IDF wraps up major drill focused on multi-front war with Iran, Middle East proxies

‘Firm Hand’ exercises include lengthy ground combat on Lebanon front, hundreds of aircraft carrying out mock strikes ‘deep in enemy territory,’ cyber warfare

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Israeli troops are seen near combat helicopters during a major military drill dubbed 'Firm Hand,' in a handout image published by the IDF on June 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli troops are seen near combat helicopters during a major military drill dubbed 'Firm Hand,' in a handout image published by the IDF on June 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday wrapped up a two-week drill focused on a potential multi-front war with Iran and its terror proxies across the Middle East, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The exercises — dubbed “Firm Hand” — involved troops from the standing and reserve army, from nearly all units. According to the IDF, the drills included ground forces simulating fighting on Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon, the Air Force carrying out mock airstrikes “deep in enemy territory,” Navy operations at sea, intelligence units working around the clock, and cyber units simulating electronic warfare.

The IDF said that during the first week, the 91st Territorial Division carried out exercises that simulated “defense scenarios in large numbers along the Lebanese front” and “wide-ranging offensive scenarios.”

The Air Force practiced “the opening of intense combat, complex aerial defense scenarios that included thousands of interceptions, outlining strategic strikes deep in enemy territory, achieving aerial superiority in the region and extensive striking of thousands of targets using hundreds of aircraft.”

In the second week, the 36th Armored Division and 91st Territorial Division carried out another drill simulating lengthy fighting in Israel’s northern frontier.

“During this week, the IAF focused on assisting and cooperating in maneuvering and practiced aerial mobilization of forces, supplying logistical means by air and artillery support for the purpose of maneuvering,” the IDF said, adding that the Air Force also “continued to practice extensive strikes in several arenas.”

The IDF said that dozens of Navy vessels also carried out an exercise, which included using “offensive and defensive capabilities” to defend Israel’s maritime borders and secure shipping lanes.

During both weeks, the IDF’s headquarters practiced carrying out war plans. On Sunday night, the high-level security cabinet convened at the military’s operational command bunker in Tel Aviv to simulate political decision-making during the mock multi-front war.

The Military Intelligence Directorate practiced working to collect intelligence on targets for the forces carrying out the simulated fighting. “In the exercise, hundreds of new real targets were outlined in the combat arenas,” the IDF said.

The Computer Service Directorate simulated both cyber warfare and fighting in the electromagnetic spectrum, or radio waves. “In the field of cyber defense, attacks simulating relevant cyber threats on IDF networks and assets were practiced,” the military said.

The Home Front Command carried out various exercises simulating attacks on civilian areas. Residents of Haifa were notified on Tuesday with an alert that popped up on phones and included text with simulated instructions for an emergency.

Navy troops are seen during a major military drill dubbed ‘Firm Hand,’ in a handout image published by the IDF on June 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said that the Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate, tasked with the military’s Iran file, “practiced the strategic planning of the campaign and the international coordination with foreign militaries.”

The Operations Directorate “managed the combat schedule and commanded over the operational processes in the General Staff’s main administrative headquarters, as part of improving and practicing the operational system and its readiness for war,” the IDF said.

The Northern Command, as part of the two major exercises, practiced maneuvering efforts, intelligence gathering, and firepower by various units, the IDF said.

The Central and Southern commands meanwhile, practiced “a variety of intensive operational scenarios and counterterrorism activities,” the IDF said, including shooting attacks and terrorist infiltrations.

The Ground Forces Training Center in southern Israel also hosted a US Army battalion for a joint drill with the IDF’s 7th Armored Brigade, the military said.

“Throughout the planning and implementation of the exercise, an examination and study process took place with the goal of improving the IDF’s operational activities and readiness,” the military said in a statement.

An IAF F-35i fighter jet is seen during a major military drill dubbed ‘Firm Hand,’ in a handout image published by the IDF on June 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

While the drill was pre-planned, it came during escalated tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli warnings that a broad conflict could break out over the issue.

Tehran has been ramping up its nuclear program since 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from a landmark pact that had capped enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief.

Talks to revive the nuclear deal fell apart last year, but recent reports have indicated steps to possibly renew the diplomatic initiative, sparking Israeli concerns that a new deal could legitimize Iran’s nuclear activity and erode international support for potential military action.

Israel has continued to warn against such an agreement in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant, and IDF chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi adding to fevered saber-rattling already taking place between the countries.

Last year, the IDF held its largest drill in decades. The four-week-long exercise — called Chariots of Fire — also focused on sudden events erupting in multiple theaters at the same time, while mostly dealing with fighting the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah has long represented the most significant military threat on Israel’s borders, with an estimated arsenal of nearly 150,000 rockets and missiles that can reach anywhere in the country.

Meanwhile, in light of the lack of progress regarding a return by Iran to the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, the IDF has ramped up efforts over the past two years to prepare a credible military threat against Tehran’s nuclear sites.

During the Chariots of Fire drill last year, dozens of Air Force fighter jets conducted air maneuvers over the Mediterranean Sea, simulating striking Iranian nuclear facilities.

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