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May 30, 2015

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Security and defense: Preparing for the next round in Gaza


Incorporating the lessons of last summer’s 50-day war, reservists are undergoing intensive battle drills.



Two reservist infantry battalions from Training Base One near Mitzpe Ramon recently completed a grueling 10-day war exercise – which lasted double the time of past drills, was far more intensive, and sheds light on changes in IDF preparations for the next clash with Hamas in Gaza.

Training Base One is the main facility for qualifying army officers, but also serves as the center for a reserve combat brigade.

Col. Avi Gil commands both the reserve brigade and the training base. He told The Jerusalem Post this week that the drill’s extraordinarily difficult conditions are designed to “simulate the physical and mental difficulties” of combat, adding that despite some real doubts, the reservists successfully got through the exercises.

The drills saw frequent last-minute mission changes, and relentless pressure on the reservists – who had to carry out combat tasks in heavy heat, to simulate the fog and strenuous conditions of war.

Held at the Tze’elim Ground Forces training center deep in the Negev, it began at the combat squad level, gradually growing in size to the company level, followed by a battalion-level, live-fire exercise.

It culminated in the storming of mock enemy positions.

The last stage of the exercise was witnessed by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who specially arrived at Tze’elim to review the reservists in action.

The latest drills were part of a new program that incorporates lessons learned from that 50-day war, Gil said.

“Two battalions that took part in Operation Protective Edge were in this drill; this is the first time we trained reserves at the battalion and company level since the operation,” the commander explained.

The extended training period is part of an attempt to “avoid wasting time, which occurred in the past, when training was limited to only a week, and by the time the reservists were ready to start… they had to head home.”

The first week of training dealt with fundamentals of combat, and included “very intensive drills” that lasted for four days. Units practiced operating as a company, stretcher evacuations and navigating battlegrounds. They then stayed at base and held a Shabbat celebration – an experience Gil said was key to creating a bond among unit members.

“All segments of society were there,” he noted. “At first, there was lots of opposition. People asked, why do we need to do this? But we used civilian gelling models; hi-tech companies and law firms do these things to create cohesion among their employees, and cohesion is important for us too.” In the end, he added, the experience was a very positive one for all involved.

After a brief respite, the second week of training began in the desert sands, and battalion-wide, intensive war drills pushed the reservists to the edge of their capabilities.

The reservists “said they did not remember things like this, even during their time as conscripted soldiers,” Gil recalled. “When you fight the enemy, he doesn’t care if you are a reservist or a conscripted soldier; you have to win the battle. The enemy will not take into account the fact that you came from the civilian world, that you are a lawyer or doctor by profession.

“It was very tough, and I have to say, I started this with doubts. People said it was too difficult. Yet I was pleasantly surprised, in a very significant way.”

The second phase of training was defined by “lots of uncertainty, as in war; not knowing what will happen in two hours. The units studied drills, and were suddenly pulled away and mobilized elsewhere.

They did this while being extremely tired, and in very high temperatures,” Gil said.

Seventy percent of the drill simulated combat in confined, built-up areas, and the remaining 30 percent saw soldiers practice fighting terror cells in open areas.

“I saw how hard it was on their faces,” he said.

“They felt this had no end. They were running on three hours of sleep, and continued on with their missions.”

Most reservists serving in the battalions are aged 26 to 27, and a majority come from the Givati infantry brigade. “They really come from the whole of Israel. When they come together, suddenly, there are no divisions. There is unity surrounding the mission, it is something incredible,” Gil said.

The battalions gelled through weeks of intense combat in Gaza last summer, an experience Gil stressed changed his perception of their capabilities.

“When we arrived at Operation Protective Edge, on the first day, I knew the platoon and company commanders but not the soldiers. I looked at them and asked myself: Am I certain I want to fight with them? After a couple of days, I saw the combat framework come together. This was a wonder in and of itself.”

Although he considers the exercises to be a success, Gil said they also provided glimpses into gaps that need to be addressed. “Whatever you touch, you end up missing something else.

“It was a challenge to the leadership abilities of the commanders. Usually, reserve training is seen a as little bit of fun; they used to come and play backgammon.

Now, [in this training session,] battalion and company companies faced real pressure from soldiers below. This pressure is what happens whenever there is chaos,” he continued.

“I think we are more ready for any mission than we were two weeks ago. We still have steps to climb…

We are preparing for the Gaza region, and for a range of scenarios.”

Lt.-Col. Aviram Ring, commander of a reconnaissance battalion, told the Post that at the end of last year’s conflict, special teams were assembled to “study our performance. One of our conclusions was the need to increase the role of commanders, who must function in a rapidly challenging reality in Gaza.”

The 10-day exercise was born out of that process.

“The drill simulated northern Gaza’s sandy regions and built-up closed spaces within the Strip, as well as underground warfare,” Ring detailed.

“That’s how we began building the drill. Planning started months ago,” he added. “As the reconnaissance battalion, we are the brigade’s forward guard.

“We project on to the rest of the brigade, and up [the chain of command] to the Southern Command, as well as down the chain. When [officer] cadets see reservists in uniform and ceramic vests, carrying dozens of kilograms on them, it has an impact.”

The exercise focused on cooperation with other components of the ground forces, Ring said. “One of the conclusions from last year is that this cooperation was not well-understood.

“Every drill, from the platoon level upwards, involved armored and combat engineering units, and was assisted by lookouts. We understand there is no such thing anymore as an infantry-only operation.

Today, it is about the combined battle.”

Ring, who took command of the brigade’s reconnaissance battalion in January, said he hopes other reserve combat battalions will adopt the same training pattern.

“I can say unequivocally that our readiness has gone up. We still have not trained for 100 percent of scenarios… but the unit drilled everything it could in the live-fire training ground, and had access to the supporting environment the IDF can provide.”

Units practiced advancing, seizing territory, then stopping to seek cover from enemy fire, before continuing with an assault. “It all means that battle- readiness has risen,” he asserted. “Are we ready? Much more than before.”

Ring paid tribute to the 10 days his reservists gave up for training, 10 days in which “they were not at work and not with their families. This is tough, both physically and mentally, and they trained in very high temperatures.

“I saluted them at the end of it.”