Analysis |

In Resisting Budget Cuts, IDF Tells State: Reduce Security Threats, Not Training

For first time in years, public opinion supports the treasury's efforts to cut the defense budget. One of the main reasons the IDF is so afraid of cuts is that it is facing too many security scenarios at once.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

What the army is telling the security cabinet, perhaps in more vague language, is: Reduce the threats, not the training. For the first time in years, public opinion supports the treasury's efforts to cut the defense budget, so the defense establishment has become defensive, as usual. The Israel Defense Forces, like the Israeli national soccer team on the eve of an important game, knows it's going to take a hit. The focus is on minimizing the damage.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz and the top IDF brass presented the ministers Sunday with their outline of the security threats the army expects to face during the coming years. The full cabinet will be hearing a similar survey on Monday.

What is emerging is something not necessarily said out loud: One of the main reasons the military is so afraid of cutting spending is that the IDF is being required to deal with too many security scenarios at once. If the government could set clearer priorities, if the politicians would risk making a decision regarding which security threats are less likely to materialize, it would be a lot easier to cut the budget.

But the IDF is only hinting at this, and its top brass is certainly not going public with what it knows very well: That the exaggerated spending in recent years on preparing for doomsday scenarios, whose chances of actually happening are apparently not very high, is the main reason for the huge hole in the budget. When it came to Iran, the previous Netanyahu government acted the same way it acted with regard to the budget deficit - the sky's the limit. This approach is now generating demands for a state comptroller's investigation.

The special expenditures over the past two years involved in preparing for war with Iran are estimated at around NIS 11 billion. The prime minister spoke over these years with two voices. During the official budget discussions he would cut from the defense budget, while in the hallway he would arrange special allocations to the IDF, egged on by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak. That's how the Israel Navy got a gift of a sixth submarine (which Germany will finish manufacturing only in another few years), without the General Staff being convinced it was needed.

Another expensive toy

Now if Israel is planning a multiyear war against Iran, it could be that even six submarines in the Straits of Hormuz won't be enough. But is that the intention? Last month we were also informed that the United States plans to generously supply the Israel Air Force with a squadron of V-22 Ospreys, a kind of airplane-helicopter hybrid - yet another expensive toy that probably wasn't a top General Staff priority.

There is a degree of truth to the argument that the extensive military preparations Israel was making to attack Iran spurred the Obama administration into taking a tougher stance on the Iranian nukes. Still, the time has come to ask, in the budgetary context as well, whether an independent Israeli attack on Iran was ever realistic. The difference in expenditure between preparing for a solo attack and preparing for an attack coordinated with the United States in itself would have been hundreds of millions of shekels a year. But the Iranian threat had always been Netanyahu's "baby," so it's doubtful that members of the General Staff felt able to say these things out loud.

So now the government will end up cutting the defense budget where it can, not where it should. It's a lot easier to cut training than to cut the long-term procurement budget, even though the ramifications could be disastrous for the readiness of the ground forces, both regular and reserve.

The data about the army pensions enjoyed by some standing army officers, which are indeed out of line, make it easy to view the IDF as a bloated army. But in fact, the fat is at headquarters, whereas the forces in the field are overstretched among all the fronts they have to deal with at the same time. The IDF has a strong Intelligence Corps and air force, but on the ground, some of its units are at risk of degenerating. There is probably a need to reevaluate the structure of the IDF divisions, their number, their suitability for the battle scenarios and the need to retain some of the aging tanks.

It was rather surprising to hear Economics Minister Naftali Bennett call for the defense establishment "to get under the stretcher and share in the economic burden being imposed on the public." He will of course be accused of populism, but it's hard to remember the last time a right-wing politician ever said such a thing.

Bennett, who commanded a reserve special forces unit during the Second Lebanon War, says he concluded from that experience that the political echelon dare not serve as a rubber stamp for the defense establishment.

"I will ask, investigate, and express doubts, out of the understanding that the responsibility for Israel's security is in our hands," he promised, in a letter he wrote to supporters last month.

Those are fighting words. It's time for him to apply them now, during the budget talks.

IDF reservists sitting atop tanks as they maneuver during a drill at a military zone near Kibbutz Revivim.Credit: Reuters

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