Israeli Army Mulls: In High-tech Age, Who Is a Combat Soldier?

Growing dominance of technology on battlefield challenges the traditional definition of a combatant; Iron Dome operators to be included in classification.

After lengthy discussions, the Israel Defense Forces has finally agreed on exactly who can be classified a combatant.

The growing dominance of  technology on the battlefield has resulted in a number of frameworks that challenge the traditional definition of a combatant, and disputes have arisen over exactly which positions are to be defined as combatant on a battlefield. These include the soldiers operating the Iron Dome missile defense system; those serving in cyber units; search and rescue brigade of the Home Front Command; and drone operators.

On Wednesday, the IDF website published an article that summarized the recent decision, as approved by Maj. Gen. Yoav Har-Even, the head of operations directorate. The  new classification is pending the approval of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Following the plan's approval, the Israeli army will have three new classifications: combatants, support troops, and weapons operators. The remaining positions are considered back-up functions. Combatants are defined as those who hold battlefield positions – the infantry, armored corps, engineers, pilots, naval fighters and so on.

These soldiers endanger their lives and have been trained to engage in combat and to harm the enemy in "operational contact" – that is, on the actual battlefield. Support troops are defined as those who are trained to participate in operations where their lives may be endangered and who provide administrative assistance to the combatants on the battlefield.

Some roles that fall under this category are the Ordnance Corps soldiers who fix border fences, or the technicians who are embedded with combat units. The third definition of combat weapons operator encompasses those who fight on the growing technological battleground, against cyber-attacks or in the air defense system.

Gantz addressed the issue during a conference held a week ago. "We must be careful with our definitions," he said, '... there is a new operational arena, but those who are endangering themselves are the combatants."

Past discussions saw a dispute between the air force and the personnel directorate over the classification of drone operators. The personnel directorate had suggested they be classified as holding a position that is higher than the back-up troops, but lower than support troops. The different classification holds concrete economic implications, when it comes to the compensation package soldiers receive once they complete their army service.

However, a senior officer in the air force criticized this suggestion in the past, saying it would have a major effect upon these soldiers. "People dont need to be at the front line in order to have an influence on the battlefield," he said, arguing that drone operators have a significant impact.

The issue of classifying the various IDF roles isnt just being discussed by management – it's also a topic of interest within the various units in the field. The feeling is that combatants or those who are seen to have combat roles not only have more glory but also have increased motivation to serve. As a result, the intelligence division's satellite unit decided to issue special overalls for operators, which are similar to those worn by members of the air force. The reason for this was clear: to increase motivation. The satellite unit currently has 200 of these overalls, and the soldiers have voiced their content. And air force inspectors will be the next to recieve them as the IDF is purchasing more.

IDF soldiers in the Golan