Ready in Reserve

Drafted at the age of 18, IDF combat soldiers serve in active duty for three years, but they remain in the reserves until well into their 40s. How do they maintain their fighting skills after spending many years away from day-to-day army life?

For decades, Israeli reservists have been called up periodically to don their uniforms and report for refresher training, each in their field of expertise. Combat soldiers participate in shooting drills and, depending on their unit, practice with tanks and artillery.

IDF Reservists

IDF reservists plan their strategy ahead of a drill while their officers look on.

Such training costs the IDF a lot of money. Ammunition and fuel are expensive. IDF analysts constantly ask each other if it is worth it to spend so much money on aging reservists. But recently, the IDF found a cheaper — and safer — alternative to using live ammunition: simulators. Pilots have long trained in simulators, but only recently are ground forces able to train in the same manner.

A base near Ashkelon called Camp Julis is where the magic happens. In it, IDF reservists go through all the motions of a real battle.

The base looks like a huge club with fancy arcade games, but the machines are more expensive. They save the IDF a lot of money in the long run.

IDF Reservists

IDF reservists practice their shooting skills in front of a screen with targets.

“One shot from a howitzer is about a thousand dollars,” said an artillery instructor. “How much money should be spent on teaching how to calculate a shot? In a simulator, it costs nothing. And if you miss your target, it’s happening only on the computer, not in reality.”

In a field with tall grass and dirt mounds, infantry reservists are simulating an assault on a handful of terrorists. The game looks like a paintball match, but it sounds like a real battle. The soldiers are shooting blanks instead of real bullets. Their rifles are equipped with laser transmitters, and each soldier wears sensors that monitor if they get hit by their opponents. After the battle, an instructor examines the sensors and reports on who got hit by whom.

“It’s like in real combat,” said Lt. Col. Yariv Avnaim, the commander of the base. “The opponents are real people, and so when somebody gets ‘killed’, it affects the soldiers psychologically.”

Lt. Col. Yariv Avnaim

Lt. Col. Yariv Avnaim, the commander of Camp Julis, explains his job to visiting reporters.

In a hangar nearby, reservists from armored units can practice with all of the tanks in service in the IDF. The real tanks are there for them; they climb inside in order to participate in the drills. On computers nearby, operators monitor select exercises and track the reservists’ performance. The tank crews have to deal with obstacles that they would face in a real battle, from smoke and treacherous terrain to mechanical problems and enemy attacks. And of course, it’s all done without spending money on a single drop of fuel or a single projectile.

Thanks to the technology available at Camp Julis, IDF reservists remain ready for action, whether as part of their normal reserve duty, or in the event of a war.