IDF troops - Dror Artzi
IDF troops on the Golan Heights during last week's training exercise Photo by Dror Artzi
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Typically, wars break out in the summer in the Middle East. But that didn’t stop the IDF from holding its biggest military exercise of the year in the dead of winter last week, just as snow was painting the Hermon white and rain flooded other parts of the North, where two brigades − Nahal and the 401st Armored Brigade − were carrying out maneuvers.

Despite the fierce cold Monday night, Nahal fighters ascended the Golan Heights on foot, marching on hilly roads and carrying heavy loads of ammunition and equipment. Only two soldiers failed to reach their destination: One lost body fluids from perspiring too much in his storm suit, and the other suffered an attack of appendicitis.

On Tuesday afternoon, as the combat fighters grabbed a few hours of sleep and prepared for the major live fire exercise, their officers went up to Tel Shifon in the southern Golan to familiarize themselves from above with the following day’s “conquest” objectives. The area is the quite familiar Golan, but the operational scenario is South Lebanon. “In any emergency situation, the northern zone is key,” said Col. Amir Abulafia, commander of the Nahal Brigade. “The exercises carried out here on the Golan are entirely realistic emergency scenarios.”

Before last week’s big exercise, the Nahal brigade held four battalion-wide exercises, in which the battalion operated for four days in the field in the exact same way it would under circumstances of all-out war.

“We tried to create a simulation here of what would be required of us in an emergency,” said Abulafia, “in the number of kilometers we’ll have to walk and the number of kilograms we’ll have to carry. We also went a little beyond that to improve our capabilities. All these kilometers create a tough mental and physical burden. A soldier who finishes a week like that understands that the battle will be tough.”

In the four days of the simulated war week, the soldiers march 60-70 kilometers on foot, carrying up to 40 kilograms on their backs.

Preparing for a long stay

The debate within the IDF over the best way to deal with the tens of thousands of missiles in the hands of the Hezbollah has yet to be resolved. One position holds that aerial attacks and localized operations of special forces is the best strategy, while the other advocates using land divisions for extended periods of fighting. The two brigades that exercised this week on the Golan are preparing for the second option.

During a parallel three-month training period, each brigade carries out its major brigade exercise on adjacent areas in the southern Golan.

Occasionally, those in charge − Brig. Gen. Agai Yehezkel, commander of the 162nd Division, and Brig. Gen. Moti Baruch, commander of a reserve division − introduce unexpected elements and instruct the brigades to intensify fighting and assist one another.

On Wednesday, each brigade held its own live-fire exercise, and on Thursday, they held a bilateral exercise, battalion versus battalion.A combined battle exercise of 10 battalions of regular soldiers in full force on the Golan Heights is a rare event. In this case, all the battalions also belong to the 162nd Division. Although it wasn’t an official division exercise, Yehezkel, the division commander, set up headquarters near the forces in order to simulate a real-war situation. This is one of the lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War, when the Nahal brigades and the 401st fighting near Saluki and Kantar were not coordinated.

“You can plan it as much as you like,” said a senior officer in the division, “but there’s no substitute for training in the field. Only there do you see the effect of 10 tanks passing on a certain traffic artery and understand that in order for the 11th tank not to sink in the mud, you have to make sure that a tractor is there, too, to level the road. In this exercise we have 96 tanks in operation.”

In another lesson of the Second Lebanon War, the protective systems of the tanks have been also improved. The 401st Brigade is now equipped with the advanced model of the Merkava, the Mark 4, and with the Windbreaker system, which offers active protection from anti-tank missiles. The brigade forces are also activated by a DLA ‏(digital land army‏) system, which enables the commanders to see the location and situation of the forces on digital maps. But in order to prepare for a worst-case scenarin in which the system stops functioning, the commanders participating in Thursday’s bilateral exercise had to turn off the DLA monitors and return to the old paper and cardboard maps.

Last month, Abulafia organized an event for all his officers in which they spent an entire evening analyzing the brigade’s battles in the Second Lebanon War. “Officers who fought spoke there, and that’s very important psychologically, especially for young company commanders who weren’t there,” he said. “What it’s like to be a new officer who enters a war when his soldiers don’t know him yet and he loses five people. What it’s like to see a Merkava tank rising into the air from a missile strike.”

IDF sources insisted that last week’s big exercise has been in the making for more than a year and has no connection whatsoever to present tensions in Lebanon surrounding the upcoming publication of the U.N. report on the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Abulafia, the first Nahal commander who has been in the brigade from his first day in the army, served previously as head of the operations department in the General Staff Operations Directorate and is very familiar with the IDF’s updated plans in the event that open conflict with Hezbollah is renewed. This, he said, is what inspires how he designs the brigade exercises. “It’s clear to me what achievement is required,” he said, “where we have to fight with determination, and where tactical sophistication is required. I know what I should rightly insist on with the commanders and the soldiers, and therefore, I feel that I can demand a great deal of them.”

Paratroopers Brigade commander Col. Aharon Haliwa was the chief monitor of the exercise. Haliwa sparked a public uproar last week when he was quoted in Maariv saying he “abhors” the Hesder yeshiva track ‏(which combines Torah study with army service‏) because its soldiers and officers serve a much shorter time and that he would prefer not accepting them to the brigade. Abulafia also gained media publicity in recent weeks after the IDF magazine Ma’arachot published an article he wrote as part of his studies at the National Security College, in which he contended that IDF officers are afraid to express independent opinions when they contradict the opinions of their superiors.

“I was surprised that the issue was covered so extensively in the media,” said Abulafia, “though some of the newspapers took it to a direction somewhat different from what I had intended. What I said is let’s recognize that we have a problem here.”

From the reactions he received, Abulafia said, it emerged that the majority of his colleagues agreed with him. “Many officers came and told me that they had taken my ‘test,’” he said, referring to the nine questions he recommended that every senior commander ask himself in to see whether he encourages independent thinking among his subordinates.

Regarding the uproar over his comments about Hesder yeshivas, Abulafia said that in the Nahal he is delighted to recruit yeshiva students. “First of all,” he said, “ because they’re outstanding soldiers, and second because it balances the population of the brigade. I want us to be a brigade of all Israelis and to have skullcap wearers here. On the other hand, Aharon, who’s been a friend of mine for many years, raised practical issues regarding the Hesder track that should be discussed within the army. I don’t think that he should have talked about it in such a manner in front of his soldiers and squad commanders.”