Israeli Army Seeks to Stop 'Graying’ of Commanders

Military shortens promotion path to lower starting age of battalion leaders from 34 to 32.

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Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Benny Gantz at a situation assessment in the Defense Ministry, July 17, 2014.
Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Benny Gantz at a situation assessment in the Defense Ministry, July 17, 2014.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The Israel Defense Forces is changing its promotion policies to bring down the age of its field commanders. Under a new plan that shortens the promotion path for senior officers, the average age of a new battalion commander will drop from 34 to 32.

The army plans to achieve this by reducing the number of positions that combat officers fill at the rank of major before being promoted to battalion commander with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

The age of battalion commanders has been rising noticeably over the past few years, but the trend actually started decades ago. An article published earlier this year in the Israeli military journal Ma’arachot by Col. Yehuda Yohananoff, who commanded the general command and staff course, presented data that proved that the ages of battalion, brigade and division commanders has been climbing over the years.

For example, IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz was named commander of the 890th Paratroop Battalion in the late 1980s, when he was only 28. During the 1967-70 War of Attrition, Rafael Eitan was a battalion commander at age 26. Avigdor Kahalani was a battalion commander during the Yom Kippur War at the age of 29. By comparison, in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the average age of a battalion commander was between 33 and 34.

After serving as a company commanders, a combat officer serves four different positions on average before becoming a battalion commander. They serve as company commanders in training units or patrol battalions, in staff positions such as battalion operations officers or as deputy battalion commanders. The army now plans to shorten this stage of the officers’ career path.

While the IDF sees an advantage in having slightly older commanders, who bring greater experience to positions demanding great responsibility, the aging of the command cohort also causes problems. Most battalion commanders now assume that position as married men with families, with whom they can spend only limited time during their service.

The age gap between them and their soldiers, and even their junior officers, has gotten wider and sometimes results in communication difficulties.

In his Ma’arachot article, Yohananoff explained that the battalion commanders’ ages affect not only their performance as officers but also on the army’s overall character.

“The IDF is an offensive force, and throughout its history it has been led by men who were young in age and in spirit,” he wrote. “The question that must be asked is whether raising the age of battalion and air squadron commanders puts at risk the striking ability, combativeness, courage and initiative of the IDF’s commanders.”

According to Yohananoff, in recent years the correct balance between combat assignments and the age of those performing them has been disturbed, and “not restoring it will bring about the aging and burnout of the combat command.” This new plan seems to indicate that the senior military echelons agree.

As the age of the battalion commanders comes down, the rest of the command structure will also gradually become younger.

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