Deep in Israel’s Negev Desert, the 906th Battalion, which trains future Israel Defense Forces’ squadron leaders from the special forces, is preparing its cadets for war.
The battalion also trains squadron commanders that will serve in reconnaissance units—elite forces in infantry brigades—and therefore is in charge of producing commanders that will lead their soldiers behind enemy lines.
“We talk a lot about raids, about going in and out. This is the main battle aspect that we teach them. What is the meaning of raids, how to strike the enemy and move back. Lots of small victories, in the end, are one big victory,” 906th Battalion Commander, Lt.-Col. Yaron Simsolo, told JNS during an interview.
The 906th Battalion is part of the IDF’s infantry training school, which runs a wide range of courses. In addition to training future officers, the school also doubles up as an active wartime brigade. The instructors could be called up to conduct combat missions on any one of Israel’s fronts: Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or the West Bank.
Simsolo explained that a squad, which is made up of eight to 10 soldiers, is the first level in the military that requires its own leadership course. The squad commanders are trained for 10 to 14 weeks, depending on their unit, and recognize that for the first time, they have real responsibility over others.
“They need to lead them, not just in war. Also during regular times,” explained Simsolo. “If a soldier’s girlfriend or wife is sick. If the father is sick with cancer. This is the first level that engages with soldiers. The squad leader needs to lead.”
The course provides crucial leadership experience, which some of the squad leaders will use to later progress up the ranks. The shift from having no responsibility to full responsibility over others is a “huge challenge,” the battalion commander said.
The course instructors have their own challenge, in training the cream of the crop of the IDF. Unlike ordinary unit squad leaders, who arrive at the training school after six months of basic training, the commando and reconnaissance squad commanders arrive after 12 to 14 months of training with lots of prior knowledge.
“I need to give them the added value of being a squad leader in special forces or in recon,” said Simsolo. “We have to challenge them with a different kind of training. And teach them how to command people like themselves, who have a lot of knowledge, experience and a high intellectual level. We teach them how to take this kind of people into battle. How to make the mental shift from being a combat soldier or operator to a squad leader.”
Train and debrief
There are many ways that the 906th Battalion does this, including throwing them into the field with a variety of challenging scenarios, which include deliberately making things “go wrong.” This is followed by a full debriefing.
Other times, the cadets are faced with leadership crises. “What should they do if a soldier, a couple of minutes before the fight, says he is afraid and cannot engage? The squad leader does not only deal with action against the enemy. How does he respond if one of his guys is now saying he cannot go into combat? How does he apply his leadership?” asked Simsolo, giving an example of the complex training scenarios.
During training, cadets are tested along three lines: their professional capabilities, their leadership abilities and their adherence to the IDF’s moral values.
“These are the three lines that we test throughout the course. It’s a huge challenge for us—how to challenge them,” he said.
Before reaching their course, the cadets prepare, gaining expertise in maneuvering, urban warfare, fighting in open spaces and subterranean combat.
The 906th battalion also acquaints the soldiers in training with the enemy, giving them tours of borders and “telling them all that we know about the enemy,” said the commander.
During the training, small teams are extracted from the cadets and role-play the enemy (a tactic known as “red teaming”). “They act exactly in accordance with how we understand an enemy like Hamas or Hezbollah,” said Simsolo. “We test the squad leader to see if he understands the enemy’s methods. If so, he can reach his solution on how to attack.”
The squad leaders must also learn how to communicate and coordinate among one another on the battlefield in the wider settings of platoons and companies.
“There is lots of mental preparation and lots of briefings about fire support, air support and drone support,” said the commander. “The mental aspect of being a commander—their professional, leadership and ethical responsibilities—are the main things we try to give them.”
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