The Israeli army has formed a new unit to identify chemical weapons during combat, prompted by concerns that as Syria dismantles its chemical weapons stocks, some of the arms may fall into militants' hands.
The new Saifan unit – for now, a company of regular soldiers in the Special Operations Engineering Unit (Yahalom) – will integrate teams into combat units that can uncover the use of chemical and biological materials on the battlefield.
The soldiers in the first team from this small unit have just completed their training. A second team is due to complete its training in August, when the company will be established. Three more reservist companies are also planned. Yahalom commander Colonel Yaron Beit-On says the new unit “will provide an answer to the unconventional threats that are developing on our surrounding borders.”
An officer in the Yahalom unit says the Saifan fighters will be able to enter areas suspected of being tainted with chemical weapons and supply evidence and samples of these materials. “In the past, we didn’t plan to fight in such areas. The order was, ‘Protect yourself and get out.’ This unit will have combat capability even in an area with chemical weapons. They’ll be able to identify them and neutralize them,” says the officer.
Much of the necessary protective gear, such as special suits and masks for the soldiers to wear while fighting, is still being acquired. However, the unit already has equipment, including some that can be attached to robots for detecting and identifying chemical weapons. On a tour for journalists on Wednesday the Yahalom unit showed off several robots, including one named “Talon” that can carry a handgun and another, “Andros,” that can be armed with a shotgun – for shooting suspicious objects that might contain explosives.
In late 2013, after an agreement was reached to dismantle the Assad regime’s stock of chemical weapons, the Israel Defense Forces established a committee to examine the army’s preparedness for chemical weapons threat. The committee concluded that since terrorist organizations were trying to obtain chemical and possibly biological weapons, the army needed to deal a number of scenarios: the possible use of chemical weapons against its troops during combat, and the threat of “chemical terror” against civilians near the border.
“There is a heightened effort by the terrorist organizations, including ISIS, to acquire chemical weapons,” says one official. Following the committee’s recommendations, last year the Engineering Corps’ nuclear, biological, chemical school and the coed NBC battalion were both closed.
Last week, the Yahalom unit completed a unit-wide exercise that more than doubled the unit in size. Much of the additional manpower will be designated for the Samur company that specializes in underground and counter-tunnel combat. The officer says that since the end of the fighting in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, Samur soldiers have been under the Gaza division and working to locate tunnels that cross into Israeli territory.
At the start of the year, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot called this counter-tunnel work a top priority for the IDF. More than 100 bulldozers and other heavy equipment were used in a wide-scale operation to locate tunnels. And the unearthing of two tunnels marks a “breakthrough” in the army’s handling of this issue. “We’re working around the clock to locate attack tunnels. All day, every day,” says the officer.
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