As warfare transitions from large national militaries clashing in open spaces to small units of soldiers and guerrillas fighting in congested, urban settings, Israel has created the ultimate modern combat training center.
Located at the Tze’elim Army Base in the Negev Desert, just east of the Gaza Strip, the 7.4-square-mile facility has been used by many of the world’s most powerful militaries as a training ground, including the U.S. Marines and U.N. security forces.
Nicknamed “Baladia,” which is Arabic for “city,” the training center’s urban mock-up spans more than a half square-mile. The facility was built in 2005 with the help of the U.S. military, at a total cost of $45 million.
Vice News correspondent Alex Miller got to experience the training Israeli soldiers go through at Baladia up-close, and produced a documentary highlighting the venture.
Miller enters the Tze'Elim Army Base in Southwest Israel, which was designed with the specific purpose of helping soldiers learn the tactics of urban warfare.
City landscapes -- such as Gaza's, where the IDF is currently fighting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas -- give an advantage to insurgents whose forces are smaller than a conventional army's, but can still fight from defensive positions on territory that they own.
Since Israel is constantly under threat of attack from terrorist and insurgent groups, it's important for its military to master urban fighting techniques.
Israel's big shift on urban warfare doctrine came in 2002, when the IDF used urban combat techniques to pacify the city of Nablus in the northern West Bank. Rather than using the existing streets to get around, they blasted through walls and traveled between buildings. The mission was heralded as a great success.
In 2005, 'Baladia' opened as the center for urban warfare training. Soldiers roam around the premises completing simulated missions to improve their skill set.
The fake city has 600 buildings, and commanders are able to modify the scenery according to future mission needs. Every possible detail is included, down to the street lights.
Baladia can be changed to look and feel like the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria, or Lebanon, so that Israeli soldiers are familiar with the settings they may conceivably be deployed to.
Miller joins Israeli soldiers on a mission to 'reclaim' the city. They begin five miles away from town, checking for enemies along the way.
After running across open fields towards the city, Miller and another soldier had to dive and take cover in a trench after an enemy 'sniper' began shooting blanks at them.
Instead of using the roads to go from place to place, the soldiers climb over each others shoulders and scale walls, so as to remain minimally visible to the enemy.
As the soldiers enter a building, there is an enemy militant hiding at the top of the stairs. Sometimes, an enemy is separated by less than a meter.
After the Israeli soldier moves quietly up the stairs, he manages to fire at the enemy before he has a chance to react.
'Ten or fifteen years ago urban fighting was just for special units,' said Sgt. Rafi Shachat, a squad commander. 'Now, it's just day-to-day training.'
The Israelis know that whatever advantages their training at Baladia gives them over their enemies won't last for long. 'All of the organisations we fight against are also progressing,' Shachat said.
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