In every direction Israeli military planners look, new threats are emerging in varying degrees. On the Lebanese border, Hezbollah is constructing sophisticated subterranean rocket-launching sites and command and control centers. Ground forces will be required to take out these underground facilities in any future confrontation.
In the Sinai Peninsula and Syria, al-Qaida-inspired groups are mushrooming. In Gaza, Hamas together with Islamic Jihad and a host of smaller Palestinian jihadi organizations have built a heavily armed Islamist base which is on a long-term collision course with Israel.
Beyond the growing guerrilla-terrorist challenge, the IDF may yet have to quickly enter Syria to neutralize the threat of loose and mobile chemical weapons. And, of course, any strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program will almost certainly set off a regional conflict.
These developments are what led Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh to warn in mid-October that for the first time in years, Israel must be ready for unexpected security developments on multiple fronts.
“We will have to be flexible and responsible in following the changes in the entire area,” Naveh told 375 new army officers during a ceremony held at Mitzpe Ramon.
These changing factors are also behind comments by the army’s head of Technology and Logistics Branch, Maj.-Gen. Kobi Barak, who said that the chances of a “narrow or wide” armed conflict involving the IDF have grown recently. Against this background, the IDF has stepped up drills involving mobilization of armored vehicles, ground troops, and all their logistical and communications support units from the center of the country to the north or south.
Few know the true size of Israel’s ground forces, but it is safe to say that the IDF is one of the largest modern armies around.
The goal now for IDF commanders is to ensure that the army’s devastating firepower and ability to seize territory quickly through overwhelming force can be directed to any front within hours.
To that end, the past weeks and months have seen a marked increase in IDF exercises aimed at the mobilization of military forces from the IDF’s Central Command to the south and north.
In recent weeks, for example, an IDF tank battalion in the Jordan Valley surprised its soldiers with an exercise aimed at getting the tanks to a war front within a day. Conscripted soldiers and reserve troops took part in the exercise – the first time this has happened.
Supporting infantry units were also called in to the rehearsal, as they would be crucial in any speedy land maneuver.
The “enemy” in this exercise was played by IDF soldiers pretending to be guerrillas armed with anti-tank missiles; just the sort of asymmetrical conflict that may develop unexpectedly.
The live-fire drill, held at a large base in the Jordan Valley, featured Israel’s Merkava 4 tank, which is one of the most technologically advanced and deadly tools available to the ground forces.
The Merkava 4’s capabilities have been bolstered further by a new anti-rocket shield installed in the tanks. Called Wind Jacket, the system provides 360- degree protection to the tank and intercepts incoming anti-tank missiles (of the type held by Hezbollah) in midair, thereby allowing the tank to proceed on the battlefield unhindered.
The commander of Battalion 9, which held the drill, said his force would be one of the first responders to a developing conflict.
A few days before that, the IDF’s largest communications battalion held a war drill in which it tested how long it would take it to get to a battle front.
The drill was based on the understanding that achieving battlefield victory is not only about getting to the front and moving into enemy territory; ground forces must practice working with one another and coordinating their activities under fire. Hence, the communications battalion tested out a new command and control system called Digital Ground Army 600.
This system allows field commanders to track (in real time) all of the ground units on an interactive screen, communicate with the units, and issue instructions.
In September, artillery units were airlifted without warning from their regular patrols in the West Bank to the Golan Heights to practice their response time to a sudden Syrian conflict. The troops had to take up their firing positions and open fire at targets as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, field commanders have increased their exposure to intelligence on Israel’s enemies.
Recently, ground forces commanders traveled to an intelligence agency’s headquarters in Israel and received an in-depth briefing on Hezbollah, Hamas and other threats. The aim is to have the intelligence filter down to the lowest ranks, giving the whole of the ground forces access to an updated intelligence picture on who will be waiting for them in the next round.
Many of these preparations are the results of lessons learned during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The IDF’s senior echelons have vowed that the indecisive outcome of that conflict will not repeat itself.