World

War in the Desert, 21st-Century Style

An IDF Merkava IV tank charges towards a mock-up of an enemy position during a drill in northern Israel, September 23, 2020. (Seth J. Frantzman)
How Israel hopes to achieve a knock-out blow in its next conflict

The explosive sound of an Israeli Merkava IV tank firing reverberated from behind a hillside, a cloud of dust marking where the shell had been fired from. The shell flew across a field of shrubs and landed in the distance. Then another tank targeted the same location. The symphony of firing continued for ten minutes before the tanks, followed by Namer armored personnel carriers and a menagerie of vehicles from Israel’s 7th Armored Brigade’s engineers, proceeded towards where they had been firing.

The tank fire had been the closing salvos of a multi-day drill to keep Israel’s armored units and infantry at their highest level of readiness for the next conflict. That conflict could come in the Gaza Strip against Hamas, or against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. As the exercise was taking place in the Golan Heights, not far from the border with Syria and Lebanon, the terrain looked like what Israel would confront in a battle with Hezbollah. The mock “village” that the tanks and infantry from Israel’s storied Golani brigade assaulted this month also looked like the kind of challenge Israel would face against Hezbollah. The village, a series of metal sea containers, included mock Katyusha rocket launchers and cutouts of enemy fighters hiding amid the rocks and trees.

The exercise, which includes tanks and infantry operating together, is part of a series of drills Israel is putting its units through to keep them ready for night and day fighting, as well as keep them used to fighting together on the battlefield. In the 2006 war with Hezbollah, one of the problems Israel faced was communications failures between various armored and infantry and other units. Today the IDF’s focus is on landing a knockout blow against enemies by leveraging Israel’s technology and intelligence to move faster and strike at key threats. This is made possible by Israel’s investment in new technologies, such as looping in lower-level commanders to real-time intelligence from Israel’s army headquarters. It’s all part of what Israel calls “Momentum,” a multi-year plan to concentrate on the latest abilities of F-35s and air-defense and other systems that Israel’s defense companies have put in the field. That means more drones, better communications technology, and the brute force that traditional tanks and their 120mm guns bring to the battle.

Israel’s older commanders are veterans of the wars in Gaza and against Hezbollah in 2006. They’ve seen the challenges that Israel faced in previous wars. Israel suffered from years of terror attacks between 2000 and 2004, and the army became used to fighting a counterinsurgency war. However, Hezbollah presented a different challenge with its arsenal of rockets and bunker systems throughout southern Lebanon. Today Hezbollah has increased that arsenal to some 150,000 missiles and rockets. Technology such as precision-guided munitions from Iran has been transferred to make the terrorist group into a terror army.

To face a terror army such as Hezbollah means stopping its rockets through air defense, such as Israel’s Iron Dome, a system that was developed with U.S. support and has intercepted thousands of rockets. It also means the potential of another ground war, like the one Israel faced in Gaza in 2014 or Lebanon in 2006.

The exercise in the Golan included soldiers dismounting from their armored personnel carriers and moving through a fake village backed by the tanks. In some ways this is the same type of exercise that could have been done decades ago. What changes everything is technology: new sights for rifles, better ability to identify friendly forces in the field, and commanders in the tanks having access to more information about what threats are in front of them. Closer coordination with artillery and air-force units and working faster with infantry is all about being able to get to an objective faster with close fire support for the soldiers going into the fields to root out the enemy.

The Israeli innovations that are transforming this battlefield also have global ramifications. For instance, the Iron Dome system, which provides an umbrella of defense against rocket fire, is now being tested and considered for wider use by the U.S. Army. U.S. Oshkosh trucks came to Israel in August to load the Iron Dome batteries and get used to driving around with them. In addition, the Trophy defense system that Israeli tanks carry is also used on the Abrams tank. This defense-technology knitting together of Washington and Jerusalem makes sense as the two countries face similar threats on the modern battlefield. For example, U.S. forces in Iraq have come under rocket fire from Iranian-backed militias, the same kinds of rockets that Israel faces in Gaza and Lebanon. When the next war comes, Israel’s rapid maneuver and attempt to overmatch its enemies quickly, precisely, and decisively will be watched from abroad to see if these years of drills have made the difference that Israel’s commanders hope they have.

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