Shopping Spree Won't Fix the IDF's Deficits

The fighting in Gaza revealed a large and worrying gap between what the army had prepared for and the enemy it actually encountered.

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Israeli soldiers stand on Merkava tanks in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 8, 2014. Credit: AFP

The 72-hour cease-fire with Hamas has given the Israel Defense Forces time to look ahead – to the upcoming battle over the defense budget. In a conversation with journalists yesterday, a senior General Staff officer presented two demands drafted during the fighting in Gaza. First, the army wants a budget increase of billions of shekels, both to cover the costs of the war and to prepare for the next one. Second, it wants a repeal of legislation enacted less than six months ago that shortened compulsory military service for men.

If this sounds familiar, it’s not by coincidence: The army made identical demands after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the government acquiesced.

The issue of extending compulsory service hasn’t yet really been discussed, but the finance and defense ministries are already battling over the budget. Given the war’s costs and the gaps in readiness it revealed, the army will need a budget increase. Nevertheless, a few points are worth mentioning here.

First, the defense budget has ballooned since 2006; the IDF enjoyed seven fat years until the current government took power in 2013. During that period, enormous sums were spent on procurement (and much less on training), but also on wages and pensions. Outlays for the latter are growing constantly, due in part to built-in constraints, and there has been little external supervision over how the army’s resources are allocated. This situation must not be allowed to recur after the current war.

Second, as in Lebanon, the army seems to have operated in Gaza with no economic constraints. Clearly, one can’t criticize a field unit under attack for responding with massive fire. But initial data indicates that there was an enormous use of artillery, as well as of the air force’s precision weapons. Israel even sought permission to use the emergency stocks the U.S. Army keeps here. And this was during a one-front war, whereas the IDF is supposed to be prepared to fight on two fronts simultaneously.

Third, during the current budget battles, the IDF has highlighted the incident in which seven soldiers were killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit their ancient M-113 armored personnel carrier. The army claims it didn’t have enough modern Namer APCs due to budget cuts. But as Haaretz has previously reported, there was an operational failure here: The IDF had banned the use of M-113s in Gaza way back in 2004, and didn’t deploy any during the last ground war in Gaza, in 2009, yet nevertheless did so this time. Only after this incident were Namers moved down south from the Lebanese border.

The IDF might genuinely need more Namers. But before making such a costly acquisition, some calculations are in order. The army, with government supervision, must decide what challenges it anticipates, how many APCs it needs to meet them and what kind of active defense systems these APCs should have. The IDF has thousands of older APCs, and there’s no way it can replace them all with Namers, which are much more expensive.

The APC issue also can’t be allowed to obscure other questions, like how the army prepared its forces to deal with urban guerrilla warfare in general and subterranean warfare (in tunnels and bunkers) in particular. There’s no doubt the ground forces have been discriminated against in recent decades compared to the air force, but money alone won’t solve this problem.

The fighting in Gaza revealed a large and worrying gap between what the army had prepared for and the enemy it actually encountered. That isn’t something that can be fixed just by going on a shopping spree.

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