Once again, as is the case every year, the regular ritual is being replayed. The finance minister is asking for a cut of NIS 2-3 billion in the defense budget, while a Defense Ministry team headed by the financial adviser to the chief of staff is asking for an increase of NIS 3-4 billion. Even though the Israel Defense Forces received an addition of more than NIS 7 billion in the past two years, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer insists that the army is still lacking NIS 2-3 billion - and that the deficit is continually growing. "We cannot slash security," he intones.
The economy is on the brink of collapse, but the IDF remains adamant. Sometimes, in fact, it appears as if the General Staff, with the ardent backing of the defense minister, is operating in a virtual reality of its own, in which there are hardly any budgetary constraints and in which everything is possible and everything is essential.
There is a dual problem when it comes to the defense budget. First, there is absolutely no process of external control and supervision over the structure of the budget, the way in which the money is allocated and the underlying conception. Second, in the absence of external supervision, the IDF has refrained from declaring its order of priorities in force building. Hence, not only is it incapable of initiating and implementing budget cuts, its working methods actually oblige it to increase the defense budget every year.
An attempt to establish a professional committee in the Knesset that would make itself an expert in the subject failed miserably. The committee that deals with the defense budget, chaired by MK Weizman Shiri (Labor), never even attempted to cope with the IDF's pronouncements and adopts its demands for budget increases without trying to examine them from a professional standpoint.
The result is that the army is fully autonomous when it comes to formulating its budget. No one from the outside examines its operational conceptions, the credibility of the threats it cites, its force building or the structure of its budget. Thus, the IDF makes hardly any effort to limit itself in terms of procurement, and is not called upon to decide what is more important, what is less important, what is essential and what it can do without. Naturally, the army's commanding officers try to cover all options, and deploy in the face of all threats, without taking into account the likelihood of their realization. Even the American armed forces, which enjoy a vast budget (President George W. Bush is asking Congress to approve $379 billion for defense in 2003), are compelled to decide on priorities in procurement, development and force building.
Whereas in the United States, the armed forces must receive Congress's stamp of approval for every budgetary outlay involving the development of new weapons systems, in Israel, as Finance Minister Silvan Shalom has noted, "The defense establishment decides independently on long-term projects and no one intervenes in its considerations." The result of this hands-off approach is that the IDF behaves as though it is a rich army that is unwilling to abandon any sphere of technological development as long as it can be justified by citing the existence of a threat of some sort. Instead of determining a hierarchy of threats, the IDF attempts to provide an answer to them all. The result is a fundamentally flawed aspiration on the part of the army to provide Israel's citizens with "absolute security."
In such a manner, for example, the IDF invests billions of dollars to develop a defense system against ballistic missiles, without any consideration given to the degree of likelihood of a ballistic missile threat on the part of Iran, without any attention paid to the proper preparations in the face of a future nuclear threat, and without an objective examination of the effectiveness of such a weapons system.
The IDF wants more than a proven qualitative gap in the face of potential adversaries; it wants to keep expanding that gap indefinitely. In the absence of external control to address these professional evaluations, the army is continuing to spend large sums on expensive and, in some cases, unnecessary material. For example, in light of the current balance of forces between the IDF and its foes, is the latest version of the Merkava tank, the Mark-4, really necessary? Isn't the existing Merkava Mark-3 sufficient, as it already possesses a clear qualitative edge over the enemy's armor? Is it really necessary to field nearly 4,000 tanks, considering the fact that the Israel Air Force possesses a large number of attack helicopters with the role of coping with the enemy's armor, and also taking into account that Israel's ground forces are equipped with a hefty amount of precision weapons systems that are designed to destroy enemy tanks?
Similar questions can and should be posed in regard to Israel's air power. Is it right to go on allocating such a large slice of the IDF's procurement budget to the air force, or should some of that money go toward building up the navy, which, in the not-too-distant future, in the era of existential strategic threats, will become the IDF's strategic arm?
And we haven't yet mentioned that about half the defense budget is earmarked for salaries and conditions of service; that the members of the career army retire at the age of 43 and enjoy a non-contributory pension, which, within a few short years, is going to cost the state coffers no less than NIS 4 billion a year (as opposed to $1 billion in 1986); that the IDF doesn't streamline itself, but keeps on adding to the number of its headquarters; and that in 2008, the defense budget will finance more pensioners than soldiers. So the finance minister is right to declare: "We have reached a critical point. It is time to talk about a reform in the defense establishment."
However, in order to implement a reform, there is a need, first of all, to change the worldview of the army's senior officers, as expressed in the remarks of the outgoing chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz: When he was asked about a possible re-examination of the salaries paid to the career army, he replied, "I would rather ground aircraft than harm the service conditions of the career army personnel."
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