Fear of war looms this summer, as it has most summers since the Second Lebanon War ended in August 2006. This is partly due to Israel's approaching decision on whether to attack Iran's nuclear sites. Another reason is the ongoing political upheaval in the region.
Egypt and Syria are busy with internal affairs, which have introduced several interesting variables into the equation: the fate of Syria's chemical weapons, infiltrations into the Golan Heights, Gaza-based provocations and Islamist terror cells in the Sinai peninsula. If any one of these elements flares up, Israel could be drawn into the chaos.
After the Second Lebanon War, the Israel Defense Forces went through three stages. In the first stage, leading up to the resignation of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and then after his replacement by Gabi Ashkenazi, the army tried hard to fix the serious flaws.
Then, about two years after the war, the IDF began to signal to the public that its mission had been completed: The ground forces, whose weakness had marred the Lebanon effort, were once again fit for action. This message was reinforced by the success of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and a mysterious operation in Syria that the international media has ascribed to Israel.
Then came the third stage, fueled mainly by officers who took part in the failure of 2006. The war, it was now argued, wasn't really such a fiasco. The best proof was the calm on the Lebanese border and the effectiveness of deterrence against Syria, as well as against Hamas in Gaza.
That argument is fundamentally flawed. Although the IDF's rehabilitation has been impressive, the claim that the IDF regained its full capability is a gross exaggeration - and the Second Lebanon War is far from a success story. The balance of forces against Hezbollah, combined with the IDF's prodigious firepower, should have produced a significant victory in 2006, not a stalemate after which each side tries to talk up its achievements.
The IDF isn't solely responsible for the disappointment. Amateurish management by our political leaders contributed heavily to the outcome. But the war also exposed what six years without proper training in both the conscripts and the reserves did to the ground forces.
The list of blunders is as long as it is disturbing, including a failure to carry out missions, failures in coordinating infantry and armored forces, problems moving around at night and total impotence in logistical matters.
When Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Israel is the strongest military power in the region, "from Tehran to Tripoli in Libya," he's probably right. But Barak is relying mainly on the IDF's traditional strengths, where most of its resources are invested - the air force, intelligence and technology - and the integration between the three.
The condition of the ground forces, particularly in terms of training and readiness, is far less reassuring. Conversations with officers and soldiers from reserve units, as well as with official IDF sources, show that the picture is even gloomier when it comes to the reserves.
Those problems have been discussed by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yishai Bar, a battalion commander, brigade commander and reserves division commander. In the past five years, Bar has reestablished and commanded the General Staff corps responsible for Lebanon. The IDF's priorities are flawed, he told Haaretz last month.
"Why did we reach the edge of an abyss this year? Because most of the budget was committed to projects, so no money was left for training; no money to buy toilet paper," Bar says. He points to how the army underperformed in 2006 after the troops had received insufficient training.
"Four hours of driving training for a tank driver in the regular army - that's what the troops got ahead of Lebanon. That betrayal of the troops can't be repeated. To send untrained soldiers into battle is a moral betrayal," Bar says.
Bar explains that "there has been a significant improvement in readiness since the end of the Lebanon war," but says the job is far from over. "If we backtrack now from what we've achieved, we'll revert to 2006. A chief of staff can't send soldiers into battle without training."
This year's annual budget for training in the ground forces is NIS 1.4 billion, of which about NIS 460 million is earmarked for reserves training. After the push in 2007 and 2008, during which lots of ammunition, for example, was made available for training, the training budget came to a dead halt. This year a cut of NIS 30 million was needed. A brigade exercise was canceled, and training for low-priority units such as home front defense units was slashed.
In the four years since 2008, prices have soared for some inputs required in training, such as ammunition and spare parts. So now a reservist tank gunner might fire only a few shells in training once every three years. A tank driver might drive only an hour and a half during a weeklong call-up.
This is how a senior officer in the reserves described Armored Corps training this year:
"The training is done in three-year cycles. In the first year, there's a full battalion exercise, including the firing of ammunition. In the second year, there's usually only an exercise for commanders, from tank commander on up, without the crews. In the third year, the more senior commanders take part in a large-scale exercise - brigade or division. The exercise runs from Sunday to Thursday and involves shooting. Most of Sunday is devoted to equipping the tanks, which are then dismantled on Thursday. That gives the battalion commander three days to train all the soldiers, once every three years.
"Because a battalion commander rotates every few years, this is probably his first battalion exercise. But during those few days, the battalion commander also has to train all the units below him: companies and platoons. You can imagine how much time and attention he has for them when he's preparing for his first battalion exercise. You also have to take into account that not all the reservists show up for the exercise. A fairly large percentage are either abroad, are doing exams or are exempt for family or health reasons. So some combat troops receive training only once in six years."
In the years after the shock of the Yom Kippur War, the IDF greatly augmented its ground forces and stepped up training for reservists. In those days, an armored or infantry unit might train for two or three weeks at a stretch each year.
Not anymore, and it's not only a matter of budget. The law on reserve service limits the number of days a soldier can be called up annually.
From the moment reserve service was reduced in the mid-1990s, it became almost impossible to return to the previous situation. It's hard to envisage a scenario today in which reserve soldiers do 50 or 60 days a year without complaining.
In the past the IDF trained mainly for conventional wars, but today there are many scenarios, including fighting in urban areas or against an enemy hiding in tunnels and bunkers. And there are plenty of fronts: Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, the south. The brevity of training doesn't allow for specialization in so many spheres. Reservists need to acquire new knowledge, but rarely is there time to assimilate it.
Between 2000 and 2006, neither the regular army nor reserve units engaged in any training to speak of. During the second intifada, the whole focus was on Palestinian terrorism. Regular-army soldiers in those years also entered reserve units with far less expertise, "other than in how to arrest wanted individuals and how to disperse demonstrations - they're world champions in that," a senior officer says.
The current reserve units, most of whose members are around 30, are responsible for many missions and tasks. Training in the regular army, though more rigorous than in the recent past, doesn't match the level of 20 or 30 years ago, especially in the Armored Corps.
A couple of bright spots
A senior officer in the ground forces said the situation in top infantry battalions and brigade reconnaissance battalions is better than at other units: "According to the model we built, those battalions undergo full training in five years out of six." Elsewhere, things aren't so good.
"In the armored battalions, there's a training exercise only once every two years. Training exercises in the Armored Corps are far more expensive because of the cost of munitions and fuel. We haven't decreased allocations for their training any further because we can't go any lower," he says.
"We're almost at the red line, and crossing it means true damage to readiness. One solution we're working on is to expand the use of training simulators. Our more serious gaps exist elsewhere: at light-infantry battalions, which are usually stationed in the territories and on the borders and for home front defense. They're not getting from us what they should be getting."
According to this officer, "In my view, the training situation of the elite infantry is superb. The situation in [armor and artillery] is reasonable-plus. I would love to improve things in armor, but we're not able to do more. We have submitted a plan to expand training in 2013, but we don't know if there will be a budget for it."
He says there will be an improvement in combat in built-up areas, "after two years of serious regression." Training there using live ammunition was halted after a Golani Brigade soldier was killed in an accident because of faulty maintenance, but training in this area is set to return to a proper level.
But the officer, who talks about a clear improvement compared to pre-2006, admits that there are gaps.
"There are units where we're treading water and not making the leap from the basic fitness we've reached to operative fitness, which is adjusted to the different arenas. We have gaps in the work of tanks in built-up areas. Not all our infantry battalions know how to work in subterranean conditions. And I don't see at the moment how we can get back to two-week training exercises, as the reserve officers want. There's simply no budget for it," he says.
"The picture will become clear, when we know the IDF's multiyear plan, which was postponed to 2013. You also have to remember that the strategic uncertainty in the region limits our ability to take risks," he adds, noting that it takes very little time to shut down a brigade, but years to build one up.
So that's how the reserve units in the ground forces look in 2012. The situation is immeasurably better than in 2006, but not nearly as good as the public thinks it is. This, too, should be taken into account when the consequences of strategic decisions won't end the day the planes take off.