Hundreds of Israeli soldiers trained for combat deep in enemy territory on the island nation of Cyprus over the past week, staging a large-scale war exercise on foreign soil — a first for the IDF’s Commando Brigade, its chief operations officer said.
The week-long drill tested the abilities of the commandos in new and challenging conditions, according to the chief operations officer of the Commando Brigade, who for security reasons can only be referred to as Maj. H.
This was the Commando Brigade’s sixth unit-wide exercise, but the Cyprus drill was the first to be conducted in another country, H. told The Times of Israel over the phone, in a cab en route to the Cyprus airport.
It was exceptional both for its large size and the fact that the IDF acknowledged that commando troops were in a foreign country at all. This “revelation” might, however, be credited to the considerable media attention given to the exercise in Cyprus.
Nearly 500 Israeli soldiers took part in the drill, most of them from the Commando Brigade, also known as the Oz Brigade. Though soldiers from all over the brigade participated, the vast majority of them came from the Egoz unit, which was formerly part of the Golani Brigade and is specifically trained for combat in mountainous areas like those along Israel’s northern border.
Approximately 100 Cypriot commandos took part in the joint exercise.
The Israeli Air Force also dispatched airplanes and helicopters for the drill, and representatives from a handful of other IDF units also participated.
The head of the Commando Brigade, Col. David Zini, oversaw the exercise, and the head of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, traveled to Cyprus in order to observe the drill.
H. and other Israeli personnel spoke glowingly of the week-long exercise, but according to local Cypriot media, the drill rankled both Turkey, which is to hold its own exercise off the coast of the island, and one of the country’s opposition parties, which said that the joint exercise with Israel was “dangerous for Cyprus and for peace in the region.”
H. wouldn’t comment on the criticism, but said that he believed the Cypriots got a lot out of the exercise. Their military, he said, was a full partner in the drill, with a representative of the Cypriot special forces fighting inside the Egoz unit.
“Also a small group practiced together outside the exercise, doing all kinds of things, from shooting in a range to fighting in the bush,” he said.
The scenarios simulated during the exercise were “nothing special,” just generic threats “that we might have to deal with in the future,” H. said.
The operations officer said the exercise wasn’t to prepare against “a specific enemy,” noting that “Israel has lots of enemies.”
However, as the exercise was held in an area similar to Israel’s north, the type of fighting drilled was likely similar to what would be expected in a potential conflict with the Hezbollah terrorist group, one of Israel’s main nemeses.
The particular challenge of the week-long exercise, H. said, came from the fact that the “nothing special” scenarios were taking place in a foreign land, which put the soldiers, who are used to Israeli geography, out of their element and into an entirely new type of landscape.
“In Israel, you know all the places, everything’s familiar. Israel’s a small country. When you practice in Israel, everyone knows the area,” H. said.
“When you are in a new place for the first time, you have to deal with the geography and the culture, even the fact that you’re dealing with the local army — it’s all brand new,” he said.
The Israeli and Cypriot troops practiced urban warfare, above-ground and below-ground combat, fighting in dense brush and in mountainous areas, as well as airborne and heliborne exercises, in the daytime and nighttime.
The IDF would not elaborate on where exactly the joint exercise took place, but Cypriot media reported that it was held in the Troodos mountains, in the center of the island.
Soldiers from the Yahalom unit of the Combat Engineering Corps, from the Oketz K-9 unit and from the Artillery Corps’ Skyriders unit, which operates small drones, took part in the drill alongside the Commando Brigade, as did soldiers from logistics and communications units.
Five IAF squadrons flew sorties during the exercise in Cyprus. This included C-130J Super Hercules transport planes, Blackhawk helicopters and the air force’s heliborne Unit 669, which specializes in complex and dangerous extractions.
Planning a brigade-level exercise in a foreign country was no simple feat, requiring approximately six months of planning. A representative of the Cypriot military came to Israel earlier this month in order to finalize aspects of the exercise, H. said.
“For combat soldiers, the challenge is so big. We can talk about the challenges for two hours and not finish. There are all kinds, from bringing the food to bringing the vehicles,” he said.
As this was an exercise with a foreign army and put the IDF on display, there was “no place for mistakes,” the major said.
“The [Egoz] unit and the Commando Brigade dealt with it very well,” H. said, declaring the exercise to be “very successful.”
The officer credited the smoothness of the exercise and the “excellent” internal cooperation between the different IDF units to the intensive planning ahead of time.
“When you are going through the small details and dealing with them, there’s no other option but success during the exercise,” he said.
In a war, of course, such meticulous planning and deliberations are not feasible, so setting up a common language and mutual understanding for an exercise acts as groundwork for when cooperation is necessary in an emergency, H. said.
“We work hard in the training so that it will be easy in the war.”