‘Israelis Are Living on the Titanic – No One Wants to Hear Bad News About the Army’

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik wraps up a decade as army watchdog, having issued divisive reports on the IDF's readiness for war. In an interview with Haaretz, he talks about low motivation, the question of ground forces and 'the worst personnel crisis since 1965'

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik
Tomer Applebaum

The Israel Defense Forces is suffering a failure in its organizational and command culture resembling the plight of the Titanic, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, who retired this week after 10 years as the IDF ombudsman, told Haaretz.

“This is the harsh disease that gives birth to the failures," Brik added, using a different metaphor. "As long as we don’t treat it, we will continue to deteriorate,” he said, adding that the main reason for the failures, from the Second Lebanon War to the 2014 Gaza war, is cultural.

“When you look at it from an economic angle, the IDF is the biggest company in Israel,” he said. “It has a budget of 31 billion shekels [$8.5 billion] a year and hundreds of thousands of people, including reservists. Billions in infrastructure and weapons are operated within this framework. This entire economy needs to be managed, but there’s no management in the army. The management falls through the cracks.”

Brik is bidding farewell to the defense establishment with harsh diagnoses, and as usual he isn’t afraid of the reactions. For 53 years, with short breaks, Brik has served in a number of roles in the IDF and at the Defense Ministry.

>> Read more: Outgoing Israeli army chief was effective on all fronts. Except one ■ 'Today, the Israeli army plans with bravado but executes with fear'

During the Yom Kippur War, the experience that has shaped his beliefs to this day, he was seriously wounded as the commander of a company of reservists in Sinai. He switched between damaged tanks seven times in the middle of the fighting, and at the end of the war was awarded the Medal of Courage, the IDF’s second highest award for bravery.

But his name has never been in the headlines as much as in the past seven months. For years, in his ombudsman’s reports, Brik has harshly criticized the army’s severe problems in treating its combat soldiers. He thus helped fix a long list of ills he identified based on soldiers’ complaints.

When he presented his last annual report in June, Brik ratcheted up his criticism. After pointing out the problems in the IDF’s organizational culture, he warned of the effects of these shortcomings on units' preparedness for war – in the Gaza Strip but especially on the northern front.

This is when, in a series of reports and letters Brik presented to the security cabinet and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he gradually began to embarrass the top brass. So much so that Brik’s statements have cast a shadow over the media rounds that IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is conducting before he retires next week.  

Eisenkot is an outstanding and admired chief of staff who enjoys a broad – and rare – media consensus on the way he has done his job, even though the far right is less enthusiastic. But it seems that Brik has launched the first serious debate on the state of the army, and in particular on the ground forces and reserves. It took time before the doubts began to spread.

Spokespeople, advisers and for some reason even a few journalists have made a serious effort in recent weeks to silence Brik and undermine his conclusions. Still, the public debate over these questions is growing. Brik’s stubbornness has led to the appointment of two military commissions that examined the IDF’s preparedness and rejected Brik’s main claim – but still recognized a long list of faults and gaps.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of his additional new role as defense minister, invited Brik in for a meeting. Netanyahu has also consulted on how to address Brik’s claims. A number of senior officers in the reserves took part: reserve major generals Yaakov Amidror and Johanan Locker, and Brig. Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel. It seems that Netanyahu, to the army’s great disappointment, is considering appointing another committee to look into the matter.  

The past few months have been a kind of duel between Eisenkot and Brik. Eisenkot especially disagreed with Brik’s across-the-board judgment on preparedness.

But his claims on the management of the IDF, the manpower crisis – which a number of people in the General Staff still insist on denying – and the gaps that the multiyear Gideon Plan has left should be heard out. Even if only some of Brik’s claims are justified, these issues will affect the term of the next chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi.

Brik points out a structural problem: In practice, the chief of staff is also the commander of the ground forces. As opposed to the air force and navy, in the ground forces there is no correlation between authority and responsibility. The head of the Ground Forces Command is responsible for training and building up these forces, but the regional commands are responsible for commanding on an operational level – under the chief of staff.

In the air force and navy, the commanders have both responsibility and authority, so they can function more effectively. Yes, the true commander of the ground forces is the chief of staff, but he’s busy with so many other things, thus much of his authority is given over to his deputy.

“The difficulty is that most deputy chiefs of staff are in the post for a relatively short time and are busy most of their term preparing for the job of chief of staff, for the dialogue with the political leadership, with strategy. These are outstanding people, but they don’t have enough time. It’s an enormous system that requires a high level of managerial ability,” Brik says.

“Until the deputy chief of staff begins to understand what’s going on there, he’s already finishing his term. Therefore there’s no one to manage the army day to day, no one who can coordinate preparing the army for war, which requires the integration of the efforts of the General Staff, the ground forces and the [regional] commands.”

Brik mentions an expansion in the number of orders in the military, and they’re distributed in different ways than in the past – through email and WhatsApp at the expense of radio. Often the IDF hasn’t developed an effective system to follow up on the carrying out of these orders.

“Two years ago, an internal examination was conducted on what percentage of the chief of staff and deputy’s orders were carried out in the ground forces. The result was about 15 percent,” Brik says.

“A culture of not carrying orders has developed in the IDF. Every officer sends out hundreds of emails and WhatsApp messages every day but there’s no oversight and follow-up mechanism to guarantee that the orders are carried out. Officers have told me many times: We can’t keep up with this flood. We simply delete a large portion of the emails without carrying them out – and no one knows.”

As he puts it, “With this method, as a commander on the battlefield, you won’t be convinced that they’ll carry out your orders. The anti-tank missile that hit the army bus near the Gaza Strip [in mid-November] is a good example. There were instructions from the [regional] command and the division, but they weren’t enforced. It’s complete anarchy.”

A fear to present problems

During Eisenkot’s time, the army finally managed to launch a multiyear plan, Gideon. During the term of his predecessor, Benny Gantz, two such plans were shelved because of disputes over the budget. During the terms of Gantz and Eisenkot, the IDF’s tank forces were cut and some 5,000 soldiers in the career army were let go.

At the same time, positions in logistics and ordnance – mostly at warehouses and bases where equipment for reserve units is maintained –were transferred to the air force, intelligence and the cyberbranch.      

The General Staff insists that these steps improved preparedness for war. Brik reached the opposite conclusion. To him, the cutbacks in the emergency stores make them the weakest link that will impede the ground forces during a war.

Brik also criticized the IDF’s agreement with the Finance Ministry to cut four months off compulsory service for men, a decision that Eisenkot justifies in retrospect.

Eisenkot has also expressed support for cutting mandatory service by another two months, a proposal that the cabinet is due to examine this year. Kochavi opposes a further cut. The cutbacks in the career army and the drop in the number of conscript soldiers because of the shorter service period have muddled the equation between the scope of the missions and the staffing to carry them out.  

“The IDF suffers from a lack of transparency, from a fear to present problems. The senior command doesn’t know what’s going on in the units. The cutbacks in career-army positions and then the shortening of service, without the appropriate reductions in missions, have created shallowness, superficiality, a lack of ability to carry things out,” Brik says.

“When a junior commander complains, his commanders tell him: Make do with what there is. If he complains a second time, he’ll get the image of a crybaby, and then people prefer not to bring up problems again. Everyone learns to shut up. The NCOs talk about the ‘Dr. Check Mark system’ – report you did it, regardless of what was really done.”

When asked about the major procurement to fill the warehouses after the army’s heavy use of weapons and ammunition in the 2014 Gaza war, Brik says: “In the IDF’s presentations for ministers and Knesset members, it shows that there are enough spare parts, inventory of weapons and ammunition, and exercises. But there’s no connection between the pretty presentations and what’s being done on the ground.”

In practice, the various weapons systems aren’t being maintained properly. “They think they’ve solved the problem because they put in more money,” Brik says.

“The IDF maintains flimsy standards. A large proportion of the units don’t have a mandatory daily routine. In a lot of places, every commander does what he understands, without supervision. According to my impressions, based on thousands of visits to all the IDF’s units over the past decade, company commanders have spent less than half their time guiding and supervising their subordinates,” he says.

“A huge amount of time is wasted on meetings and ceremonies. Over a year ago, I toured the outposts in the Northern Command, the Golan and Lebanese border. During the visits, I barely found the company commanders there. Every commander, corps commander, wants the more junior officers to come to all the meetings with him, and that’s what happens. Commanders of standing-army companies tell me: The battalion commander doesn’t influence the battalion at all. Why should I want to stay in the career army and be a battalion commander?”

Like A., a senior reserve officer who spoke with Haaretz last month, Brik notices a steady drop in the professional knowledge of some reserve units in the ground forces, which also stems from a limited number of training days a year. The army has given priority to certain brigades and trains them more, but other units have been left behind. At the same time, the standards are changing.

“In reserve training at the Tze’elim [training base in the Negev], soldiers don’t clean guns because the IDF hires a private company for that. Reservists don’t know how to fix a weapon and take care of it; they don’t know how to adjust sights [on a tank],” Brik says, before referring to the Yom Kippur War.

“If we soldiers had acted this way during wartime, we wouldn’t have survived. Commanders are reinventing the wheel every time. The lessons of the wars that were learned in blood are being forgotten. There’s no real organizational memory. Every once in a while they make a change, and everything spins around on its axis without being steadied.”   

The burning memories from 1973, and maybe also Brik’s past as a commander on all levels in the Armored Corps, from a single tank to the division level, have instilled skepticism about the IDF's dominant approach.  Based on this thinking, the tank’s importance has fallen, and, given the lack of an enemy with a conventional army, it’s better to invest in things like precision aerial weaponry and commando units.

The IDF, warns Brik – and here he sounds to many people like a vestige of a different era – is taking excessive risks. “The most recent chiefs of staff built a small and cunning army for 20 to 30 years ahead. The problem is that they’re not taking into account that the expected threat can change again because of the frequent changes in the Middle East,” he says.         

“The army has built itself for a war on two fronts, Gaza and Lebanon. But what will happen if the Syrian army revives after the Assad regime surprised everyone and won the civil war? In two years it’s possible that we’ll once gain find Syrian tanks facing us on the Golan border,” he adds.

“The response to Hezbollah’s missiles and rockets from Lebanon can’t only rely on the air force and firepower from a distance. In the end, we’ll also need ground maneuvers.”

Brik believes the army has to take into account preparations for a more extreme scenario in which all fronts are on fire, including an outbreak à la the second intifada in the West Bank.

But Brik saves his harshest words for the IDF’s manpower situation. Here he identifies a broader problem that Haaretz has covered in recent years: a drop in the motivation for service in combat units, a drop in young officers’ desire to sign up for the career army, a shortage of officers in combat support roles – such as logistics and ordnance – and a drop in commitment by many reservists.

“This is the worst crisis I’ve seen since I was drafted for compulsory service in 1965. The Manpower Directorate shows presentations and says that on  average among the units, the situation is okay. They remind me of the joke about the man who drowns in a pool whose average depth is 40 centimeters [16 inches]. The IDF has good brigade commanders and battalion commanders, but among the company commanders and the officers in combat support roles, many are fleeing because they don’t want to stay in an army they see as mediocre,” Brik says.

“There’s a mix of factors here, which is related to the new model for the career army, under which only a few officers know with certainty that they’ll be promoted and continue in service until they retire. Also, if it’s necessary to compromise on carrying out missions because there aren’t enough resources and people, and you don’t admit it because you don’t want to damage the army’s image, there are officers who say: I prefer to leave instead of them silencing me when I say what’s really going on,” Brik adds.

“I hear these things all the time in meetings with young officers. The army has a serious problem at the ranks of captain and major with high-quality officers who want to leave. Within a year or two we may well reach the point of no return.”

Of all the problems, it’s clear that this is the one that worries him most. “This country is living on the Titanic,” he says, raising his voice and for a moment sounding like the prophet of doom his opponents describe – behind his back. “Everyone is happy in the restaurants and cafes; they don’t want to hear bad news about the state of the army. The IDF tells stories and someone has fallen asleep on their watch.”

When Brik is asked why his warnings about the army’s preparedness for war were rebuffed by two military committees and the Knesset subcommittee on military preparedness, he says: “The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has no teeth. It relies too much on reports from the army. There’s also a political problem. People are facing an election and party leaders don’t want to slaughter sacred cows.”

In recent months, a number of ministers have met with Brik, separately and at their request. But no one has said anything explicit about the disagreements between the army and the ombudsman.

Even the previous defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who listened patiently to Brik, was wary about taking his side. A few months ago, at the height of the dispute between Brik and Eisenkot, Lieberman even declared that the IDF’s preparedness was at its best level since 1967. In conversations with retired senior officers, Lieberman sounded much more skeptical.

At the farewell ceremony when Brik retired this week, he sounded much more supportive of Eisenkot after their relations broke down last year. The IDF’s representative at the ceremony, new Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir, laid on the praise for Brik.

It was a farewell ceremony, not a change-of-command ceremony. No one in the defense establishment is in a hurry to find a replacement for Brik. Maybe they just want to enjoy the quiet a little longer, before a more comfortable candidate can be found.            

A similar voice

While in public Brik argued with most senior officers, the outgoing ombudsman held a long series of meetings where senior officers said somewhat different things. For example, here’s a quote from a meeting Brik held in September with a (very) senior officer who recently retired.

“There’s a problem of awareness. The senior ranks aren’t counting on the ground forces. The message to the young commanders, not stated out loud, is that it’s possible to conclude a war with good intelligence and a good air force. This influences the spirit of the commanders. This is the reason for the fear of sending ground troops into enemy territory. When it happens, in a wide-scale war, it will be traumatic for the public. The Yom Kippur War will be a picnic in comparison,” the senior officer said.

“After the Second Lebanon War and Protective Edge [the 2014 Gaza war], the IDF didn’t conduct in-depth inquiries, and conclusions weren’t drawn. The subliminal message sent downward is: The IDF is the air force. This is a disastrous concept. As a result, the resolve  of the young command is crumbling,” he added.

“There’s the lowest standard in the ground forces; without aspiration for excellence or discipline. The air force alone can’t stop the firing of missiles and rockets on the home front. In Protective Edge, the air force fired hundreds of precision munitions without achieving very much. Everything was done to relieve frustrations.”