Speaking on Monday at the annual press conference of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, chairman Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin presented the institute’s assessment of Israel’s situation for the year ahead.
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Correspondents tried to get Yadlin − a former director of Military Intelligence and senior air force officer − to reveal what he knows about last week’s alleged Israeli attack on a convoy in Syria. There were also the standard questions about the state of the Iranian nuclear project and the dangers of Islamic terrorism in the region, but Yadlin was not asked about the defense budget.
Instead, the institute’s press communique stated only that against the background of the diminished conventional military threat to Israel, some of the institute’s fellows believe that the defense budget can be cut, while still maintaining ongoing security and preparedness for military moves.
However, the institute’s just-published “Strategic Survey for Israel 2012-2013” contains an article by Dr. Shmuel Even, which asserts the opposite. Even warns that a broad slash of the defense budget will substantially harm the country’s security.
The issue was raised explicitly by Yadlin in a way that will probably never be discussed by ex-colleagues still in uniform. He believes the war in Syria has removed from the agenda the most serious, conventional military threat faced by Israel. While the top brass continues to function in the traumatic shadow of the surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War, there is seemingly little danger now of that scenario repeating itself.
The Syrian army, worn down after two years of murderous civil war, will not turn its tanks westward and send armored divisions hurtling through the Golan toward Lake Kinneret. And despite the blow to Israel’s relations with Egypt since the Tahrir Square revolution two years ago, at present it seems unlikely that Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood government will risk a rift with the U.S. administration and initiate a direct military clash with Israel in the Sinai.
It’s true that the missile and rocket threat to Israeli home front has become much more serious in the past decade. Simultaneously, since the upheaval in the Arab world, the danger on the borders with Syria and Egypt − whose two governments are barely in control − has grown. Islamist terrorist groups, some influenced by Al-Qaida, have gained considerable freedom of action in these areas.
Yadlin, by the way, is not very impressed by this danger. Israel, he noted, has experience dealing with the cross-border terrorist threat, which is limited − and there is “a tendency to exaggerate its importance.”
Yadlin chose to play up the good news, relatively speaking. He noted that the Syrian army is wearing itself down, battling rebel groups. “The radical anti-Israeli axis, running from Tehran to Damascus, Beirut and Gaza, is falling apart,” he said, adding that he expects that once Assad falls, Syria will be preoccupied with its rehabilitation. “It will be oriented inward, not outward. This represents an improvement in Israel’s strategic situation.”
The former intelligence chief is not the only one who offers this view. Haaretz reported Wednesday that senior ministers believe that, given such strategic shifts on the one hand and budgetary needs on the other, there will be no choice but to slash the defense budget significantly − maybe as much as NIS 3 billion this year alone. That may not sound like much in a budget of NIS 60 billion (which includes about NIS 11 billion in annual U.S. aid). Still, it will be a genuine change after years in which the defense establishment adroitly repulsed such attempts.
Past experience shows that any such cut should not be taken as fact until it actually happens, in full. But the reason for readiness to implement it is economic-political. One of the major issues the new government will face is the need to trim up to NIS 15 billion from the state budget. A year and a half ago, Prime Minister Benjamin declared that events of the Arab Spring precluded a slash in defense spending (last summer he also rejected a recommendation for a cut from Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz). However, not only did a huge budget deficit emerge since then, but the election campaign − at the end of which Netanyahu sustained a relative failure − revolved largely around economic issues and thrust Yesh Atid, a party whose demands for social change will require additional budget clauses, to center stage.
Not a sacred cow
Reducing the defense budget by NIS 3 billion will mean less economic hardship for the public and more room for Netanyahu to maneuver in talks with potential coalition partners: from Yair Lapid, who wants to prevent elimination of tax exemptions, to the ultra-Orthodox, who want to preserve child allowances.
In general, the Israel Defense Forces gets almost automatic protection from the defense minister in budget discussions. That is not likely to be the case this time. The possible candidates for the post of defense minister in the third Netanyahu government will also support a cut, albeit limited. Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who seems to be the leading candidate for the post, has stated recently that the defense budget is not a sacred cow. Similarly, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz spoke about the need for a meaningful cut in it. If these two former chiefs of staff are taking this line (Mofaz is also a former defense minister), the army will find it difficult to persuade the government otherwise.
The General Staff already understands that a budget slash is unavoidable, and will likely focus on a “containment battle” over its scope. The primary problem confronting the IDF is the absence of a clear budgetary framework. The army drew up a new multiyear plan in 2011, but its authorization was frozen because of that summer’s social protest movement. The government then decided the 2012 defense budget would be a replica of the previous one. (In 2011-2012, the government spent NIS 11 billion, some of it from special supplements, in preparations to cope with the Iranian threat.) At present, a multiyear plan is ready, from the IDF’s point of view, even though the final budgetary framework is not yet clear.
A major change to this budget is always a dangerous gamble. Regional circumstances could change quickly, as events in the Middle East over the past two years have shown. At best, intelligence assessments provide general forecasts, but cannot precisely foresee tactical incidents or their far-reaching consequences.
On July 12, 2006, at 8 A.M., the agenda of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bore a civilian-diplomatic character. An hour later, following the abduction of soldiers by Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon, he had been pulled into a war that sealed his political fate. Little wonder, then, that, given this uncertainty, prime ministers are loath to risk implementing extreme changes.
Still, it looks as though Netanyahu will have no choice and will have to make more meaningful decisions − despite the risk involved. Ultimately, this could also be good for the IDF, which seems to be having difficulty reconciling the desire to equip its ground forces with the most advanced systems, and the genuine difficulty of replicating this in all its divisions.
Economically, it is impossible to equip all the reserve divisions with Merkava Mark IV tanks − with the advanced protection they offer − along with brand-new Merkava armored personnel carriers (APCs) and the whole gamut of command-and-control systems. It is even less possible to sustain the high maintenance costs of these sophisticated instruments over time. The IDF will have no choice but to prioritize.
Another question involves maintenance of some of the older armored weapons. After the disappointment of the Second Lebanon War, Chiefs of Staff Ya’alon and Dan Halutz were faulted for neglecting the training of the ground forces against the background of the terror offensive of the second intifada, and for downsizing some reserve units.
Of the two allegations, the first was more relevant. In the meantime, seven years have passed and the tanks have aged. Is there any justification for maintaining reservist tank brigades that use the Patton tank − which was developed in the 1960s − or fielding the older Merkava models, developed a decade or two later?
After the Lebanon trauma, and after the army sat on its backside for 34 days of fighting without sending in substantial forces to deal with the Katyusha rocket threat, the chief of staff sanctified anew the importance of ground maneuvers. The question is whether, in practice, the principle was not translated in irrelevant directions. Does anyone really foresee a scenario in which the ancient Pattons will charge deep into Syria or Sinai in the event of a flare-up?
Even if there’s a large budget cut, the IDF will have to maintain investments in its top-priority areas: intelligence, air power, technology, command-and-control systems and ongoing research and development. However, there will probably be no choice but to reexamine the need for a few of the ground units, including a further cut in the planned acquisition of the Merkava APCs and postponement or extension of various expansion projects. Possibly acquisition of the second squadron of the hugely expensive F-35 fighter jets will have to be extended across a longer period.
A retired major general, who was on the General Staff under Ya’alon and afterward under Halutz, said to Haaretz this week: “If the Second Lebanon War had not broken out, we would be in a different place today. Ya’alon, and more so Halutz, had ambitious plans regarding the army’s structure. If they had been completed, the IDF would have become a true ‘army of branches,’ where the land branch is responsible for managing its budget, from training and routine security to procurement, instead of being dependent on the General Staff.”
According to this source, the change Halutz wanted to introduce then is necessary now, including a meaningful cut in headquarters’ expenses and career-army personnel − areas that became bloated after 2006 in the wake of the war. “That alone could account for a saving of NIS 1 billion a year,” the general says.
The retired general talks of the need for redrawing the IDF’s plans. “A new description of the order of priorities is needed, a cut in the number of career officers, a reduction of compulsory service, and a transition to differential length of service, depending on one’s job. The strategic circumstances have changed. Where is there a division that is going to attack us in the coming years? I don’t make light of the threat to the home front, but our immediate enemy today is Hamas or Hezbollah, not the Syrian or Egyptian army.”
Why not say this in public, on the record, the general is asked. “The time is not yet ripe,” he replies. “The defense establishment is not yet capable of coping with that kind of external critique. I will make my views known to the next defense minister, when he is appointed.”