Analysis |

Clear and Present Danger: Budget Cuts Do Not Bode Well for IDF

The constraints of the new state budget mean that those among the regular ranks in the army, who will undergo less training and thus be less proficient, will also be those fighting later in reserve units.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Just five years ago, to great fanfare, the Knesset enacted the Reserve Service Law. After the tiresome speeches about Israeli society’s great debt to the reservists, after the embarrassing distribution of goodies every year − here at last was a binding document that enshrined the perceptions of the Israel Defense Forces’ top brass concerning the value of reservists’ units. It was not by chance that the law was passed at a time when the lessons of the failure of the Second Lebanon War were still fresh in everyone’s mind.

The first clause, entitled “Aim of the Law,” states its intention “to set forth the structure of the reserve system ... [while] viewing it as an integral part of the IDF and as constituting a central pillar on which the army rests, in the service of state security.” The third article stipulates that the IDF “bears the duty and the responsibility to ensure the level of fitness of the reserve system and those serving in it, by providing proper preparation, training and equipment according to the units’ missions. The chief of staff shall issue orders setting forth the fitness required of the reservists to carry out their mission as specified above, including minimum periods of reserve duty that are required to maintain this fitness.”

The law provides for no fewer than three echelons of supervision to ensure the fitness of reserve units: The chief of staff is obliged to report on the matter to the defense minister for his approval, and the latter must report on the subject annually to the government and to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

All these fine words, written with the blood of the reservists that was spilled in 2006, were tossed out the window this week, in the wake of the constraints imposed by the 2013-2014 budget. Under the new, updated scheme approved by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, the previously planned operational employment of all reserve units will be canceled for the rest of the year, and some 70 battalions will not be called up for service. Their place in routine-security tasks will be taken by battalions of the regular army, which will do less training as a consequence. In addition, a large portion of reserve training exercises planned for the rest of the year will be reduced in scope. The reserve units that carry out ground maneuvers ‏(infantry and armored‏) will undergo partial training, but other units will get no training at all. General Staff-level exercises involving Central Command and the navy will also be canceled.

The IDF is thus seemingly saving something twice over: It’s cheaper to use regular-army units than to use reserves, and money will be saved by reducing training for both. However, the damage will also be double: Not only will the reserves and the regulars have less training, but those same regular soldiers, whose professional fitness will suffer and who will emerge with a lower level of proficiency, will afterward be assigned to reserve units. That’s a vicious circle, and a dangerous one. And if this sounds familiar it’s because that was the situation in 2006, too, and it even involved some of the same players.

It’s not by chance that one of the first to object to the chief of staff’s recent decision has been Amir Peretz, now the environmental protection minister, but the man who was defense minister during the Lebanon fiasco of 2006. Gantz, too, should be aware of the implications. He was the commander of IDF headquarters, whose units were outrageously unprepared in that war. Indeed, the fighting erupted one day after Gantz and the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, assured then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the ground forces retained their high operational capability despite the systematic reductions in their training. The officers assured Olmert that the IDF would be able to meet any and all missions entrusted to it.

Like Gantz, the current defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, is also well aware of this problematic state of affairs: It was during his term as chief of staff that training was slashed and reserve brigades were eliminated ‏(probably justly so, in retrospect‏), under the dual pressure of the second intifada and budget cuts. Ya’alon completed his term as chief in 2005, and the Second Lebanon War began about a year later. After the war, Peretz and Halutz tried to pin the blame for the army’s blunders on Ya’alon. That was a deception: The IDF performed poorly in Lebanon primarily because of bad decisions made by the senior echelons, from the prime minister down to division commanders. Still, the substandard operational level of the ground forces in 2006 should have deterred the chief of staff from taking similar risks now.

According to the top brass, the risks are calculated ones. The level of training has improved since the 2006 war, and therefore, for lack of any other alternative, the fitness of the regular army and the reserves can be temporarily downgraded. The training budget is a source of liquid, readily available money that can be quickly dispensed with, unlike the more binding commitments undertaken in the IDF − such as those involving procurement plans, salaries, pension payments and ongoing maintenance. This is the only alternative, some officers point out, being that the IDF is suddenly faced with the need to slash NIS 1.5 billion now and another NIS 3 billion in 2014, before the defense budget gradually grows again in the following three years.

In addition to this, the IDF is going to eliminate several reserve brigades, unify air force squadrons and cut 4,000 jobs in the career army. Under pressure from Ya’alon, the planned shutdown of units will be moved up, as will removal from service of some outmoded materiel, with the aim of saving more money.

‘Fluid’ ground forces

A major justification for taking these risks is the steep decline in the conventional military threat to Israel, as a result of the blatant weakening of the Syrian and Egyptian armed forces. According to Maj. Gen. ‏(ret.‏) Yishai Beer, who was a senior commander on the Lebanon front in his last IDF post, “Over the years, the IDF and political decision makers have mistakenly worked out the defense budget. There is no organized delineation of the threats to Israel, on whose basis the [military] response is calculated ... It is quite possible that units from the order of battle can be eliminated in light of the reduced conventional threat. However, it is very difficult to predict future directions in the given strategic reality, and we have to remember that a mistake will exact a steep price.”

Beer, who spoke with Haaretz this week, is concerned about the issue of reduced training for units of the ground forces. “The air force is smart. It will never fall into that trap, because it has very precise descriptions for pilot fitness and requisite levels of training. But on the ground, everything is more fluid. ‘Lower fitness’ is newspeak. The question is what starting-point fitness is, and it is not as good as we would like to believe. You have to ask what will remain of a reserve battalion that is not called up during the year and that will now get less training than ever. We are liable to end up with hollow battalions, empty shells. A hospital director has red lines if his budget is cut: You don’t reduce essential medications or patients’ food. The army has to behave in a similar manner vis-a-vis training, well before procurement plans.”

In a knee-jerk reaction, the press this week accused the defense establishment of waging a scare campaign in order to get the budget cut reduced. Ya’alon rejects this criticism. He explains that the information about the cancellation of reserves’ call-up for operational employment was made public because the army had to inform reservists of such. The IDF is not seeking to reopen the budget debate, he claims. Its aim is to make clear the framework of the discussion regarding the continuation of the IDF’s multiyear plan, and in particular the plan for 2015 and afterward, about which the defense and finance ministries are at odds when it comes to the basis for calculating the budget. There is a risk involved in reducing training, he admits, but it is unavoidable.

Ya’alon is even ready to say something that almost smacks of heresy: After 2006, we trained a little too much ‏(just as the IDF established too many tank divisions after 1973‏), because of the shock from the war − and he is not convinced that everything that was done was useful. MK Omer Bar-Lev ‏(Labor‏), who chairs the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee for human resources and training, and who has until now been critical of the IDF’s behavior, also maintains that the cuts are being carried out responsibly. “The chief of staff is putting tremendous effort into formulating the plan. The weakening of the Arab armies creates a window of opportunity for a limited period,” Bar-Lev says.

Still, the root of the problem appears to lie in the events of previous years, which are now forcing constraints, some of which seem to be unreasonable. Huge and expensive procurement plans ‏(for F-35 aircraft, new submarines, Merkava Mark IV tanks and hundreds of Merkava armored personnel carriers‏) were approved at the political level without anyone batting an eyelid. The peak was the NIS 11 billion spent in the course of two years by the previous Netanyahu government ‏(some of it for training‏) in preparation for a possible military attack on Iran.

Last month, Uncle Chuck paid us a visit: U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel announced a new series of gifts for America’s ally − maybe as a prize for good behavior in having refrained from attacking Iran during last year’s presidential campaign. Israel, Hagel was delighted to declare, will be the first country in the world ‏(apart from the United States‏) to receive the advanced V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft, along with a few outmoded refueling planes from U.S. Air Force surplus. However, it turns out that the Israeli air force is not eager to receive these gifts: Their true usefulness is questionable, they are expensive to maintain and they will constitute most of the amount of U.S. defense aid to be allocated in the coming years.

Something similar happened to the IDF ground forces in its relations with the local defense industries. The General Staff undertook too many commitments and left itself little room to maneuver. The suspicion has thus arisen that many senior officers secretly believe that acquiring means of combat takes precedence over training and preparation, and that the reserves are an off-the-shelf product that can be mobilized for a war rapidly, if needed, irrespective of preparedness. Sources in the General Staff say in response that nothing is sacred in the procurement plans and that the American gifts, too, will now be thoroughly reexamined, in light of the budget cuts.

This examination will be conducted mainly by the IDF, because there is no one else who can oversee it. The defense minister possesses great personal knowledge, as did his predecessor, but has no staff to assist him in this regard. The other ministers know practically nothing of such things. The National Security Council is not involved in procurement oversight, even though the law under which it operates assigns it this task explicitly; the state comptroller warned last year that the NSC is not doing its job in this area.

‘What do we cut now?’

The result is that the government approves hugely expensive projects in an offhand manner. In fact, it’s more than likely that the same “What do we cut now?” ritual will repeat itself next year at the last moment. There are also sacred cows that no one messes with, such as the budget of the Defense Ministry itself, notably its rehabilitation branch, which along with assisting disabled veterans and bereaved parents, continues to dole out funds to people whose disability is only remotely, if at all, related to their army experience, or whose level of disability has been inflated.

In fact, the salaries of career army soldiers are not as scandalous as is claimed. In this controversy, each side inflates the data that support its argument. The IDF focuses on career noncoms, who get starvation wages, while the treasury talks about excessive pensions for senior officers and their early retirement age. However, the army changed its pension system in 2004, a move whose implications will be felt in the coming decade. The process is too slow, but it’s hard to abridge pension rights that have already been promised.

The salaries of senior personnel in the IDF are far from being exorbitant. In the past two weeks, the media ran reports about salaries in the banking industry and about top wage earners in the public sector. Senior members of bank boards earn twice as much as a territorial GOC, and a university president gets 1.5 times as much as a major general. ‏(The comparison is not entirely fair, of course, given the officers’ better pension plans.‏) The heart surgeon from Soroka Medical Center who is the top earner in the public sector gets a salary more than twice that of a major general. Patently, a heart surgeon has a vital mission and saves lives. But we have also seen, in wars and elsewhere, the high cost in lives that can be exacted by an unsuccessful general.

Both the demand to reduce career-army salaries and the cutbacks in training are liable to produce a similar result: The IDF will become an even more mediocre body, like the police. If salaries drop, it will become increasingly difficult to recruit outstanding career officers as battalion commanders, and reservist company commanders will not wish to serve as battalion commanders if they know the army does not intend to train battalions properly. Too few reservists were sorry to see the cancellation of the call-up orders for this year, but in the long term they have to ask themselves about the seriousness of the enterprise on behalf of which they volunteer ‏(in practice, if not declaredly‏) to spend weeks of their life every year.

The IDF, as the Reserve Service Law also states, continues to adhere to its basic assumptions about the reserves. They still constitute the bulk of the order of battle and they are counted on to report immediately to save the homeland − within hours, in the event of a surprise war. But reserve officers are concerned about the lack of proper recompense for their command burden, and disgruntled about the non-implementation of promises of preferential treatment for them ‏(in housing, employment and taxation‏) that are stipulated by law.

The main obstacle in recent years has been economic. The spouses of the future company and battalion commanders are no longer willing to accept the economic cost to their families. Within a few years, the IDF will face a serious problem in manning command posts in the reserves. This is of course closely entwined with the country’s socioeconomic crisis. When we talk about the erosion of the middle class, we need to remember that those in the 30-40 age bracket are already encountering far greater difficulties − from the cost of living to the price of real estate − than those in the same age group did one or two decades ago. The reservists come exactly from that social class whose economic consciousness was honed in the tumultuous summer of 2011.

An IDF soldier directing a tank near the Quneitra crossing with Syria, June 5, 2013.Credit: AP

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