The helicopter buzzes in from the South, making a long arc in the sky as it begins an approach.
We're standing in the desert near the Tze'elim Ground Forces training base in the Negev. The ground here is dry, undulating, made up of a patchwork of dried brush and grass, and a few mounds of excavated dirt.
One of these dirt mounds forms a kind of backdrop as the green Black Hawk helicopter maneuvers in. It kicks up dust as it lands.
We're standing around a 150 meters away, along a dirt track, a kind of dead-end small road that stops abruptly and becomes part of the desert.
As the helicopter lands and IDF soldiers begin getting out, I walk closer. The dozen soldiers, M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders, help carry a tan stretcher. The men are doing a drill that simulates evacuating wounded.
Over the next half an hour, several more Black Hawk helicopters will perform the same maneuver, flying in on a long arc from the South and disgorging soldiers.
This is one part of a large training exercise designed for the IDF's 99th Division. The goal here is to take officers from the unit and train them to work closely together with one another and also with air force assets, to simulate the kinds of challenges they will see in combat.
A revolution in military affairs
Israel is going through a revolution in military affairs. For decades Israel fought conventional wars against large countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria. After the peace deal with Egypt, Israel faced an insurgency in southern Lebanon and growing terrorist threats from Palestinian groups during the First and Second Intifadas. This shifted Israel's priorities from fighting tank-heavy conventional wars to fighting terrorism. This made the IDF into a counter-insurgent force, with the kind of military capabilities that were common in the early 2000s in other countries, such as the US fighting in Iraq.
Then war shifted again, as Israel left Gaza and fought Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. The shock of the experience in Lebanon led Israel to gear up for wars against complex terrorist armies like Hezbollah. Informed by Iranian support, groups like Hezbollah have complex tunnel networks, missiles and anti-tank weapons. Israel's army trained for a new kind of war and then was tested in Gaza in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021.
Now Israel is going through a new shift.
THIS IS embodied in the Momentum plan, called Tenufa in Hebrew.
The goal is to push intelligence to frontline units and streamline the "sensor to shooter" loop, meaning that soldiers should be able to identify threats faster and neutralize them with a variety of means. That entails knitting together ground forces with the air force, using all the new technology available, such as digital technology and artificial intelligence. New combat vehicles and drone swarms will be used in future wars.
Until some of those systems are more widely used, it is units like the 99th that are using the new technology and combining different types of units. That means including paratrooper reservists, the new multidimensional "Ghosts" unit, use of helicopters, including Black Hawks and Apaches, and coordinating with air force warplanes and also C-130 Super Hercules planes that drop logistics. It also means practicing at training bases like the one in the Negev.
This base includes a mock town that looks like the kind of urban environment Israel might face in Gaza or Lebanon. The fake town has dirt roads and different types of fake houses. These are all well built, with concrete and doors, and even festooned with graffiti and fake storefronts.
This means that when you are driving around this "town," you encounter the local mosque and see graffiti of Hamas and Hezbollah. It has the feeling of being in some other place, which is what the soldiers are supposed to feel.
These kinds of fake villages and towns, built to train fighters, exist in other places in Israel as well, such as in the Golan. This gives units many opportunities to train.
As Israel shifts its fighting doctrine and rolls out new technology, it also has been doing a lot of training with various units. This includes the recent Chariots of Fire exercise, which was one of the largest Israeli Ground Forces drills in decades. Members of US Central Command came to watch the drills, and Israel also flew forces to Cyprus to replicate the kinds of complex missions Israel might face in a conflict with Hezbollah.
This comes as foreign media also suggest Israel is increasing assassinations of Iranian IRGC officers, and as tensions appear to grow in Syria. Israel was accused of bombing Damascus International Airport in June.
This means the drill down South with the 99th was especially important and pertinent for today's complex threats.
The context of this drill goes back several years. In August 2020 the IDF said that the 99th Division would be inaugurated. It was established for rapid maneuver and consisted of four brigades, including infantry from the Kfir Brigade, commandos and other units. Besides the "Ghosts" unit, it also has Yahalom and Gadsar reconnaissance battalions, paratroopers, artillery, the Oketz canine unit and the Duvdevan commando unit, as well as air force assets.
After the soldiers trained to evacuate wounded, some of them gathered under a makeshift field command post to discuss issues related to training to assault the fake town. Under black tarps, set up to form a cover and shade for the unit in the desert, the men listened to high-ranking officers give them tasks. Their job now was to work with maps and other technology to coordinate "attacks" on enemies that might be embedded in the town before us. This simulated the kind of operation an infantry unit might encounter before assaulting a town. They had to solve the challenge they were given in 15 minutes.
The concept of this element of the training was that the soldiers, mostly young officers in their twenties or thirties, needed to pinpoint targets and coordinate with helicopters to eliminate potential threats. This is a classic exercise in "close air support," the use of air force and aerial assets to support ground forces. However, the key here is to use new technology and also practice coordination between the forces. Officers from the Apache helicopter squadron were on hand to assist the ground forces and take part in the training.
While Israel has been pushing new technologies to these units, this is only the beginning of the revolution that will see the use of more unmanned vehicles and systems that enable troops to save their own lives as well as the lives of civilians and avoid the kind of needless fighting that can endanger both.
INSIDE THE training town, on the top floor of a large building meant to symbolize the kind of high-rise one finds in Gaza or other cities, a commander from the air force was also observing the drill. His mission was to assist in supporting the ground troops through air force planes like the F-16. This included simulated bomb runs during the day, in which a half-ton bomb was dropped nearby. When the time came for the bombing, all the soldiers on the rooftop who had been observing the drill stared into the distance as huge explosions rocked the desert.
The air force officer noted that these days it's all about these kinds of joint operations.
"We understand today that no one can win alone, and what works is working together. So we have to work closely together and make sure we learn and train together," said the commander, whose name cannot be used, for security reasons.
On the use of new technology, he said its influence is major, but it takes time to deploy it with all the units. The overall goal of using new technology is that ground units can now identify targets faster, and what they see and identify will be passed on immediately to other units, such as the air force.
"Our idea is that we grow together. They depend on me, and I depend on them. The drill is not just these guys you see here on the ground; it's a joint operation," the air force commander said.
This theme of "no one can win alone" was clear from other commanders who spoke. An officer named Haggai from the ground forces said that "the purpose of the day, the main purpose, is to take the air force and see how the forces from the air help us to take out our targets. There are a lot of opportunities from the air that support us and it is important for us to know how to operate with them."
The goal of the drill, in Haggai's view, was to "see that these officers know how to work with these Apaches or bombs from planes in the fastest way possible, and so that in battle, when they recognize some enemy in their area, they can operate with all the opportunities from the air... [which means] working with fighter planes and Apaches."
This training day was important, he said, because the officers from across the whole division were gathered in one place. Overall, the parts of the unit have been training often. In the North, where two battalions from the unit are located, they train often, he said.
One issue that training may have a hard time imparting is the pressure and chaos that takes place in war. When raiding a real town, there is an enemy that shoots back, and there are civilians and many challenges that are difficult to replicate at a training base.
"Each person reacts differently under pressure. When they practice, they need to know their job and profession as well as they can. When they know their profession, the better they know and do their job under pressure, then all the things that might otherwise [affect] them, the professionalism will overcome that."
For another soldier in the unit, the issue of technology and its changes is very important. Many of these officers have served for years, or are in the reserves.
"You can see a huge difference," said one officer. "When I was in the army for the first time 10 years ago, nothing was digitized, and now it's [the technology is] quick and up-to-date, and you can activate whatever unit you want to fire. So if I am a soldier in Kfir, and I see an enemy, 10 years ago I had to go on the radio and ask for supporting fire; but in last 10 years it evolved to modern technology to pass targets to commanders [and the information can be moved quickly up the chain of command]."
The officers contrast the experience today with a decade or more ago, going back to the Second Lebanon War and the difficulty units had in receiving real-time intelligence. What that means is that today a platoon or company involved in a battle will know more about what it faces in front of it, and also be able to easily identify targets and pass the details back to headquarters.
Time matters in this case because if an enemy is hiding in one part of a building, the enemy might move. Being able to quickly direct fire from artillery or use helicopters to suppress that enemy is important, rather than wasting time or munitions on an adversary who is no longer present.
"I think the public should know the IDF has really evolved technologically. The Israeli army is one of the most technologically advanced, and that gives us a huge advantage.... [The advances include] reducing casualties; being able to distinguish between enemy and friend is easier with technology."
A female officer named Lily works in the operations room of the unit. "There are many jobs in the brigade where they need to pass along mission targets in a certain amount of time to make it relevant for what we need. So if there is a platoon that is trying to take a certain objective and they get stopped by snipers, or by a gathering of people in their way, they can use us to help them remove the target in a short period of time," she said.
Israel's defense industry, including companies such as Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, is key to the successes of the technological revolution.
Lily noted that the technology teaches soldiers to be smart and not just use their muscles. "In the next couple years, so much of war will be based on technology, and that will decide who wins the war. It's not who has more artillery or who has more bombs; the technology will make a difference."
Another officer, who has served 22 years in the IDF, also shared his experience. He recalled the 2008 conflict in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. At the time he was a company commander in the Givati Brigade. "[We were the] first company that went to the border, and 300 meters from the border one observer saw two terrorists on a landfill near Zeitun. We spoke with the Apache, and in three minutes we closed the loop and we shot two missiles, and after that we understood the local deputy commander of Hamas [was killed in the strike]."
He said that learning from experiences like that shows how important it is to "close the loop" so that the units who see the threat can pass on information quickly and get a fire mission going to take out threats.
He said one transition in technology is moving from using physical maps to using command and control systems that are more like the younger generations are used to, with tablets and digital data.
"You can mark what you see, and it goes to command and air force, and after minutes you can close this loop with helicopters; with jets they see what you see."
What that means is everyone is working from the same layer of information. The officer reservists present do these kinds of brigade-level exercises several times a year so that the officers have basic levels of knowledge about the needs of the current battlefield.
At the end of the exercise, after the warplanes had dropped bombs, helicopters had used their machine guns and a large C-130 had dropped supplies by parachute, the soldiers descended the six floors of the building and walked to a central square in the fake town. They then ate food and swapped stories.
As Israel prepares for the next round against Hamas, or a future conflict with Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah, these kinds of exercises and new units like the 99th will be key to victory on the future battlefield.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.