Israeli Military Wants Younger Commanders

New plan to overhaul career army includes earlier promotions, retirement; awaits post-election government.

Ilan Assayag

The Israel Defense Forces is working on a new model for the career army, which will lower the age of its soldiers and expand options for retirement of officers not slated for advancement.

The model has been approved in principle by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his newly minted successor Gadi Eisenkot. However, final approval rests with the prime minister, after the elections.

Over the past decade the career army took a number of steps, with the approval of the Finance Ministry, to put off retirement age for officers and move younger officers to cumulative pensions rather than budgetary pensions, which cost the state more. But the army now considers that a mistake, because it is finding that commanders, even of combat units, are taking up their posts at a relatively late age, which has implications in the field, and that extending service has led to greater expenditure for pensions.

Gantz last year appointed a panel, headed by Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolanski, who was later appointed to head the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, to study the career army model. The committee presented its conclusions to the defense minister and the IDF top brass. It is now being shared with the various branches of the service for their comments, and after the elections it will be brought before the government again.

A decision on the new model also depends on the work of another committee, headed by Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to study the desirable size of the security budget.

The IDF wants the principles of the new model, if they are approved, to be enshrined in Knesset legislation to ensure that their implementation. That is because the Finance Ministry did not fully implement previous agreements with the security establishment.

To ensure younger officers in the career army and earlier retirement, the army wants to see battalion commanders appointed at age 32, as was the case a decade ago, rather than 34 or 35 as it is now.

The army would also like to see higher salaries for its younger career officers, especially in administrative positions. Members of the IDF General Staff have been complaining for years that the salaries of officers and warrant officers, especially in the first seven years of service in the career army, are so low, especially if they are not serving in the field, that about a quarter of all young officers do not reach minimum wage. The money the army would save in pensions would go partly to raise these salaries.

According to the model now under consideration, additional attractive opportunities for retirement will be determined. Currently the main exit point from the career army is at the end of seven years of career army service, that is, usually 28 for men and 27 for women. Officers who stay in the army are promoted from captain to major, and in most cases they remain in uniform until retirement age.

Now the army wants to see two more exit points, based on the principle of “up or out” – that is, an officer who is not promoted will move on to early retirement. The second exit would be at age 35, after 14 years, between the ranks of major and lieutenant colonel, and the third and last exit would be after 21 years of service, at around age 42, between the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel. Officers who are promoted to colonel will continue to serve as needed, until pension, usually at around 50.

Officers who retire at age 35 will receive their cumulative pension as well as a generous retirement package, the amount of which has not yet been determined.

According to agreements with the treasury in the past decade, retirement age for combat officers is age 45, and for others, 47 on average, to be raised when another model of career army service is decided.

In the meantime, the cost of military pensions continues to balloon. In 2014, the state paid out 7.4 billion shekels ($1.92 billion) to retiring officers, an increase of 48 percent in three years. That figure is expected to continue to rise over the coming decade, according to the current program. That is because despite the move from a budgetary to a cumulative pension, 42 percent of career officers serving last year are still to receive the more costly budgetary pensions because they entered the army before 2003.

Although there was consensus between the army and treasury that officers should retire later, the claim is now that everyone loses in that case. They army has to keep less talented officers that it does not need for longer than is desirable, and those officers are less effective and more expensive than younger officers.