Security and Defense: 'The tank is one of the most technologically advanced platforms around'

Col. Yigal Slovik talks about past and future challenges in the Armored Corps - from without and within.

idf tank aiming at YOU 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
idf tank aiming at YOU 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Two days after Col. Yigal Slovik took up his position as commander of the 401st Armored Brigade in March 2008, he was called to the Gaza Division for a series of meetings. On the agenda was the planning of what would become Operation Cast Lead, the three-week IDF onslaught against Hamas at the turn of the year. From that first meeting until the operation, Slovik's entire focus was on preparing his brigade for a war he knew would come at some point. For the following nine months, Slovik spent more time at Gaza Division headquarters than at Central Command, which is responsible for his brigade. Together with his intelligence team, he spent a majority of his time poring over maps to become familiar with the area near the remains of the evacuated southern settlement of Netzarim, where he oversaw operations for two weeks in January. Together with OC Golani Brigade Col. Avi Peled and OC Givati Brigade Col. Ilan Malka, Slovik was one of the brigade commanders specially designated for the operation, which combined infantry forces with tanks and engineers. Peled, an infantry officer, was in command of more tanks than Slovik, the armored officer - he had five companies, Slovik only two. Each brigade-level force, Slovik explained recently in an exclusive interview, was designed to meet the challenges in its area of operations. Peled fought in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, which was heavily fortified by Hamas with underground tunnels, bunkers and improvised-explosive devices. Slovik was deployed along a line adjacent to the Karni-Netzarim road south of Gaza City, which he held throughout the operation to prevent Hamas from moving forces from its southern bases to the north, and vice versa. Slovik's troops - armored, Givati and engineering - seized a relatively wide corridor, and set up improvised outposts behind sand banks for their tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers. The interview was held at brigade headquarters in the Judean Desert just south of Ma'aleh Adumim. But the distance from Gaza and the different terrain, Slovik says, demonstrates the IDF's ability to one day conduct arrest raids in the West Bank, the next day fight Hamas in Gaza and the following week climb to the Hizbullah stronghold of Bint Jbail in southern Lebanon. "This is why the IDF's training regime has been so intensive since the Second Lebanon War in 2006," he says. "The idea is to give the soldiers skills that will enable them to deal with all the different challenges and threats they may face throughout their service." The interview is also part of an IDF campaign to get out its version of events during Cast Lead - two weeks ago, The Jerusalem Post published an interview with Malka - and to counter the various NGO reports that slam Israel. SLOVIK GREW up in the 401st Brigade, serving as a company and battalion commander. In 2006, he was appointed commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade, responsible for securing the border from the Dead Sea to the Kinneret. He will soon be promoted to a brigadier-general and given command of the Armored Corps. Under the command of his predecessor, Col. Motti Kidor, the 401st suffered heavy losses during the final 48 hours of the Second Lebanon War, when it was part of the push for the Litani River. In a clash known as the Battle of the Saluki, a column of Merkava tanks tried to cross the wadi. After 12 hours, it succeeded but paid a heavy price: 12 soldiers were killed by Hizbullah anti-tank rocket squads. Twenty-four tanks participated in the operation, and 11 were hit by missiles. Postwar inquiries revealed that the tanks had failed to use smoke screens that could have hidden their exact positions. Slovik admits that "when I came into the position, there were still several company commanders who had yet to participate in a brigade-level exercise. Since then, we have held three." Slovik redeemed the brigade - and Merkava tank - during Cast Lead, when in under five hours and despite close to 20 anti-tank mines planted by Hamas, he succeeded in crossing the entire Gaza Strip without losing a single tank or soldier. "The firepower with which we entered into Gaza, and the direct hits that we scored against the enemy, severely diminished Hamas's capabilities," he says. Hamas, he says, made great efforts to try to destroy a tank. "This would have been a success on the magnitude of winning the war." This success was denied Hamas, Slovik says, mainly due to the IDF's aggressiveness and nonstop movement throughout the battlefield. Nor does he believe that the IDF exaggerated with its use of force. "I sleep very well at night with what we did," he says. "I did not see soldiers or officers who were trigger-happy, but rather the opposite - officers and soldiers who checked over and over again before opening fire." Slovik dismisses claims that IDF predictions regarding Hamas's capabilities were exaggerated. The proof, the critics claim, is that Hamas resistance was relatively light during the operation. "Firstly, there was resistance," he says. "The reason Hamas fled was because of our firepower. Had we not employed such force, Hamas would not have fled." Criticism of the IDF that it preferred the use of tank fire over infantry is also baseless, he says. "If there is a home in front of me and an RPG is fired from one of the windows, why should I send troops inside if there is a tank? Why not fire?" Slovik will face a new challenge as head of the Armored Corps - increasing the number of its draftees and continuing to purge the recently exposed hazing ceremonies. During the hazing in Brigade 188, new recruits were beaten and humiliated. Pictures and footage showed the troops blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, some with signs of severe physical abuse. Slovik relates that five soldiers were kicked out of the 401st's elite reconnaissance unit for forcing junior soldiers to train in their underwear. "We are continuing to purge these phenomena and rituals from within the corps," he says, adding that he favors welcoming ceremonies that focus on positive reinforcement. In last week's draft, the Armored Corps doubled its enlistment rate to its highest ever. In comparison to 2008, when only 0.4 soldiers were competing for every available spot, this year, there were 0.9. Slovik believes the numbers will continue to climb. "The tank is one of the most technologically advanced platforms around," he says. "It is like flying an airplane, only on the ground."