Why Training Will Be the IDF's Next Big Battle

As the 2013 budgetary skirmish led to a sharp cut in army training, commanders warn that improvising short exercises is not a long-term solution.

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IDF soldiers stand on alert on their Merkava tanks after being deployed on the border with Syria near Majdal Shams. March 19, 2014.
IDF soldiers stand on alert on their Merkava tanks after being deployed on the border with Syria near Majdal Shams. March 19, 2014.Credit: AFP

A combination of circumstances, bringing pressure from different directions, has resulted in significant cuts to this year’s training plan for Israel Defense Forces units.

After the ground forces’ failure during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, the army underwent an extensive process of training and preparedness. Its aim was to close most of the gaps exposed during the war, which were mostly a consequence of lack of training during the difficult years of the second intifada (from 2000 on).

In reality, though, this practice was stopped about a year ago. In 2014, the IDF is cutting training significantly and improvising solutions, in an attempt to prevent even more serious damage to the ground forces – both regular troops and reserves.

If no real change is made this coming year – and this is a question that has yet to be resolved – 2015 could see even worse damage.

In light of the budgetary battles between the IDF and the Finance Ministry, the General Staff trimmed training – and almost completely cancelled it for reserve forces – in the second half of 2013.

Near the end of last year, though, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in favor of the defense establishment and approved the return of the lion’s share of the planned cuts – some 2.75 billion shekels ($792 million). Later, various other sums were also added.

But the IDF still needs to find funds to make up the difference between what it thought it would receive and what was actually given.

A plan to fire some 5,000 people in the professional army (though 1,000 more will be hired in their stead, at lower cost) was one solution, but a number of short-term steps were also decided on, including cutting training – a major item in the budget.

Training is also one of the few budgetary items with which the IDF is free to do as it wishes, since it doesn’t require budgetary commitments to external bodies (such as procurement, for example).

Another difficulty arose from the new law on reserve duty. The law, which took effect last year, set a new model for the reserves, and limits calling up most reserve units for operational duty to once every three years.

The law was originally intended to reduce the burden on reservists and allow the commanders to concentrate on preparing their units for war. In reality, though, this has caused a chain reaction.

Since it is no longer possible to base regular operations on reserve battalions, the regular army units need to take their place in operational service, spending more time in the territories and on the borders. And since the training budget is limited, the regular units are training less this year, while for reserve units – a much lower priority now – it is only the front line elite units that train at all, while for others training has been cut back almost completely.

Based on two visits in the last two weeks – one to a regular infantry battalion’s training exercise, the other to a reserve infantry battalion – the picture is complicated.

It is clear that, after being burned in Lebanon eight years ago, the IDF – and certainly the high-ranking officers – are making great efforts to prevent a repeat of those mistakes.

But it is also clear that the process of eroding the units’ preparedness has already started, and will only get worse if changes are not made in the plans for 2015.

For many years, the army has had a strong tendency to present an optimistic view of reality – to both itself and the public. But it would be better if the IDF exercises more caution, since it’s far from certain that “positive thinking” is the answer.

This year, regular infantry and armored battalions will find themselves on operational duty, for periods of up to six to nine months, in the same sector: the West Bank; the border with the Gaza Strip; or the state borders with Lebanon, Egypt or Syria.

The army will try, but not always succeed, to integrate a short training and refresher period during the operational duty, but it can devote no more than 13 to 16 weeks to training the units. In comparison, after the Lebanon war, many units returned to train four to five months a year – but never returned to the 50/50 division of training and operations that was common before the second intifada broke out.

Elite reserve units – mostly infantry and a few armored ones – will train every year, even if not with a full contingent. But the great majority of reserves will train only once every two years, some even less.

This approach could also create another problem. Accumulated experience in the territories has shown that long-term operational duty not only erodes the preparedness of the troops and units for war, it also desensitizes them concerning the norms of behavior in the field.

A combat soldier who spends day after day – for months on end – at a checkpoint will generally be less sensitive to the distress of a local Palestinian resident, without even talking about the boredom that provides an incentive for inappropriate acts.

After four months of detention operations in Palestinian villages and manning security posts in the settlements, the soldiers of the Nahal infantry brigade went training for 20 days in mid-March.

The training included two days’ marching on the Israel Trail. This training exercise, said the brigade, had a direct influence on the unit’s preparedness.

Col. Yehuda Fuchs, the brigade’s commander, said the situation cannot continue for long. However, he believes this solution – a short refresher exercise before returning to the attrition of operations in the West Bank, which takes up nine months of the year – along with taking out the platoons one at a time for a short training exercise, can keep the units properly prepared for when they’re needed.

“To preserve a unit’s preparedness, there is a need to train with high frequency. Military preparedness is not a muscle. Over the years, it is impossible to build units this way,” Fuchs told Haaretz.

“We don’t spend nine months a year in the territories because of ideology, but because there is no money,” he added. “Is [the training solution] perfect? I am sure it is not, but I think we have built a platform here that aids in preserving the level of preparedness.”

The Central Command examined a number of options before deciding to place the Nahal Brigade in the West Bank for such a long time. One of the Command’s senior officers described it as a choice between a serious injury and an even more serious one.

“Because of this refresher, which broke up the operational duty, I can meet all of my soldiers and remind everyone what our role is. We need to be ready for war. War is something that does not happen in the West Bank, thank God,” said one of the battalion commanders.

The latest incident in the West Bank – between the IDF and Border Police on one side, and settlers from Yitzhar on the other – actually served to remind a number of officers from the Judea and Samaria Division of the advantage of placing a military unit in the West Bank for a long period.

The regular soldiers, as opposed to the reservists who stood by while their military outpost at Yitzhar was ransacked by settlers, are prepared for such possibilities.

“There is great difficulty in doing operational duty in the West Bank in a civilian environment, Palestinian and Jewish, when the events themselves last about 30 seconds and the soldier is the one who has to make a decision and take an action or not – and immediately afterward to receive a medal or be court-martialed. The soldier makes these decisions by himself,” said Fuchs.

What depresses him is that the soldiers get used to such long duty in the territories. Fuchs says he tries to drive them crazy, make them “jump,” since a soldier who spends a year on such duty forgets everything else. But he certainly wouldn’t want to initiate a war to increase his soldiers’ preparedness.

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