November 25, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas war: Meet the IDF artillery key to the Gaza war

In Gaza, the IDF is beating Hamas, with its ground forces advancing further. Key to this success is Israel's artillery units.
November 25, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas war: Meet the IDF artillery key to the Gaza war

In Gaza, the IDF is beating Hamas, with its ground forces advancing further. Key to this success is Israel's artillery units.

In Gaza, the IDF is defeating Hamas, street by street. 

After a month and a half of war, the ground forces have surrounded Hamas in Gaza City. IDF infantry and tanks, backed by the air force, artillery, navy, and special units, have cleared Hamas from numerous neighborhoods in the suburban area of Gaza City. This includes pushing Hamas out of Shati – a densely populated area near the beach – taking over Hamas headquarters in numerous areas and shattering Hamas units that sought to stand and fight. 

Key to defeating Hamas is the use of IDF artillery units. North of the Gaza Strip, in a field that has been churned up with the treads of vehicles, is an artillery battalion. This is the 402nd Battalion, nicknamed “Reshef,” and it is supporting the advance of the 162nd Division in Gaza. The Reshef unit, which uses M109 self-propelled howitzers, is part of the 215th Pillar of Fire artillery brigade.  

The M109 is a beast. It can weigh up to 50,000 kg. It looks somewhat like an elephant, with a long gun in place of a trunk, and tank treads in place of feet. It can also move about as fast as an elephant’s top speed – over 40 km/hr. The goal of self-propelled howitzers, or artillery in general, is that you move the guns somewhere near the battle but set back from the front, and deploy them in a field, protected by berms, so that they can deal death and destruction to an adversary. 

In the old days, artillery, consisting of cannons, would have been very inaccurate. Artillery would soften up a position by firing a huge number of shells. The battlefields of World War I are emblematic of that era, when a swath of France was turned into craters.

Today’s M109 is different. It can fire a variety of shells with increasing precision. That means it isn’t used to lay waste to areas, it is used in close coordination with infantry and armored units, and with drones up above, to strike precisely what needs to be struck.

Viewing the artillery

To get to the artillery, I drove along several roads toward the Gaza border. This area had been attacked by Hamas on October 7. The 402nd Battalion had been up north at the time.

I meet with the commander, Lt.-Col. Raz. He’s a strong, well-built man, sturdy and chiseled by long years in the IDF. 

Large clouds are threatening to rain on the position and turn the field into mud. Some tarps have been brought to cover the shells, kept in fields near the guns.  

Raz says this is one of Israel’s oldest field artillery units, created in 1948. 

He recalls being in the North on Shabbat on October 7. The unit had been involved in a drill in the North. Some men were at home for Shabbat. When they saw what had happened, they began to gather at 7:30 a.m. They immediately headed south. When they got to an area north of Gaza, they saw bodies on the road. 

By the morning of October 8, the unit was already helping to support the 77th armored battalion and the 13th Golani infantry who were on the border. These units had suffered the brunt of the Hamas human-wave attacks. Now the IDF was going to bring fire to bear and push the enemy back. The artillery helped eviscerate some Hamas Nukhba anti-tank squads. As the first artillery unit in the sector, it was essential to the first days’ battles.  

Soon Israel would unlimber three IDF divisions to break Hamas in Gaza. 

The 36th Division, nicknamed “the rage,” would be deployed farther south to cut Gaza in two and surround the city from the south. The 162nd would head north from the border, like a hammer and anvil, to beat Hamas into submission in the city. The artillery, firing from the field I was standing in and other locations, would support the troops.  

The commander Raz provides a tour of one of the artillery positions.

The M109 opens from the rear, and soldiers stand inside it and in the dirt behind it. Shells are organized by type behind it. Raz illustrates how the process works today with artillery. As in the old days, a shell is placed in the barrel, or breach, of the gun. Then a certain amount of explosive charge is placed behind it. Some of these charges are modular, and it is easy to figure out how much to use because they come in circular blocks. The breach is then closed, and a charge is set. The gun is still activated by pulling a string, setting off the charge that sets off the explosive, thus propelling the munition out of the barrel. This means there are many factors at play: how much charge to use, what kind of munition, and the trajectory and azimuth. These days, a computer aids with much of this.

The artillery team is also in contact with a headquarters unit nearby, where commanders look at screens showing areas of Gaza. They use the most advanced technology to plot where to fire and identify the position of friendly troops, as well as carry out battle damage assessment almost in real-time. This means that they can close the loop between sensors and shooters to bring down precision fire quickly.  

Varying munitions can create smoke or illumination. Some are good for hitting structures or for timed explosions. The unit has been here in the field for almost 50 days. The soldiers are mostly professionals and conscripts, not reservists. Raz was initially a soldier trained in the use of Spike missiles, including the ultra-long-range Tammuz. Then he moved to artillery. The concepts here are old. Artillery is considered “statistical,” meaning you fire a certain number of shells to hit things, within say an area of 50 meters; it’s not 100% precise. But new munitions and new artillery that Israel is working on for the future will increase precision to near perfection.  

In the field

The artillery helps troops move forward, block by block. 

Raz shows us to his command tent, and an American-born soldier greets us – Sgt. Yarden. She’s a lone soldier from Los Angeles. At the command post she says, “We get the missions from the radio systems, and we send the coordinates… [they] tell us what they want [in terms of munitions], and we decide which gets the assignment and how many at once,” she says. “Sometimes it’s intense and sometimes quiet. Usually, at night it’s more intense.” 

Yarden made aliyah a year ago with a garin tzabar (in the IDF lone soldier program) and wanted to be in a combat unit. “There are only a few options, I understood. Artillery is what I wanted. I was drafted in December, spent time to learn Hebrew, and then in March I went to the artillery.” 

It has been intense, she says. “Even though I expected it, it was out of my comfort zone. I connected with the people around me. I knew coming in: You will make bonds and push yourself. Everyone has a role. It’s overwhelming. I deal with communications and systems.”

On October 7, she was on a kibbutz in the North.

“We were awoken to a panic and nightmare – and it was intense. They told us where to go. We knew people in the South. We saw the videos on social media. I was in a combat medic course. I ended up going back to the course; we had a week [left] to finish, and then I arrived here on Friday of the first week of war,” recalls Yarden, – who grew up in Encino, California. 

She’s had one day off since the war began. Sometimes there are sirens here, and the soldiers shelter in the armored vehicles. “The food is okay. We get lots of donations. We got McDonald’s once.” That was arranged by the battalion. “I have friends serving with the IDF in Gaza. They are lone soldiers in Gaza.” 

In the field, Raz describes the high volume of fire they have used. The whole brigade has fired around 10,000 shells, and each battalion around 3,500. This means each M109 may have fired 400 to 500 shells. However, the commander says it’s important to fire what is necessary to save lives. “There are areas where we wait because of civilians,” he says. The 155-mm. shells that these guns fire are being used at an astronomical rate globally, due to the Ukraine war.

Computers and digitization have contributed to greater efficiency in artillery units since the 2006-2014 era wars in Gaza. There are some new types of shells. 

Raz compares artillery supporting ground forces to something one can do quickly, like reaching for their wallet. 

“I can grab it like a sidearm and be in contact quickly. It’s not like waiting for the Air Force. It’s intimate. I speak with them [ground forces in the field] often.” 

When units receive the new artillery Israel is producing, it will have automatic loaders rather than troops loading it, and it will be able to do with a single gun what a battalion now does with a dozen cannons. It will have an accuracy of half a meter. The 282nd, a different unit, will receive the first of the new systems. 

Back at one of the command posts, Raz explains how his men can easily speak on the radio with units in Gaza and can quickly direct fire toward threats. 

“In one case, there was anti-tank fire and wounded, and an IDF helicopter was taking people out, and so we directed smoke shells to that area.” 

Ethical code

The artillery works with an ethical code. With new data and being able to see in real-time what is happening, they can avoid hitting civilians. But the enemy hides among civilians. 

“They use schools and mosques and hospitals,” says Raz. “We try to protect the civilians – we live with this dilemma every day,” says the commander. 

After visiting the command tent, we walked over to see some of the other guns. One of them fired several times toward Gaza, the boom resonating all over the field. 

The men come from all sorts of backgrounds around Israel. 

Some are playing with a soccer ball. Their commander reminds them to keep their flak jackets on. The men always stay together and near their weapons. They grow close working here, unloading munitions, placing them in the cannon, firing, and doing the same again and again. A lot of the time is spent waiting for orders. They talk about the war, and politics, and home. They joke and laugh. 

And the war goes on.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power