Analysis

Faced With Fewer Clashes, Israel's Army Seizes International Training Opportunities

Until recently, IDF ground forces were too busy to take part in foreign exercises, like those with NATO and German forces last month. While the Israelis have much to offer their comrades-in-arms, they also have something to learn

Israeli soldiers take part in a NATO exercise in Germany, April 2019.
IDF Spokesperson

The participation of soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces Paratroops’ reconnaissance battalion in maneuvers held in Germany last month reflects a tendency in the army that’s grown during the past five years. What was once the almost exclusive preserve of the air force and the navy, now also encompasses many units of the ground forces. Israel is willing today, with greater openness, to share training and professional know-how with armies of friendly countries. Its military has quite a bit of knowledge and expertise to sell to foreign forces, but there is also a better understanding now of what it can get in return.

The joint air and sea exercises have been, to a large extent, easier to execute. Fewer troops take part in them and on relatively few platforms (meaning planes or boats). The meetings took place in neutral regions, such as the Mediterranean or the skies above it, were conducted with full control from the command level and a relatively small chance of mistakes. Instituting a parallel model with ground forces is more difficult, as a large number of the Israeli troops are in the conscript army (and are also a little younger than combat troops from other countries, where there is no compulsory service). Given this background, it’s not surprising that the local units sent to take part in such exercises are considered to have high-caliber personnel, such as the Paratroops Brigade and the Commando Brigade.

Until a few years ago, IDF ground forces were not actually available for this sort of foreign challenge. The infantry units scurried between the intifada in the territories and routine deployment along the borders, and were occasionally mobilized for extensive operations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. From 2000, the IDF in any case devoted relatively little time to training.

Also hovering in the background in the past was the feeling that the Israelis know everything and have nothing to learn from the comfortable Western armed forces. A foreign military attaché who served in Israel during the past decade once told me that even though he had benefited from his acquaintance with many professional innovations during his stint here – the Israelis he dealt with were frequently patronizing to him. The officers, he said, gave him the feeling that all military knowledge and insight belonged to them. And he himself actually had firsthand experience fighting terrorism in his past positions.

That approach has changed in recent years. The IDF now takes part in a relatively diverse array of training programs and exercises with foreign armies. There are joint seminars; Israeli military exercises are conducted in other countries (in the past year, such exercises were held in Poland and Cyprus, for example); training takes place with forces from a number of countries; and there is advanced training in specific professional areas, such as rescue operations.

The recent exercise in Germany was exceptional in terms of its scope. It lasted three weeks, hundreds of Israeli paratroopers took part, and it was conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Army, the German Army and a number of other European armies affiliated with NATO. Like Cyprus, Germany’s terrain enables Israeli commanding officers to undergo a training experience in unfamiliar territory. In the case of a wooded and mountainous area, and weather that’s colder than in Israel – such experience is good preparation for combat in locales in which the IDF might find itself some day, notably Lebanon, though that’s not spelled out explicitly to the hosts, to avoid embarrassing them.

The training zones available to the IDF in Israel are quite limited, both in number and variety. The ground troops typically train in Tze’elim in the Negev, in Elyakim in the north and also in the Golan Heights, so that by the time an officer becomes a company commander, and certainly a battalion commander, it’s very difficult to surprise him or confront him with anything new. For this reason, too, training in Germany is a singular experience. In addition, participating in such exercises abroad poses a host of other challenges to the Israeli units, in such areas as technology and telecommunications, logistics and administration.

Over the years, with the involvement of U.S. and British forces in long-term wars against terrorists and guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shared experience has been forged with the IDF’s senior echelons. That similar background has resulted in a greater understanding among Western generals concerning the legal and moral considerations Israel exercises with respect to an enemy that hides among a civilian population, and at the same time makes it possible to share more information of a professional nature.

Israel is still perceived as a country that can rapidly come up with effective military solutions for dealing with terror and guerrilla challenges. Many of the ideas and methods devised here during the second intifada – such as a rapid “closing of the circle,” between available intelligence information and the use of aircraft to attack terror activists – would later be “imported,” on a larger scale and more powerfully, by Americans operating in the battlefields of the Middle East and Central Asia. But the truth is that in recent years, there has been a reduction in the volume and intensity of the military clashes in which the IDF has been involved. That’s beneficial for the Israeli public, as it means there are fewer terrorist threats and also fewer casualties. For the military, though, it’s not necessarily great news, because broad professional know-how is lost over the years, certainly in a conscript army that replaces one-third of its combat troops every year.

Not long ago, a senior IDF commander met with officers from an elite unit.

“Do you know what the difference is between you and an equivalent unit in the U.S. Army?” the high-ranking officer asked. “From the outside, you look almost the same. They are a little older than you, and there are more beards and tattoos among them. I also imagine that if we measured IQ, the result here would be better – the selection potential available to the IDF in the conscript army is far higher, and it can pick and choose the best. But there’s one area in which American combat troops today far outstrip us: operational experience.

“In the past few years,” he continued, “every fighter in their special-ops units has served several tours of duty involving high friction in Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Syria. In our case, some of the company commanders now being appointed didn’t even get to take part in our last military campaign – Operation Protective Edge, in Gaza, in 2014 – and even it was a limited operation.”