IDF trains for battle that may lie ahead

Beersheba 'village' offers soldiers challenging training ground.

IDF urban warfare 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF urban warfare 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A warm dawn haze lifted over the desert, but the moon was still out, and it dimly lit a group of soldiers in the distance - dots of green against the dark, barren landscape - charging silently towards the village. Within minutes the silence was shattered. Gunfire, smoke and the low boom of grenade explosions echoed through the early morning, as regular infantry outfits mixed with occasional long-haired reservists advanced on their targets, yelling out commands. "Cover me, I'm moving ahead!" yelled one private, lifting himself up from the ground and bee-lining to a small house on the village outskirts. His comrades followed, one after the other, as rays of sunlight and the neon green light of mosque minarets began to better illuminate the scene The soldiers moved boldly, pushing forward in clear, decisive steps. Their mission: Enter the large Arab village in pursuit of a terrorist cell and engage in intensive house-to-house combat. Each section of the built-up area would need to be cleared. We could have been in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon. But the "fighting" that took place early Thursday morning was actually a training exercise outside Beersheba, and the guns were firing blanks. Dozens of infantry companies, mainly from the Givati Brigade, stormed the large "village" set up in the desert, at the start of another day's instruction at the IDF's Ground Troop Training Center. Built a year and a half ago, the GTTC is a mock Arab village complete with outlying rural areas, a downtown district and a winding maze of streets and alleyways, pregnant with the constant risk of an unexpected close encounter with the enemy. During Thursday's drill, that enemy was a company of female soldiers, dressed in khaki pants and camouflage jackets - a nod to the garb of choice among Hamas and Hizbullah gunmen. Equipped with machine guns, Humvees mounted with rocket-launchers and a steady hold on key positions in the village, the "enemy" soldiers' resemblance to the IDF's most potent recent threats extended far beyond clothing. Explosions continued rocking the town as the sun began to show itself completely, and soldiers, some of whom lay "wounded" or hunkered-down under enemy fire, were forced to deal with a range of volatile factors in the battlefield. As the drill progressed, dozens of officers monitored their troops, looking for flaws and weaknesses that on a real battlefield, in a real conflict, would mean real casualties. "What are you doing?" barked one company commander as his troops barreled their way into the courtyard of a home. "Do you want to die? You have to move in better than that if you want to do it right." Troops were seen evacuating their wounded comrades to safety as others focused heavy gunfire at buildings where "terrorists" had been trapped and were firing in volleys at approaching soldiers. Designed to train combat units for urban warfare, the GTTC village aims to replicate situations that soldiers may encounter in an urban combat situation. While Thursday's drill highlighted basic familiarity with the buildings and other logistical factors in such an environment, other drills feature civilians, media personnel and a central market area filled with people and goods. Additionally, the GTTC has made the implementation of lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War a top priority. Concepts such as the maneuverability of infantry forces and greater collaboration with the Air Force are heavily stressed, with an emphasis on creating a light, fast-moving fighting force that suffers minimal casualties - a tacit acknowledgement of key mistakes made in the summer of 2006. Soldiers seemed to be adjusting well on Thursday morning, and commanders, who refused to be interviewed, seemed pleased with their troops' performance and hard work. As the drill ended, smoked billowed over the village and the sun was rising red behind a hulking minaret. From that point, commanders were taken to a debriefing room outfitted with the latest digital equipment, to review snapshots, analyze video clips and make recommendations for improvements. Soldiers were seen taking a break from combat, smoking cigarettes and sitting down in the sand as they relieved themselves of vests and stretchers. The village stood empty in the morning light. And preparations for the next drill were likely already under way.