Ground Forces] officers, and vice versa,” he said.
“The 401 Armored Brigade and the Nahal’s 933 Battalion came to learn how to direct helicopter strikes and direct airlifts of the wounded,” the officer said.
Ro’i added that improvements in technology are central to this process. Not only can ground forces and helicopter pilots now talk to each other directly, but brigade headquarters can also transmit targeting data to division headquarters, which then relays the data to the underground Operations Branch center at IDF headquarters, often dubbed “the pit,” which then distributes the data to any unit that needs them.
“Once, they did not talk to one another,” Ro’i said. “When we talk about creating the same language, this is how. If I do not know what the other side’s capabilities are, I will not feel secure about activating them. If the officers know the full range of the other branch’s firepower, they can take much more active control,” he said.
The Training Center’s commander, Lt.-Col. Gil (full name withheld), told The Jerusalem Post, “The focus of the training [earlier in April] was to teach platoon and company commanders to deploy combat and transport helicopters.”
A field commander who has a direct view of his target can activate a combat helicopter to conduct an air strike, he said. The helicopter releases munitions “based on the instructions of units who have visual confirmation,” Gil stated.
“This would happen in a situation in which the ground force cannot attack its target, due to any kind of limitation. It may not be able to hit the structure, or it may lack the right kind of munition. Hence, the platoon or company commander will prefer to pass on the mission to a helicopter,” Gil said.
“The pilots have no reason to get too close to the target, where their aircraft could be harmed, or [where they might] expose their intention to attack,” he added.
During the training, commanders selected targets and communicated them to Apache helicopter pilots. Tank crews did the same, only they have the added benefit of using built-in systems that can digitally transmit target data to the helicopter’s weapons systems.
When computers cannot communicate in that manner, the ground and air forces will use traditional radio communications.
“Some weapons systems require audio dialogue to operate. Of course, this must be highly encrypted.
But the pilot still has to understand, in Hebrew, information about the target,” Gil said.
Asked if this kind of cooperation has improved since the last time the IDF fought against Hezbollah in Lebanon, a decade ago, Gil said, “I think it has improved dramatically.
We can look at Operation Protective Edge a year-and-a-half ago [in Gaza]; the results speak for themselves. The progress means we have much better results compared to the Second Lebanon War. This mainly stems from the knowledge and expertise of air and ground crew – not necessarily from systems.”
Transport helicopters, used to airlift wounded soldiers from the battlefield to hospitals back in Israel, will also be a central feature of any future conflict.
During the recent exercise, field commanders were trained in how to direct the aircraft to land in the middle of a combat zone and receive stretchers with mock victims on them.
In any real situation, ground commanders who speak with transport helicopter pilots will have to be “brave enough to say when they don’t know about threats [to the landing aircraft],” Gil said, referring to antitank-missile ambushes that could target the helicopters.
“The pilot will then rely on what he knows and make a decision. This is part of the responsibility of a ground commander; to know what his problems and limitations are,” he said.