Amid shifting landscape, IDF unveils sweeping plan to revamp Ground Forces
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Amid shifting landscape, IDF unveils sweeping plan to revamp Ground Forces

With futuristic technology and controversial restructuring proposals, the Israeli military hopes to get infantry, tanks and artillery ready for the next war

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
    Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • An Israeli army armored personnel carrier takes part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
    An Israeli army armored personnel carrier takes part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
    Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
    Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
    Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • Israeli army armored personnel carriers take part in an exercise in northern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)
    Israeli army armored personnel carriers take part in an exercise in northern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • Illustrative: Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise in northern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)
    Illustrative: Israeli combat soldiers take part in an exercise in northern Israel. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military’s Ground Forces are due to undergo a massive overhaul, including significant structural changes and an influx of advanced technology, that will change the way they train, fight and communicate, a senior IDF official said Tuesday.

The reforms are meant to update the Ground Forces, which represent a huge portion of the Israel Defense Forces, but have been left behind as the military focused more heavily on air power, leaving them less able to fight in the types of war they would be facing, the officer told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some aspects of this plan have already been put into effect, while others are still years away from implementation, either because the theories behind them need to be tested, in the case of organizational changes, or because the relevant technologies are still in the process of being developed and manufactured.

“We believe that in the next war, the ground maneuver will be faster, wider and deeper… in order to remove the threat on the Israeli home front. Therefore we are better trained, more prepared and ready for the battle,” said IDF Ground Forces commander Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak.

This project is known in Hebrew as Yabasha Ba’Ofek, or “Ground Forces on the Horizon.” The framework for it was first publicly laid out in 2016 by Maj. Gen. (res.) Guy Tzur, who was then the IDF Ground Forces commander, in an article for the army’s journal Maarachot.

Gone are the days of the IDF squaring off against a rival army in an open field. Now, the military will be fighting largely against terrorists hiding in villages, towns and cities — or below them, in tunnels — where the soldiers will confront snipers, anti-tank missiles, car bombs and suicide bombers, as well as new threats, like suicide drones.

“The Ground Forces are a huge mass of troops and adapting them to the conditions of modern warfare is expensive and difficult,” wrote Tzur, who has since left the military.

But the general argued this was precisely what the military had to do, as the air force alone cannot achieve the military’s objectives.

On Tuesday, the senior IDF official said there was also a need for the IDF to improve its ground troops as terrorist groups, notably the Iran-backed Hezbollah, have become increasingly sophisticated, especially in areas once dominated by the Israeli army.

An IDF officer displays an M-16 assault rifle equipped with a ‘Dagger’ eyesight that only allows the gun to be fired when it is pointed at a designated target, at the Mitkan Adam training base near Modi’in, on February 27, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“For example, with night vision, Israel had clear superiority in the past, but it’s not so clear these days,” he said.

On Tuesday, a number of senior officers from the Ground Forces showed reporters how Yabasha Ba’Ofek is progressing, including a tour of the new technologies due to be integrated into the Ground Forces, some of which are already in the hands of soldiers — like pocket-sized drones for company commanders — and others that are still several years away from being combat-ready — like a high-powered laser capable of shooting down incoming mortar shells or drones, to be known as Gideon’s Shield, or Magen Gidon.

“Today we don’t have a response for mortar shells, but we do have electronic warfare to take down drones,” the senior officer said.

This technological revamp of the Ground Forces included futuristic gadgets, like a gunsight that only lets the weapon fire when it’s locked on its target or self-driving trucks that can more safely and easily transport equipment to the front. The army has also ordered more advanced artillery pieces, which can be guided by satellite in order to make them more precise, once they are fully developed and put into production.

A passenger shows that his hands are not touching the wheel of a self-driving truck, at the Mitkan Adam training base near Modi’in, on February 27, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

One of the main focuses, however, was improved communications equipment that allows commanders in the field to get information from across the military, up to and including the General Staff.

This project will include the creation of a so-called “Missile Corps” dedicated to operating a large arsenal of medium-range surface-to-surface missiles — as was first reported earlier this month, the senior IDF Ground Forces officer said on Tuesday.

More dramatically, the overhaul would eventually see the dissolution of the Ground Forces’ brigades as they exist today — i.e., separated between infantry, tanks, combat engineering, etc. — in favor of a more streamlined approach, in which there would be one Ground Forces brigade that is made up of infantrymen, tank operators and combat engineers.

The officer recognized that full implementation will be difficult, as Israelis have deep connections to the brigade in which they served and would be liable to fight a process that would see them radically changed.

“The heritage issue is a headache in and of itself,” he said.

But this is still at least a few years away from happening. For now, the army will test the theory by pairing together the Golani Infantry Brigade and the 7th Armored Brigade, the officer said.

One of the other central areas that is being revamped is the Ground Forces’ training program, both in terms of its facilities and the schedule itself.

The IDF is making a “huge investment in the infrastructure” and is constructing 13 new training facilities spread throughout the Golan Heights, Negev desert and — “with all its sensitivities — the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, the senior officer said.

These 13 facilities are designed to give a more realistic simulation of the types of environments in which soldiers are expected to fight, he said.

The army also worked to change its exercise routine to get soldiers training more. In the past, combat troops would be deployed for 20 weeks and then train for 13. Now, the army is evening this out, getting soldiers to serve on border patrol duty or in the West Bank for 17 weeks and then train for 17 weeks.

Reservists will pick up some of the slack, serving more time on deployments in the West Bank in order to free up conscripts to perform more exercises, the officer said.

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