September and October are supposed to be fall months in Israel, with the weather cooling as we approach winter. However, this year has been unusually hot and Israel has come to a stand-still due to the coronavirus lockdowns that were put in place in late September. Nevertheless, for the commanders of the country’s top infantry and tank brigades the training to confront Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorists has not stopped.
I went up to Israel’s Golan Heights in September to see how the country is preparing for war with these groups, which Israeli fighters often call “terror armies,” to understand what Israel has learned from past conflicts. For the average Israeli soldier, conscripted every year as part of national service, the wars of the past are increasingly a distant memory. These young men were born during the Second Intifada and likely have few memories of the days of bus bombings. For the officers the formative wars, and their experience, was shaped by the war against Hezbollah in 2006 and the wars against Hamas in Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
These past wars have similar elements and lessons. As Israel transitioned from doing counter-terrorism in the West Bank during the Second Intifada, it found itself facing enemies in Lebanon and Gaza that are well armed and have missiles and equipment that has been trafficked from Iran or other sources. That means enemies that are dug in to villages and urban terrain with anti-tank missiles, katyusha rockets and today maybe even drones and other threats. Fighting an enemy like that requires using old technology, like tanks and infantry with rifles, as well as combining it with the latest communications and sensors and intelligence to identify and quickly destroy an enemy.
The drill in the Golan in September was similar to drills the Israeli Defense Forces carry out throughout the year. It involves combining armored battalions with infantry. In this case it was the 7th armored Brigade and Golani infantry brigade. These are storied historic units with experience fighting in the Golan going back to the wars against Syria in the 1960s and 1970s. Today the 7th brigade has the advanced Markava IV tank with its Trophy defense system and main gun and machine guns. The men practice for day and night missions as part of a task force designed to quickly take and secure a mock “enemy” village.
Israel’s army today is bolstered by a plethora of new technology and 5th generation F-35 warplanes. As part of Israel’s new Momentum multi-year plan the army is also changing. It has a new “multi-dimensional” unit and a new air force special forces unit, new varieties of drones and loitering munitions, better real-time surveillance combined with artificial intelligence and algorithms that help commanders decide what force and weapon is best for destroying what target. Israel’s challenge today is not about having enough weapons. It has all the guns and bombs needed to fight its enemies. It is about using them precisely and effectively and lethally to accomplish missions quickly. The idea is that by using better communications and technology you can reduce the time needed for a sensor to bring information to a shooter and for a commander to give the right order.
In the Golan, the drill included the tanks maneuvering on a bluff of land and using their main guns to strike targets in the distance. Then the armored vehicles, engineering vehicles and armored personnel carriers, known as Namer, drove toward the mock enemy village. The armored vehicles kicked up so much dust that it was difficult to see what they were doing. Eventually I went down among the vehicles and into the mock village with the Golani infantry. The men went from one mock house, actually a kind of shipping container, to the next, clearing each obstacle and then moving on. The tanks moved with us, opening up areas and using their machine guns against the fake “enemy” that festooned the village. The closely coordinated movements, like a boxer landing blows on an opponent, conquered the village in thirty minutes.
This was an operation designed for speed and not attrition. The village wasn’t pulverized with bombs or random shelling, of the kind we are seeing today in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There was no wasted ammunition or resources. In some ways the scene was little changed visually from the battles one can see in films like Full Metal Jacket with the armor and infantry advancing into the city of Hue. There is some difference in that the armored vehicles didn’t merely sit outside the village and provide support for the infantry, but moved forward in concert. The key to this is good communication. Israel lacked this communication in the 2006 war and the failings of various units to communicate well was a reason cited for difficulties encountered and needless casualties. Today the IDF hopes to have learned from that.
What this means is bringing information from Israel’s intelligence-gathering units, such as Unit 8200, to the soldiers at lower levels in a faster manner. The concept is to have commanders utilizing the latest information. Towards that end a new communications vehicle has been outfitted for the 7th armored brigade battalions. The vehicle looks like a porcupine with all its antennas. Inside soldiers have access to the screens and phones they need to relay information quickly. The idea is to pass information as quickly as possible to commanders and then to the right units in the field, coordinating with drones and artillery and other parts of the frontline.
All of this is part of progress that is affecting modern militaries. The battlefield today, for modern armies, has a massive amount of information. This is similar to civilian life where people have access to massive amounts of data from their phones. The question is how to process the data and make it work for the soldiers, rather than overwhelm commanders. This is a war that is increasingly about sensors and computers aiding the effort. In some ways military equipment appears to have changed more slowly than the civilian world. That is why terror armies have sometimes been able to inflict casualties on militaries using things like improvised explosive devices or even armed drones they made at home. Making communications secure and vehicles able to operate in GPS-denied environments, are challenges militaries need to surmount, rather than civilians. That means that bringing the technological overmatch to the field off battle, along with the traditional fighting qualities of men with rifles and armored vehicles with larger guns, has to be combined properly. Eventually all that will be knitted together with more drones and unmanned vehicles and assets that will make militaries like the IDF uniquely powerful and aware. That is in the future. For now the need to surmount the usual elements, like slogging through dust and over hillsides, among olive groves, to find and destroy enemies who are hiding in ditches is still what warfare looks like.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.