In Cyprus, IDF runs drills for potential war with Hezbollah, Lebanon ground assault

Military simulates transporting thousands of troops by air and sea to operate in unfamiliar territory and hold back long-range rocket fire

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

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday wrapped up a major military exercise in Cyprus, simulating a military ground offensive deep inside Lebanon in a potential war against the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group.

The Mediterranean island was chosen both for its Lebanon-like terrain — mountainous along a coastal plain — and its proximity to Israel. The drill simulated various difficulties in a ground assault, such as food, water, and ammunition supply; communication issues; and the general complications in operating in unfamiliar territory.

“The first challenge we prepared for was accumulating troops,” said Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, commander of the 98th Paratroopers Division, which led the exercise.

Winter said thousands of troops were brought in to play the Lebanese side, using boats, planes, and helicopters. “We arrived in the field with great intensity. We spread out the troops, and they began operating against key areas and significant targets we identified as being important to defeat,” he said, referring to mock enemy military sites and rocket launching grounds.

According to Winter, troops conducted raids with a significant distance between each “challenging their ability to work while disconnected.” Troops operated under the assumption they would not have communication with headquarters, and instead would have to rely on contacting each other using satellite-based communication means.

The troops of the 98th division also practiced working alongside special forces in unfamiliar territory, as well as responding to surprise events.

Israeli troops hold a major drill in Cyprus, in an image published by the military on June 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

But the ultimate goal of the exercise was to simulate halting Hezbollah rocket fire on Israel amid a major escalation, through a ground offensive in Lebanon. According to military officials, the only way to achieve such a goal was to be “significantly present” in the areas where attacks are being launched from, keeping the enemy far from the border.

Israeli troops hold a major drill in Cyprus, in an image published by the military on June 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Iran-backed Lebanese terror group has long represented the IDF’s most significant military threat, with an estimated arsenal of nearly 150,000 rockets and missiles that can reach anywhere in Israel.

According to a recent military assessment, Israeli cities could be bombarded with 1,500 rockets a day and the death toll could quickly reach into the hundreds should war with Hezbollah break out.

The IDF said a military campaign would likely lead to the deaths of thousands of people in Lebanon, both Hezbollah fighters and civilians.

Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets on Israeli communities in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Israel bombarded targets in southern Lebanon. The month of fighting killed an estimated 1,200 Lebanese (Lebanon says most were civilians; the IDF said at least half were fighters) as well as 44 Israeli civilians and 121 Israeli soldiers.

Previous IDF estimates have put the number of rockets that could target Israel daily in a future war at 1,000-3,000.

Hezbollah fighters stand atop a car mounted with a mock rocket, as they parade during a rally to mark the seventh day of Ashoura, in the southern village of Seksakiyeh, Lebanon, on October 9, 2016. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP)

To minimize long-range rocket fire on Israel, during the drill troops were tasked with raiding enemy command centers and other strategic sites, to ensure proper control over areas used to launch attacks.

Unlike bouts of fighting with Gaza Strip-based terrorists, which have relied heavily on air campaigns, a war in Lebanon would more than likely have to make use of a ground operation, according to recent assessments.

Israeli troops hold a major drill in Cyprus, in an image published by the military on June 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

At the same time, special forces — including the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit — practiced demolishing what the military called “critical enemy infrastructure.”

The engineering unit also simulated clearing explosives and other obstructions, as well as demolishing enemy tunnels. Hezbollah is believed to have a network of tunnels in some areas of Lebanon, some of which were destroyed by Israel in 2018 after they crossed into Israel.

Navy units simulated defensive and offensive maneuvers at sea, in addition to transporting and rescuing troops amid the drill.

Israeli troops hold a major drill in Cyprus, in an image published by the military on June 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Cyprus did not directly participate in the exercise. Still, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF chief Aviv Kohavi hailed the “strategic alliance” between the countries during the drill.

The IDF sees the Eastern Mediterranean region as an area of significant ​​interest in order to maintain security stability, where “strategic cooperation” with partners — such as Cyprus and Greece — is of high importance, officials said.

Also during the final week of the major monthlong exercise — dubbed Chariots of Fire — the Air Force simulated airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, over the Mediterranean Sea.

The Chariots of Fire drill was the military’s largest exercise in decades.

It addressed the possibility of sudden events erupting in multiple theaters at the same time, while focusing on fighting the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israeli troops hold a major drill in Cyprus, in an image published by the military on June 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Home Front Command practiced a simulation last week in which 80 sites are heavily damaged in rocket attacks with some 300 casualties, during a several-day flare-up with Hezbollah.

The drills have also raised “quite a few” issues with the way the army handles logistics, according to the head of the IDF Technological and Logistics Directorate, Brig. Gen. Pini Ben Moyal. He said the military would examine these issues and find ways to address them, without elaborating.

Military officials said the drills were aimed at raising the competence and readiness of troops and top brass for war on multiple fronts, as well as coordination with other emergency organizations, local authorities, and government ministries.

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