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Hundreds of soldiers serve for two years in the Israel Defense Forces instead of the normal three, under an arrangement the IDF authorities would rather keep quiet.

The soldiers serve as guards at bases and army installations.

They work fixed shifts and get no promotion. As compensation for this monotonous, boring, but not very dangerous job, the IDF exempts a soldier from the third compulsory year of service.

The IDF would rather avoid a public debate on this arrangement. In response to a question, it refused to supply any data on the soldiers taking this special deal.

But a senior general staff officer said this is an arrangement that could be a good solution for yeshiva students who now avoid military service entirely. He said many guard slots at army bases and settlements are presently unmanned and if yeshiva students were drafted for a full year - rather than the four months currently proposed in Knesset legislation - the army could use them in such jobs and so call up fewer reservists.

The IDF's use of reservist manpower is already stretched. During peak periods of the current conflict with the Palestinians, it has called up dozens of reserve companies, to beef up the companies regularly deployed in the territories.

Because of the conflict the IDF has also frozen plans to reduce the number of regularly deployed troops and to cut compulsory military service by four months, to 32 months, as of this August.

One way to ease the compulsory service problem would be to pay soldiers a real wage - soldiers in compulsory service get only symbolic payment. By IDF's calculations, paying real salaries to all soldiers in compulsory service would cost some $3 billion a year, raising the defense budget from $8 billion to $11 billion a year.

This calculation was made as part of a comparative study of the IDF and European armies.

It concluded that the IDF has been maintaining tank and aircraft fleets similar to those of western European nations on a much smaller budget.

Britain's annual defense budget is $35 billion, Germany's is $31 billion and France's $37 billion. If the naval budget is excluded - since all these countries have much larger navies than Israel - the figures would be France, $28 billion; Britain, $26 billion; and Germany, $23 billion.

However, about 42 percent of the IDF budget already goes to manpower and only 22 percent to development and equipment, and this is a matter of concern to the general staff.

Indeed, several general staff officers have criticized Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz for a move that could increase the wage budget still further - giving division heads flexibility in setting officers' salaries.

For the same reason, they are critical of higher salaries now being offered to encourage officers in technological fields to stay in the army, saying these are unnecessary given the current high-tech crisis, which has reduced competition from the private sector.

Furthermore, they say, high-tech officers are earning more than combat officers - a captain engineer working at army headquarters in Tel Aviv earns twice as much as a company commander in the territories. Another distortion comes from granting military chaplains the same ranks as engineers.

Finally, these officers object to Mofaz's insistence on granting senior officers overseas vacations and luxury cars. "We need a more modest army," said one.