Analysis

Israeli Army Watchdog Paints Gloomy Picture of Readiness for War

Quality career officers are opting for civilian life, funds are going down the drain and troops guard the border while staring at their phones, report says

An Israeli soldier stands on a tank as another jumps off it near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The ombudsman of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, released his 10th and final annual report Monday. It is unsparing in its criticism of the army’s conduct. Large organizations tend to get defensive in the face of harsh assessments, denying some of the claims and accusing external auditors of a lack of comprehension. But the defense minister and the army’s chief of staff would do well to pay close attention to Brik’s comments.

Brik presented the report to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday morning and convened a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv Monday afternoon. At both events, he devoted much of his speech to an event that shaped his life - the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he was the commander of a tank company in a reserve battalion. Out of more than 200 combat soldiers, only seven, including Brik, were still standing at the end of the war. Eighty-four were killed and over 100 were wounded. He himself was wounded twice, switched tanks seven times and was awarded a medal of courage.

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That, he said Monday, is what drives him to this day - ensuring that the state and the army don’t repeat the mistakes that led to that tragedy. It’s also something often raised by his critics, who hint that his views are outdated, that he is overly influenced by his war experience and that he judges by standards that are no longer relevant. And when he argues over the number of tanks the army needs, complains about the damage caused by shortening compulsory service - a move the IDF supported - or is shocked that reservists don’t have to clean their own guns after an exercise, one could make the mistake of considering him a fossil.

The ombudsman of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, 2015

But his criticism isn’t based only on his military experience; it’s also based on 10 years of regular visits to army units and unmediated conversations with soldiers who could be his grandchildren. He doesn’t handle individual complaints from soldiers; he actively seeks to identify problems and propose solutions. (Senior officers aren’t crazy about this; they say system-wide conclusions can’t be drawn from individual complaints). Among other things, he has spurred the army to restock its emergency stores and improve service conditions for soldiers stationed at observation posts and Iron Dome anti-missile system teams.

And much of the criticism he voiced Monday was on target.

Perhaps his harshest criticism was evident from what he refused to say. Asked about the IDF’s preparedness for war in the Gaza Strip, he noted that there were worse scenarios, such as an escalation that spreads to the West Bank. And then he retreated: “Allow me not to answer you.” His main concern appears to be the level of preparedness and training in the ground forces’ reserve units.

He also raised other weighty concerns. The army, he said, faces a growing problem of poor discipline and nonfulfillment of orders. It doesn’t have a culture of following up on the implementation of its plans and orders, and sometimes doesn’t maintain the systems it sets up.

As an example, he cited the restocking of emergency stores after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, at a cost of 2 billion shekels ($550 million). Some of this money went down the drain because the program lapsed a few years later.

One of Brik’s regular complaints relates to the Gideon multiyear plan, under which the army dismissed more than 5,000 career soldiers. It then took on 1,000 new ones, mainly in technology units such as cyberwarfare and drones. The ordnance and logistics corps are now short hundreds of noncommissioned officers, even as the workload has grown immeasurably. Thus vehicles and guns are being maintained less well, or even neglected — something that evokes bad memories in any veteran of 1973.

Brik is also concerned over the quality of the career army’s personnel — especially in combat support units, from the medical corps to the ordnance corps, but recently in combat units as well. “People are voting with their feet,” he said. “The people who stay in the service aren’t always the ones we’d want. ... We’re losing good people, including in intelligence and combat units. Officers are willing to sign on as company commanders, but no higher.”

Young officers have trouble handling their workload, but their commanders tell them they must make do, Brik continued. They also see their battalion commander attending thousands of conferences and meetings instead of training and commanding his battalion, and consequently, “Many say, ‘I’m not willing to stay if it’s like this. I don’t want to be mediocre.’”

Many of his complaints relate to the army’s organizational culture, and many are shared by reserve officers and other veterans. The army has no management doctrine; each unit and each commander does as he sees fit, Brik said. Most commands are sent by email; subordinates choose which to obey and which to ignore; and commanders have no ability to follow up.

Moreover, soldiers are buried in their cellphones. Not only does this make meetings and classes less effective, but “soldiers even guard at the border with their phones, and commanders don’t enforce the rules,” he said. “This is also what will happen in wartime, and the result will be that the units’ location will be in the enemy’s hands.”

Brik painted a gloomy, pessimistic picture. In the coming days, the IDF will submit its responses, some of which will contradict his conclusions. And indeed, it’s impossible to ignore the army’s successes in building and adapting its forces to new challenges, or the operational successes of recent years, both up in the fighting up north and in preventing a new intifada in the West Bank.

Nevertheless, Brik’s criticisms deserve public attention, widespread media coverage and, above all, some thought by the General Staff about how to fix the problems his report highlighted.