IDF Reserve Units Get Short Shrift, and That Ought to Worry Us

State comptroller's warnings that IDF isn't meeting its own objectives for training reservists means many soldiers are unable to use many skills required during combat.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF reservists training at a shooting range.
IDF reservists training at a shooting range.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Perhaps the media should be paying as much attention to the inadequate state of the army’s reserve system as it is to the corruption scandal engulfing Yisrael Beiteinu. It may not be as juicy a story, but in the long run it is no less worrisome.

The warnings of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira and his defense expert, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn, are sharp and clear: The Israel Defense Forces is not meeting its own objectives for training the reservists in the ground forces. There aren’t enough training exercises (they’re supposed to take place in three-year cycles), and the training that does take place isn’t extensive enough or good enough.

The result is that the reserve system is undercut, along with the reserve soldiers’ ability to use the many skills required during combat.

The comptroller’s conclusions are a direct continuation of a previous comptroller’s report on the situation of the reserve ground forces, which was released in 2007, after the Second Lebanon War. These findings once again confirm what has often been argued since then: Although the IDF placed a renewed emphasis on training after the serious gaps that were revealed in that war, among both regular and reserve forces, it never returned to the scope of training or the level of fitness that existed in the 1990s.

Even the improvements that were made have been eroded in the past two to three years due to budgetary constraints, as well as problems of planning and priorities.

Lip service

The shortcomings are rooted in two systemic problems.

The first is that the ground forces are regularly shortchanged. They are allotted fewer resources than the air force or the intelligence division, two technological units that are closer to the hearts of the leaders — and that fit with the hope of political leaders to conduct long-distance wars that don’t involve entanglements on the ground or heavy losses.

The second problem is the attitude toward the reserve units. Over the years, the General Staff has paid lip service to the importance of the reserve forces, just as the 2008 Reserve Service Law does. But though the reserve system constitutes the IDF’s main strength, it is consistently relegated to the bottom of the army’s priority list.

And because the IDF often faces calls for an immediate budgetary cutback, the most flexible, and the most vulnerable, item is ground forces training in general, and reserve duty in particular. Over the years, then, the ability of the ground reserve force has been negatively affected.

To overcome this shortcoming, the comptroller recommends that the IDF budget include a sum that cannot be touched, to be devoted to the training of reservists. At the same time, he tells of problems that affect how well reservists’ training exercises are monitored and how the training is reported to the political leadership — even though the quality of the reservists’ training is liable to be a critical issue in case of a war that requires a widespread call-up of forces.

Every time the reservist issue comes up during a major military campaign, from Operation Defensive Shield to Operation Protective Edge, the defense ministers and chiefs of staff boast of the huge rates of reporting for duty among the reservists, and say the reservists fight over who gets to be assigned to the next armored personnel carrier. But that’s only half the picture.

The comptroller says the reserve brigades are overmanned, as a result of high motivation. The result is that the brigade commander cannot train all the fighters when there aren’t enough days of reserve duty allotted for everyone. And even if a given brigade is allotted a suitable amount of time for training, there is no guarantee that those who receive assignments when the time comes will be the fighters who actually underwent full training as required.

There are other disturbing issues as well. Once again significant gaps have been found in the way the emergency stores of the reserve battalions are maintained, to the point that a senior officer says the IDF’s readiness for war is gradually being undermined. In a section on the defense industries, the comptroller says the Defense Ministry does not state which production lines are for vital weapons and ammunition, or what the priorities are. These are critical issues, just like that of emergency stores. They touch on the question of Israel’s ability to fight on its own, if necessary, without being dependent on the supply of crucial items from outside.

Budgetary considerations are blamed for many of the problems exposed in the report. The defense establishment will always complain of a shortage of money, of a blanket that is too short to cover everything. But the comptroller’s pessimistic view of the fitness of the reserve system can’t be explained away by financial limitations.

There is long-term neglect here, significant gaps in the IDF’s combat readiness that are liable to undermine its capabilities in the event of another military conflict.

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