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IDF unprepared for chemical attacks, comptroller report warns

Investigation finds combat troops insufficiently trained to fight in the event of chemical warfare, cleanup units also unready; military says it is working to address problem

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

IDF soldiers in chemical protection suits hold an exercise simulating a chemical attack as part of a nationwide civil defense exercise in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2007. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
IDF soldiers in chemical protection suits hold an exercise simulating a chemical attack as part of a nationwide civil defense exercise in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2007. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces is not fully prepared to handle and operate during a chemical weapons attack, according to a state comptroller report released Monday.

The State Comptroller’s Office found a number of issues in the preparedness of combat troops to fight under the conditions of a chemical attack, as well as in the training and maintenance of the military units that are specifically meant to respond to atomic, biological and chemical attacks, so-called ABC battalions.

The comptroller report nevertheless praised the military’s recent efforts to upgrade the equipment it uses to counteract chemical attacks.

The threat of chemical attack has become more substantial over the past decade as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use such weapons in its civil war, raising concerns that he wield use them in a conflict with Israel, which remains technically at war with Damascus.

The military responded to the report, saying that it was generally aware of the problems and was taking steps to address the gaps noted in the comptroller’s assessment.

“The IDF thanks the state comptroller for carrying out this intensive check into this critical topic. The IDF is studying the findings of the report and has already begun to address the issues — in both the headquarters and in the field — after receiving a draft of the report,” the military said in a statement.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman holds the 2020 State Comptroller’s Report in his office on March 23, 2020. (Tadmeet)

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman found that though the military has laid out protocols requiring it to prepare troops for the possibility of fighting during a chemical attack, many of those directives were not being followed.

The main areas in which Englman found issues were the preparedness of combat troops along Israel’s borders, the training of ABC battalions, the organization of the military’s chemical attack response equipment, and the lack of suitable eye protection for soldiers who wear glasses.

Following Assad’s sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians in the then-rebel-held area of Ghouta in the summer of 2013, the IDF chief of staff at the time, Benny Gantz, ordered his deputy, Gadi Eisenkot, to investigate the military’s preparedness for a chemical attack in January 2014. Eisenkot put the former chief of staff of the IDF Home Front Command, Brig. Gen. (res.) Tzviki Tesler, in charge of the effort.

At the end of 2014, Tesler’s committee released its recommendations, which were reviewed by Gantz, now the defense minister, and approved for implementation. However, nearly six years later, several of the proposals have yet to be put into place, according to the comptroller report.

IDF Home Front Command soldiers take part in a 2011 defense drill simulating a chemical attack (Photo credit: Gili Yaari/ Flash 90)
IDF Home Front Command soldiers take part in a 2011 defense drill simulating a chemical attack (Gili Yaari/Flash 90)

For instance, soldiers deployed along Israel’s borders are meant to prepare for the possibility of needing to continue operating as normal following a chemical attack, something that does not happen in practice across the board.

“The investigation found gaps in the preparedness of ground forces to deal with the chemical threat and that this issue is insufficiently dealt with,” the report said.

The military disagreed with that claim, saying in a statement that all regional brigades do in fact have operational plans for how to fight in the case of a chemical attack, and that those troops “operate in accordance with those orders.”

Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command perform an exercise simulating an atomic, biological and chemical attack in 2011. (Yuval Haker/Israel Defense Forces)

All ground troops are also meant to perform chemical attack-related exercises, which also does not happen consistently, according to the comptroller.

In response, the IDF said the Ground Forces would “oversee the way that the preparedness of combat troops — conscripts and those in the reserves — is improved.”

The comptroller report also warned that the military’s ABC units, which are called in to clean up areas hit by atomic, biological and chemical attacks, were not performing enough exercises.

“The State Comptroller’s Office notes that the failure of ABC battalions to perform exercises in accordance with set metrics is poised to harm these battalions’ ability to function professionally during warfare and to harm the full use of these battalions by ground troops when they are needed after chemical weapons attacks,” the report said.

The military told the comptroller it was “aware” of the problem and was working to integrate ABC units into ground exercises.

The report also noted that one of the 2014 committee’s recommendations was to put the military’s entire stock of biological and chemical weapon response gear under the sole responsibility of the Home Front Command, which has yet to be done. Instead, the equipment remains spread out in units across the military.

The IDF said it was looking into the matter to consider whether the equipment should remain under the control of the units that would use it or if it should be the responsibility of one overall body.

The military said its investigation of the matter should be completed by the summer of 2021.

Regarding the lack of eye protection for soldiers who wear prescription glasses, the IDF acknowledged that this was a problem and said it was looking into the matter and determining how best to proceed to address it.

“The IDF will continue in its mission of defending the citizens of the State of Israel, of becoming more efficient, of improving and of being open to constructive criticism,” the military said.

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