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(photo credit: IDF [file])
Reservists who took part in the Paratroopers Brigade exercise on the Golan Heights Wednesday were mildly amused at the attention the maneuver was drawing.
"In our time, this kind of exercise was commonplace," said one of them, but the young soldiers around them, including the officers at platoon and company level, had never seen anything so big.
One detail that did strike the veterans was the location of the exercise's final stage, the live-fire simulated attack involving the entire brigade and additional armor, artillery and airborne components. It took place on the eastern side of the Avital and Bental mountains, in full sight of the Syrian observation posts. Someone here was making a point.
The vast operational experience gained by the soldiers and commanders in the exercise was far from the sole objective. The IDF produced a spectacle, not only for the Syrians' benefit, but also for the home crowd.
Along with the four fighting battalions, the tanks, cannons, helicopters and supporting units, the IDF Spokesman's Unit was also an integral part of the exercise, its camera crews on hand to supply the media with footage of columns of camouflaged troopers marching through the mist.
The mission was clear: assuring the Israeli public that the failings of the summer were an aberration, and that this is the real army.
It's no coincidence that Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi made his first public appearance as the new chief of General Staff at the final day of the exercise.
But the real heroes of the largest IDF exercise in over six years weren't even on the Golan. They were back at General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv. They are the faceless military bureaucrats who have the unenviable job of preparing the IDF's duty roster, allocating the operational postings to the regular and reserve combat units, who managed the impossible and arranged the IDF's deployment so that the entire brigade wasn't needed for operational duty for a few weeks.
Their job is to decide which battalions get sent to which sector of the border and which area in the West Bank. Their complex calculations include considerations such as: which reservist battalion was last called up during the school vacation or on Pessah, who hasn't carried out any decent training in years, which theater of operations needs a more elite unit, and what part of the southern border can be left to out-of-shape 40-year-olds.
A major concern is, of course, the heavy financial cost of taking civilians away from their homes and jobs. In times of high alert, which are most of the time, more forces of a higher level of preparedness are needed.
All of this explains why, over the last six and a half years, since the outbreak of the second intifada, the regular brigades spent little if any time on large-scale exercises. The continuing cutbacks in the defense budget and the growing reluctance in the IDF to call up reservists for more than a month a year also meant that a greater burden was put on the regular units, especially the four infantry brigades: Paratroopers, Golani, Givati and Nahal.
Until the pullback from the South Lebanon security zone in 2000, the infantry kept to a basic turnaround rate of four months of line or operational posting in the security zone and in the more tense areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and four months of intensive training, which usually ended with a brigade exercise.
The pullback was supposed to enable them more training time and alleviate the burden on the reservists, but four months later when the Palestinian terror offensive broke out and tensions with Hizbullah on the border rose, training at anything above company level became a rare luxury.
One of the main reasons given for the outcome of the summer's war in Lebanon was the lack of any serious training over the last few years. The Winograd Commission won't be pinning the blame for this on anyone. It was an operational and financial necessity and in that sense, little has changed since the war.
The paratroopers' exercise might make for great pictures on the 8 o'clock news but it was only one brigade among dozens of regular and reserve units that are in dire need of the same.
Ashkenazi will need magical powers of persuasion to wrest the necessary funding for this from the Treasury. Even then, who can guarantee the necessary period of relative calm in which to carry out training?
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