Co-ed battalions to get new home in Border Defense Force
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Co-ed battalions to get new home in Border Defense Force

Mixed-gender units, trackers, surveillance monitors and combat intel come together to defend Jordanian, Egyptian borders

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

The IDF is bringing all its border defense units under one roof with a new overarching force — complete with a new beret — that will include the military’s three co-ed battalions, trackers and combat intelligence, the army announced Thursday.

Its new commander, Brig. Gen. Mordechai Kahane, told reporters that the unit, the Border Defense Force, will be principally responsible for Israel’s eastern and southern borders with Jordan and Egypt, respectively.

The Border Defense Force will also include teams of female soldiers, known in Hebrew as tatzpitaniyot, who monitor surveillance cameras along the border.

By setting up a separate Border Defense Force, the army hopes to free up additional resources that can be better allocated elsewhere, Kahane said.

Since 2016, the army has been rolling out a number of streamlining efforts as part of its multi-year Gideon Plan.

The thought is that the army can move infantry brigades, like Golani, Paratroopers and Nahal, from the comparatively calm Jordanian and Egyptian borders to more potentially violent areas like the West Bank and Gaza border or the Syrian and Lebanese borders.

Brig. Gen. Mordechai Kahane, IDF chief combat intelligence officer and head of the Border Defense Force. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Brig. Gen. Mordechai Kahane, IDF chief combat intelligence officer and head of the Border Defense Force. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Kahane, who is also the IDF’s chief combat intelligence officer, noted that his new fighting force will be composed of both men and women, in line with the army’s increasing trend of integrating female soldiers in combat units.

For boots on the ground, the force will draw on the army’s three mixed-gender battalions: Caracal, Cheetah and Lions of the Jordan.

Caracal, the oldest of the three, guards the border with Sinai; the Cheetah Battalion, meanwhile, is responsible for the Arava desert and the southern portion of the Jordanian border; and the Lions of the Jordan guards the northern Jordan Valley.

The female soldiers of the Jordan Lions Battalion during their swearing-in ceremony in February 2015. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit.)
The female soldiers of the Jordan Lions Battalion during their swearing-in ceremony in February 2015. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.)

A fourth battalion, which has yet to be named, is due to be formed next month. After its first recruits undergo training, the battalion will take up a position on the southern Jordan Valley, Kahane says.

The Border Defense Force’s new beret, which has yet to be distributed, will be a camouflage pattern, like the Kfir Brigade’s, but in yellow and brown, to represent the desert, where the troops will largely be stationed.

In recent years, the number of female combat soldiers in the IDF has exploded, quadrupling from 2012 to 2016, according to army figures.

With the creation of the fourth battalion, that number is expected to increase further, Kahane said.

But the process of bringing in more female combat soldiers has, at times, been painful, literally. Servicewomen have suffered stress fractures and other injuries at far higher rates than their male counterparts.

To prevent some of those issues, the army has provided female soldiers with lighter, better-fitting flak jackets and helmets.

Female soldiers from the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion train in southern Israel on December 10, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Female soldiers from the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion train in southern Israel on December 10, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Now, Kahane said, after reviewing the options, the army decided to outfit female soldiers only with M-16 assault rifles, in place of the heavier Tavor, which is currently being used by the Caracal Battalion.

In addition, light machine guns — which weigh a lot more than their name lets on — will no longer be carried by soldiers in the mixed-gender battalions, but will be fixed to their patrol vehicles, he said.

The co-ed battalions currently conduct their training on different infantry brigades’ home bases. Beginning this fall, they will all move to the Sayarim base in the Negev, where a Border Defense School will be created, the army said.

While the co-ed battalions will make up a lot of the fighting force, Kahane also stressed the need for skilled trackers. Those are almost entirely Bedouin soldiers, who learn to “read” the landscape to find footprints, boobytraps and other buried improvised explosive devices.

Lt. Col. Hassan, left, teaching a young tracker the ropes (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Lt. Col. Hassan, left, teaching a young tracker the ropes (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

But the number of these trackers has gone down in recent years, “and we haven’t found a technological replacement for the trackers,” Kahane said.

“Seven times — seven times! — a tracker has stopped me from stepping on a mine,” he added, drawing on his personal experience.

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