TEL AVIV — From surging procurement of advanced simulators to a massive new urban training base with underground facilities for anti-tunnel warfare, the Israeli Army is changing the way it prepares readies its active duty and reserve forces for high-intensity, maneuvering battle.
Managed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Ground Forces Command and funded in part from US military grant aid, training initiatives include development and construction of a sprawling new base in the Golan Heights where all echelons will hone combined arms urban and subterranean maneuvering skills.
Named after a tributary of the Jordan River, the Snir training base is actually "a city on top of a city, with all the sophisticated instrumentation and life-fire opportunities needed to train all echelons for all scenarios … on the surface and under the surface," Maj. Gen. Guy Zur, Ground Forces commander, said.
Inspired by the US Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, the new Snir facility is expected to be much larger and more advanced than the IDF’s 13-year-old MALA Urban Operations facility in the Negev Desert.
"We're in a very dynamic development process, and I hope that by the end of 2017, it will be fully operational," Zur said. "We're building a huge infrastructure and also a downsized version with everything we need to simulate a big city."
Plans call for initial units to begin training at the new facility as early as next year. In recent months, sources said Israeli contractors supported by the US Army Corps of Engineers have dug out tunnels designed to replicate the underground labyrinth that Hamas used to great effect against Israel in the Gaza war that began in July 2014 Gaza war.
The new facility will be supported by a broad spectrum of simulators and entire areas devoted to live-fire training. Many of those simulators, said Zur, will be integrated with data from the Israel Air Force.
"We need to train the way we fight," he said.
Brig. Gen. Einav Shalev, head of Ground Force training and doctrine, said long-term plans also call for Snir to be supported by more than 10ten companies of red team operatives, whose job is to challenge Israeli maneuvering forces through terror tunnel-based ambushes and other methods of guerrilla warfare.
"Imagine tanks or armored vehicles maneuvering through the streets, which are suddenly confronted by 30 to 40 guys acting as well-armed terrorists. Those are the conditions we intend to create at Snir," one officer said.
According to this officer, the first two companies of red team operatives should be deployed at the new facility in early 2016.Shalev , the training and doctrine commander, noted said that the new underground training city is just one, albeit the most ambitious, of Israeli facilities being built or upgraded for purposes of advanced training.
In a Nov. 23 interview, Shalev said the Ground Forces is completing its first comprehensive restructuring of live-fire test ranges since 1998, with some slated for closure and others designated for a spectrum of physical and technological upgrades.
"In the Golan Heights, we're dedicating tens of millions [of shekels] on what bases to evacuate and what bases to expand. In parallel, we're building a lot of new structures, which we'll disperse to those built up bases," the officer said. "When you travel around the country, you'll notice that tractors are everywhere. It's all part of our multiyear plan to elevate training and simulation to new heights."
Another major initiative, tested recently under a pilot program with Elbit Systems, is an advanced Mission Training Center (MTC) for multi-echelon integrated brigade training. Israel's venerable 7th Brigade was the first-ever IDF brigade to train on the MTC in a recent three-day combined arms exercise aimed at enhancing readiness in complex combat scenarios.
It was the first time, officers here said, that IDF infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineering and other elements participated in a computer-generated combined arms battle, with support from combat aircraft, helicopters, UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, forward observation units and more.
Developed and deployed in less than five months at a base in southern Israel, the Elbit MTC marks "a revolution in the world of simulators," Shalev said.
"It's the first time since the establishment of the IDF that we've been able to train from platoon all the way up to brigade level in live operational scenarios, with many other elements integrated into the training. This is a world we have not yet learned."
Now on loan to the IDF, Army officers said they hope and expect to receive funds in the upcoming five-year plan to make the facility a permanent fixture in their revamped training regimen.
"If we go to this capability, I plan to send three to five brigades there next year, each for five-day exercises. It will significantly enhance our readiness," the officer said.
But beyond the technology and physical infrastructure, Shalev said enhanced readiness would ultimately depends on the frequency of quality training. provided through the revamped regimen.
It starts with expanded training for conscripts, who, beginning this month, will spend a full year of their mandatory 32-month service in a combination of live and simulated exercises.
It extends to IDF combat-essential reserve forces, which, for the first time since the establishment of the Jewish state, have begun training for two full weeks once every three years. Under a plan awaiting final approval by Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, IDF chief of staff, Ground Forces Command will train fewer a lot less forces in a much more persistent and intensive manner.
Starting this year, officers say the IDF is cutting tens of thousands of reservists from its rosters in order to free up resources for much more intensive training of only those it intends to call up to war.
According to Shalev, the revamped training program would essentially convert "a not insignificant number" of reserve brigades to the level of active-duty brigades, ready for combat at very short notice.
"The IDF is based on its reserve forces, and this is the first year we're implementing a program to exploit the maximum from routinized and extended training," he said.
Under the plan, combat essential reservists will train in three-year cycles: two weeks in the first year; one week in the second year; followed in the third year by either three weeks on operational duty — which allows the Army to relieve active duty units sent to their own training — or one week of embedded cooperation with other combat disciplines.
Shalev cautioned that the budget is not yet approved to implement this on a massive scale, but that tens of companies and battalions have already begun training according to this schedule. And even prior to final approval of Israel’s new multiyear budget plan, the officer said Eisenkot has authorized "hundreds of millions" of shekels for ground force training.
"We need to wait for final approvals, but this chief of staff is dedicated to a new type and pace of training that will put the IDF in an altogether different place than it has ever been before," he said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.