The Artillery Corps of the Israel Defense Forces is responsible for delivering a large portion of the military’s firepower to an increasingly complex battlefield. Its units take part in a large array of activities—from firing artillery guns, to guided advanced missiles and operating unmanned aerial vehicles. But before all of that, according to Lt. Col. Yotam Burstein, commanding officer of the Artillery Corps Training Battalion, everything begins with basic training.

The 37-year-old commander has spent more than 18 years in the military. After being drafted into the Artillery Corps himself in 2002, he has since served in command roles in almost every artillery unit. Previously the commander of an operational combat battalion, Burstein has spent the past two years commanding over the training battalion.

“Everyone who takes their first steps in the Artillery Corps passes through me,” he told JNS. That includes all future Artillery Corps combat soldiers, combat-support soldiers and instructors. “It’s a very significant role,” he said.

With its powerful firepower and array of systems, the Artillery Corps of 2020 is relevant to every IDF operation. “There is no operational scenario today that IDF preparing for that corps doesn’t play a significant role in,” said the commander.

“In basic training, we have to give soldiers all of the basic skills they will need as combat soldiers, and only afterwards do they acquire skills for their specialized role,” explained Burstein. Whether soldiers are destined to operate artillery guns, missiles or drones, the emphasis of the training battalion is first on achieving basic combat soldier capabilities.

“This includes personal discipline, military discipline and operational discipline,” said the officer. “It means the basics of firearm maintenance and marksmanship, an ability to treat the injured and being able to live in the field. On the way, we certainly help them acquire a ‘can do’ approach and independence. These are the foundations of being a combat soldier.”

IDF Artillery Corps conducting a training exercise. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

During Burstein’s time as battalion commander, the Artillery Corps significantly reduced basic training time from eight to four months after an extensive assessment. Burstein said the training remains high quality, adding that it provides longer operational experience for soldiers—meaning that those who go on to be commanders have four additional months of real-life operations to fall back on.

“It puts them in a different operational place, and their mental readiness to command others is far higher,” said the battalion commander. “The best proof that this has succeeded is the fact that young crews who completed the first shorter training cycle were the first to take part in firing incidents, and they did so successfully.”

The Artillery Corps is preparing to receive a new gun to replace its veteran howitzer. Last year, the Israeli Defense Minister signed a contract with Elbit Systems for the fully automatic self-propelled new artillery gun.

“The new gun brings new levels of accuracy, efficiency, utilization of personnel and availability for firepower,” said Burstein. “It needs far less personnel. We are waiting for it keenly.”

‘Firepower and intelligence cannot go without the other’

One of the challenges that the Artillery Corps must face is targeting a “hidden enemy” that embeds itself deeply into civilian areas. During the 2014 conflict with Hamas, artillery units rescued a Golani battalion in the Gazan neighborhood of Shejaiya, which had become surrounded by Hamas operatives firing from residential buildings. The artillery units instructed the Golani personnel to enter their armored personnel carriers and created a ring of protective fire, destroying the buildings from which Hamas was firing.

“That was a very significant incident for us. We drew many lessons from it,” said Burstein. “ ‘Operation Protective Edge’ challenged us with a hidden enemy. In any future operation in Gaza or elsewhere, we will find ourselves facing this in an even more challenging manner.”

The key solution is the close cooperation that the Artillery Corps and the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate have built together, enabling firepower units to accurately know enemy locations.

“Today, firepower and intelligence cannot go without the other,” said Burstein. “This cooperation has been especially high in recent years, in training and in operations. It is an incredible level of cooperation; this is what enables our achievements. It is a force multiplier. In the past, each acted on its own. Today, the understanding is that we must join forces. Even physically, we sit together in cells. There is a clear understanding that intelligence and firepower are part of one whole.”

At the level of individual soldiers, the Artillery Corps prepares soldiers physically and mentally to encounter an enemy from 360 degrees. Unlike in the past, when armies faced armies, contemporary soldiers must be aware that they can meet threats from underground, the ground and the air, noted the commander. “Soldiers have to be prepared for that. It means working on their training, on Krav Maga, on their marksmanship and their ability to conduct selective shooting. Mentally, they have to be prepared and not surprised by an encounter with the enemy.”

Burstein said the coronavirus pandemic forced the battalion to make adjustments, such as spending a lot more time in the field, eating and studying in tents, and spending far more time on base.

“We are in the last week of training, and as I look back, I am satisfied with what we managed to do,” he summed up. “The soldiers drafted three months ago have displayed mental resilience and maturity. We were pleasantly surprised. The commanders made the required adjustments to the pandemic and displayed flexibility. The battalions will be pleased with the soldiers they are going to receive.”

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