The Israeli Military: Winning Wars, Losing Money

The wastefulness of this summer's Gaza operation in terms of firepower and manpower, and the ongoing dispute over the state budget show that the IDF has yet to learn how to function according to a proper war economy.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli soldier near the Gaza border this summer, about to prepare a tank for deployment.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The escalating debate over the state budget is more of a political issue than an economic one. It will be resolved if a compromise can be found that will allow both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid to show that they did not come out the loser in the confrontation.

According to people involved in the negotiations, there is a formula to bridge the gap that entails raising the deficit target from 2.9 percent to 3.5 percent, such that the defense budget can be increased by 6 billion shekels ($1.64 billion) next year. This is far less than the dizzying amount sought by the Israel Defense Forces (11 billion shekels), but it seems like a figure that everyone can live with, despite the potential long-term damage to the economy. If Netanyahu and Lapid both reach the conclusion that an early election will not benefit either of their parties, the dispute will be solved.

One question that has hardly figured in the accusation-ridden debate, in either the security cabinet or in the media, involves the financial aspects of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. Even before a decision is made on next year’s budget, the IDF is asking for 8.6 billion shekels ($2.35 billion) to cover the war’s direct expenses (the treasury’s estimate is 6.2 billion shekels); the disagreement is over what constitutes a direct expense.

The management of the war displayed wastefulness, both in the use of firepower and in the number of reservists called up. This is not a new problem. In 2007, the Brodet Committee, established in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, found that the IDF was not implementing a proper model of a war economy.

“The army’s use of firepower in the last war is a flagrant example of this,” the committee wrote. “According to the IDF’s own testimony, a large surplus of firepower was used, at a cost of billions of shekels. A great many targets were fired at, but with little to show for it. No one in the government or the army was assigned to examine this question and make a change ... When resources are limited, the implications are self-evident.”

That’s actually a polite way of describing the real data: In the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, the IDF fired more than 170,000 artillery shells at what were thought to be rocket-launching sites. As far as is known, not a single Hezbollah combatant was killed in these barrages.

The methods used in this summer’s Gaza war were better suited to their targets, but the general approach was unchanged. Most of the information about this is classified, though defense establishment sources do confirm that intensive use was made of vital stocks of firepower and munitions. And this, we should remember, was in a conflict with Hamas, Israel’s weakest regional enemy.

For his part, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said this week that he was pleased with the IDF’s performance in Gaza. “The ground forces came to the operation prepared. In the end, there are no cheap wars,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see hostilities with Hamas resuming at the end of the month, the deadline set earlier for cease-fire talks to resume, and that Israeli deterrence in Gaza will be preserved.

Ya’alon’s remarks paint an overly rosy picture. They also contrast sharply with the analysis of MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), the chairman of the subcommittee for IDF force-building of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Shelah, who has for years monitored the defense budget and the army’s deployment for wars, paints a very pessimistic picture.

“Given the way in which the war’s lessons are being drawn,” he tells Haaretz, “every addition to the defense budget will seriously affect the state budget and will add nothing to building up the IDF.”

Shelah is not a neutral observer – he’s a political player and also is very close to the finance minister, who is against increasing the defense budget. Still, his sharp comments are well worth listening to. The IDF, the MK says, “has proved that when it’s given money, it is not able to streamline and doesn’t know how to use the funds to deploy for a possible future war.”

The proof can be seen precisely in the “good years,” 2008-2013, when the army enjoyed a budget bonanza unrivaled for decades. The funding was used primarily for two purposes: preparations for a possible attack on Iran, and considerably raising outlays for payroll and pensions. The number of career-army personnel soared by 12.2 percent in this period.

“We didn’t get much security from the budget increment, or a proper level of preparation for the war the IDF had to deal with in Gaza,” Shelah says now.

In this round, as in previous ones, Hamas avoided a direct confrontation with Israeli troops who entered the Strip. The main threat to IDF forces came from explosive devices and long-distance sharpshooting, both of which inflicted many casualties. There were relatively few face-to-face battles with armed Palestinians, and just a few dozen antitank missiles were fired at IDF troops. In the face of this threat, the army used massive firepower, from artillery to hand grenades and light arms, not to mention tanks and, of course, precise aerial munitions. Veteran army people who perused the final data were surprised at what they saw.

The problem doesn’t lie with what was fired – the high usage rate is justified if it saves soldiers’ lives – but with the stocks that remained. Here, a gap emerged. The reservists, more than 80,000 of whom were called up, were also deployed in a wasteful manner. A great many were needed to replace the regular units on the borders and in the West Bank, and to beef up intelligence and the air force. But more than a third of the reservists were called up to the Home Front Command, where they had only partial assignments, at best. The huge success of Iron Dome greatly reduced the damage to the rear, and there was no need at all for rescue operations. That didn’t stop the IDF from flooding the home front, from the south to (on a limited scale) Metropolitan Tel Aviv with reservists who had very little to do.

Israel has fought four military campaigns since 2006, one in Lebanon and three in Gaza. Three of them lasted longer than the army planned and estimated. The direct cost of the four operations has been more than 25 billion shekels (currently $6.85 billion) – and this after the last campaign centered on ground combat of two-and-a-half weeks in an area that is two to three kilometers wide.

Shelah: “If we keep going with these expenditures, with this form of war economy, all the Arabs will have to do is go on fighting us every two years, without even aspiring to win. The Israeli economy will simply not be able to bear the burden.”

He adds: “The IDF’s current combat doctrine and its ground-forces structure are not suited to the challenge. We can see this in the episode of the Gaza tunnels. This is an example in which the army prepared for war, but not for what it encountered, certainly not for the sort of Hamas it encountered. Without an overhaul of the doctrine, no input of money will help. A new doctrine is needed, one that will be appropriate for the real threat and from which the force-building will follow logically. The lessons need to be drawn and internalized before the budget discussions. Otherwise, we will perpetuate a situation in which limited warfare is carried out every two years at impossible costs.”

A senior General Staff officer admits, in the wake of the war, that “we need to regiment the consumption of ammunition. On the other hand, it’s clear to us today that we need more munitions for future combat scenarios, most of which will take place in built-up areas. In the wars of the past, things were clear and the calculation was straightforward. You knew how many tanks an enemy brigade had and how many shells you needed to destroy them. In Gaza, in a dense area of combat, you have to fire at every window that is overlooking and threatening your forces. Those are completely different numbers.”

Ministers in the security cabinet admitted that no serious discussions were held about the available munitions stocks or about the implications this situation bore for the length of the operation. Shelah expects that in the upcoming budget discussions, the security cabinet will again fail to address the economic questions raised by fighting a war, based on the lessons from the Gaza operation.

“The decisions will be made very fast, in zero time,” he says. “The subcommittees devoted dozens of hours to the defense budget in the past year. But the security cabinet ministers are very busy people. They don’t have the time to prepare for the discussions. In the end, they will vote for a number that will be a compromise between 2 billion and 11 billion shekels for 2015. The money will be taken from health and education, but it won’t bring more security.”

Selective hearing

A raging storm flared up anew at midweek between Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. What began as an argument over the unauthorized transmission of information from senior IDF officers to ministers in the security cabinet during the Gaza war morphed quickly into a confrontation about who pushed for and who interfered with the army’s efforts to deal with Hamas’ offensive tunnels.

The latest round in this dispute was launched by Ya’alon, but Bennett responded quickly, alleging that the defense minister was fearful of even a limited ground operation to destroy the tunnels. No one disputes that Netanyahu and Ya’alon supported the first Egyptian-mediated cease-fire proposal on July 15, even though they were already aware of the danger posed by the tunnels. (Bennett was against the cease-fire.)

But implicit in Bennett’s allegations is a more serious claim: that until very close to the decision to send in ground troops, on July 17, Ya’alon believed that Hamas would not make use of its tunnels. But that morning, 13 terrorists penetrated Israel from a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa, thus hastening the decision to deploy ground forces.

Ya’alon’s confidants vehemently deny Bennett’s allegation. Bennett, they say, did not initiate, generate or conceive the action against the tunnels. There was an orderly plan, drawn up in advance by the IDF, and presented to the security cabinet. It was activated the moment a decision to that effect was made. Ya’alon’s people also recall that on July 17, a few hours before the move against the tunnels, Bennett intimated, in a media interview, that a ground operation could be expected.

“What is that if not irresponsibility and an attempt to take credit for something that had already been decided?” Ya’alon’s confidants ask now.

Still, we are seeing something interesting here. In the same week, two key members of the coalition, Bennett and Shelah, coming from two opposite political poles, hurled lethal criticism at the defense establishment’s handling of the Gaza operation. Somehow, however, their remarks are not having the slightest effect on the excellent opinion the defense establishment and the man at its head have of themselves.

Accounts to settle

The question of who will be the next chief of staff continues to hover in the background. Two weeks ago, in a television interview, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant put himself back into the race. On Tuesday, Ya’alon, who has no intention of interviewing Galant for the post, still less of appointing him, tried to put paid to that possibility for good in a meeting with reporters, after which the argument with Bennett erupted. With a few carefully chosen sentences, the defense minister made it clear that the next chief can only be one of the officers who are doing active IDF service.

Since the beginning of the Gaza war, however, Netanyahu had been conveying different messages, and was apparently considering Galant’s candidacy in a positive light. Ya’alon, sensing a possible infringement of his maneuverability on the appointment issue, was quick to make his position public, on the assumption that the prime minister would not take issue with it. Sources in Ya’alon’s bureau said this week that the two are indeed coordinated on this subject and that Netanyahu did not object to Ya’alon’s declaration.

This situation increases the likelihood that the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, will get the nod for top spot. The other candidates who have been mentioned, Maj. Gens. Yair Naveh and Yair Golan, will not endanger his appointment. At the moment, it looks as though even an appeal to the High Court of Justice will have little chance of blocking Eisenkot.

Which brings us back to the question of what Galant wanted to achieve by announcing his entry into the race, assuming that he knew of Ya’alon’s firm opposition beforehand. Galant was interviewed frequently on television during the war this summer, trying to consolidate his status as an alternative to the IDF’s current leadership. Even though his public critique of the operation was carefully worded and understated, it struck a chord with the public (especially the right wing), which felt frustration at the war’s outcome. Given the heightened security threats and the possibility of an early election next year, most of the parties will look for new candidates for Knesset with a “security image.” Of all the TV-studio generals, Galant will be the hottest name.

It’s quite possible that Netanyahu’s calculation when considering Galant’s candidacy was a political one: Better to have the energetic general in the tent than watch him interfering from outside. Galant’s appointment as chief of staff would have assured the prime minister of seven years of quiet – four as chief of staff and a mandatory three-year wait before entering politics. But Netanyahu’s intentions collided with the defense minister’s determined opposition.

Ya’alon has an account to settle with Galant because he sees him as one of the group that brought about an early end to his stint as chief of staff before the Gaza disengagement (Galant was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s military secretary at the time). His suspicion that he would find it difficult to work with Galant as chief also influenced his veto. Now Galant too has accounts to settle. Not only with Eisenkot, whom he claims was involved in the conspiracy against him in the “Harpaz document” episode – something Eisenkot denies – but also with Ya’alon. The desire for revenge is a powerful motivator in public life. Will those who didn’t want Galant as chief of staff have to accept him as defense minister? In Galant’s case, that prophecy – which the journalist Uri Dan suggested in connection with his revered Ariel Sharon – could serve both as a motive and as a plan of action.

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