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With drones, robots and sensors, IDF readies Ground Forces for future war

Army looks to give high-powered tech to ground troops and improve communication between military branches as part of multi-year Momentum Plan

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

An IDF tank is seen firing a shell during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
An IDF tank is seen firing a shell during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military sees its Ground Forces — tanks, infantry, combat engineering and artillery — as in desperate need for a makeover if it is to be prepared for the types of battles it is likely to encounter in future wars.

Long gone are the days of the lone tank platoon or paratroopers company conquering a hilltop from an enemy military. The Israel Defense Forces’ next war, be it in the Gaza Strip, inside southern Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East, will overwhelmingly take place inside urban areas — if not in densely populated cities then at least in developed towns — and it will be against terror groups and individual cells, operating autonomously and independently from one another within a civilian population.

In the military’s view, conquering a capital or destroying a command center isn’t going to cut it anymore. It needs to be able to conduct a large number of operations simultaneously in order to rapidly and effectively find and destroy an enemy’s capabilities in order to end the war fast, before large numbers of rockets and missiles have been fired at Israeli civilians and critical infrastructure.

To bring the Ground Forces up to speed, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi’s Momentum Plan deals extensively with breaking down homogeneous units with narrow skill sets and turning them into multi-disciplinary detachments that are able to bring to bear the military’s full host of capabilities. This effort includes the purchasing of new equipment for ground troops, including better rifle scopes, shoulder-launched missiles, and small drones, as well as training soldiers in new methods and improving communication between units.

IDF troops are seen during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

However, while some of those proposals have already been implemented or are in the process of being carried out, many are dependent upon a new defense budget, which has yet to be approved by the government. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently approved a one-time NIS 3.3 billion increase to the budget last month, the issue of the IDF’s funding remains unresolved, especially as many aspects of the Momentum Plan require large amounts of money, which the military will have to fight harder to get in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the related economic crisis.

IDF tanks are seen during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

For instance, the IDF Ground Forces has long wanted to construct a large-scale simulated Lebanese village where it can conduct live-fire exercises with infantrymen, tanks and other heavy vehicles to train for a war with Hezbollah. However, building and operating such a facility would be highly expensive and without a clear source of funding, such a project cannot proceed.

Ghost Unit

To prepare the military for a new era of warfare, the Ground Forces, under the command of Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, has created and is in the process of creating a number of new units, which will be used to develop new concepts and techniques that will eventually spread throughout the military.

This includes what’s known as the Multi-Dimensional Attack Brigade, a unit that develops new fighting doctrines and methods for the rest of the Ground Forces by finding new ways to use the range of weapons and platforms in the IDF.

In addition to developing new techniques in theory, last year the IDF formed a unit — dubbed the Ghost Unit, also known as the multi-faceted unit — that acts as a laboratory to test them out. The unit, which is made up of infantrymen, special forces, tanks, combat engineering, intelligence officers and airmen, completed its first major exercise last month, which the military widely deemed a success.

An IDF soldiers is seen taking part in an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition to serving as a testing ground in simulated combat, the Ghost Unit can be deployed in real-world scenarios, as was the case last month when it was sent to the Lebanese border as the IDF braced for attacks by the Hezbollah terror group and prepared to retaliate. (Ultimately, the IDF said it thwarted Hezbollah’s efforts, and the military has since lowered its level of alert on the border, indicating that it believed the imminent threat of attack to have passed.)

In the future, even relatively low-ranking infantry officers will be able to directly call in airstrikes by fighter jets, something that currently must go through a prohibitively complex and time-consuming chain of command; deploy small explosive “suicide drones”; or order an artillery barrage in order to destroy a target.

Under a project known as “Smart Trigger,” commanders during wartime will be able to mark a target for attack on a digital map connected to a military network, at which point an advanced computer algorithm will determine the ideal way to strike the location, based on three criteria: efficiency, availability and cost.

An IDF soldiers is seen taking part in an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Using the location data on the map, an F-16 fighter jet can fire a guided missile at the target, a howitzer several kilometers away can launch a shell, or the infantry platoon one street over can be ordered to attack the site.

Though it may sound simple, directing an airstrike is an incredibly complicated task, requiring a deep understanding of the abilities and limitations of the air force’s munitions. As such, bringing that capability directly into the field of battle requires extensive training by the air force. To start, in the coming years the military will certify 18 crews — known as Sufa, or storm, teams, after the military’s designation for the F-16 fighter jet — that will be distributed within the Golani and Givati infantry brigades, The Times of Israel has learned.

An IDF soldier operates a computer during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition to bringing those capabilities to low-ranking officers, higher-ranking officers will also be given improved weaponry under the Momentum Plan. For instance, battalion commanders will be given direct control over a stock of surface-to-surface missiles that they can direct against enemy targets.

While the military is working to improve its ability to attack the enemy, it has also put considerable focus on the growing problem of finding the enemy.

The terror groups with which Israel is most likely to fight in the next war — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza — have extensive history and experience in fighting within and in tunnels below densely populated civilian areas, which presents an enormous challenge to the IDF.

Soldiers from the IDF’s Ghost Unit take part in a weeks-long training exercise in July 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

To overcome this difficulty, the IDF is investing heavily in cheap, readily available sensors, which can be rapidly deployed in a battlefield — at first by people and later by robots — as well as the far more expensive computer systems that are capable of interpreting the data produced by those devices. With a relatively inexpensive sensor on the outer wall of a building, soldiers in the field can see what is happening inside or directly underneath them.

Some infantry soldiers will also be trained in rudimentary electromagnetic spectrum warfare, learning how to use equipment to detect electronic signals in order to find enemy fighters and positions.

A new division

To contain the Ghost Unit and spearhead the IDF Ground Forces’ revolution, the military is creating a new division, the 99th Division, which will come into being over the coming years. During this time, the 99th Division will be under the command of the Ground Forces, which is formally tasked with preparing units for combat, not commanding them in combat.

Once the division is fully established, which is expected to be in 2023 or 2024, control of it will be handed over to one of the military’s three regional commands — the Northern, Central or Southern.

IDF troops are seen during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition to the Ghost Unit, the 99th Division will contain the Commando Brigade, the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade, the 179th Reserve Armored Brigade and the Kfir Brigade.

The Kfir Brigade is not currently considered a full “superior” infantry brigade on par with the military’s other four infantry brigades (Golani, Givati, Nahal, Paratroopers). Under the Momentum Plan, the Kfir Brigade will be converted into such a unit, by providing it with armored personnel carriers, outfitting its fighters with improved weaponry and removing one of its battalions.

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