With Top Recruits Opting Out of Combat Roles, Israeli Army Must Set Firm Rules

In recent years, the IDF has identified a continued erosion in the willingness of what the army defines as its highest quality recruits to enlist in field units

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Israeli soldiers conduct a joint exercise with U.S. Marines, March 12, 2018.
Israeli soldiers conduct a joint exercise with U.S. Marines, March 12, 2018.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israel Defence Forces’ Manpower Directorate has, for now, more urgent headaches. The military has been trying to deal with a crisis in the quality of manpower for its ground forces units for the past few years, especially among the ranks of junior officers.

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As Haaretz reported in January 2017, the General Staff was presented with data showing the military’s ability to enlist combat soldiers from the entire spectrum of Israeli society has diminished, and this could lead to a gradual reduction in the quality of commanders because in the Israeli military system most officers rise up through the ranks of combat units. In recent years, the IDF has identified a continued erosion in the willingness of draftees from what the army defines as its highest quality recruits to enlist in field units.

Many of the enlistees whom the army ranks as its highest quality recruits – especially those from well-off neighborhoods and towns – prefer to join technological units, whose prestige is on the rise, over the difficult and demanding service in combat units.

The problem is even worse in the less sexy field units such as the tank corps, combat engineers and artillery. The emphasis the military has placed on technological roles in recent years, along with the personal benefits high-quality recruits associate with these jobs, have led more and more of the finest of Israel’s youth to ask for such positions. Most of these soldiers come from specific social groups, particularly from the middle and upper classes and from the center of the country.

As part of the efforts to deal with such gaps, the IDF is now using a “predictive model” whose goal is to evaluate – with much greater accuracy – which recruits have the appropriate personal test results and rankings from the IDF’s testing process that will enable them to serve in the future as company commanders in field units – and assign them to the different units accordingly. This model is based on an analysis of the data of people who actually served as company commanders in recent years.

It turns out that the different categories which the highest-level recruits belong to do not overlap. Practically, this means that of the computer geniuses who go through the selection process for offensive cyber units in the Intelligence Corps’ 8200 unit, very few – even if they have the medical profile for prestigious combat units – have the appropriate personality and other traits needed to serve as pilots in the Air Force, commandos in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, or as commanders of a tank company. And when the military puts these young people through its selection process, it now makes sure to make it clear to them that it has reordered its priorities.

Draftees who recently took the tests for both Military Intelligence and pilot training were informed by the Air Force that they could not refuse to take part in the final week of the selection process (gibush) because if they did, they would also be barred from continuing with the selection process for the intelligence units.

A senior officer in the Manpower Directorate told Haaretz this was an error. The Air Force officers exceeded their authority and this directive will be canceled for the present group of recruits. But at the same time, the senior officer confirmed that the IDF does intend to implement a compulsory process in the future that would give the Air Force first priority in selecting soldiers, over Military Intelligence and other units.

The source of this problem lies in the rapid growth of the cyber and technological units inside Military Intelligence. To recruit a larger number of suitable soldiers into intelligence, the Manpower Directorate canceled, for a short time, the quotas limiting the number of soldiers with high medical profiles serving in Military Intelligence. This created serious competition between the Air Force and MI for the best recruits, those who were suited for both pilot training and intelligence units.

For years, the Air Force has enjoyed an exceptional privilege: The selection process for pilots is the only one for an elite unit that young men who meet the criteria are required to take part in. This requirement remains in force throughout the entire selection process until the just before the last stage, the gibush (because the IDF cannot order young people who have not yet been drafted into the military to undergo a selection process that requires physical effort).

The reason for this policy is that the Air Force has proven, based on the data on previous graduates of the pilots training course, that a significant number of the graduates did not want to serve as pilots at the beginning of the selection process, and preferred to join other ultra-elite units such as Sayaret Matkal or the naval commandos.

The skills needed for flying are relatively rare, almost something you are born with, and can be examined and discovered only once you are in the course and flying. By giving the Air Force priority in selecting soldiers, the possibility is greatly reduced that the Air Force will miss out on recruits who are good candidates but who did not plan on a career as a military pilot.

But because the selection processes for pilot training and Military Intelligence are carried out today at the same time and the battle for the best recruits is growing fiercer, the Air Force asked this year to further strengthen its advantage by imposing sanctions on those who decline to take part in the gibush before it begins. The Manpower Directorate turned down the Air Force’s request, saying it impinged on the transparency of the process for recruits. The young people did not know in advance of the sanctions they would suffer (in other words, opting out of the pilot selection process would also end their ability to join Military Intelligence) and therefore it was decided it was not possible to change the rules in the middle of the selection process.

Haaretz was told that this year’s mistake made by the Air Force would be corrected, but in the longer term the intention is still to improve the Air Force’s bargaining position with the select few. For now, pilot training is still the top priority in the IDF’s internal selection rankings, over all other elite units – including the naval commandos, Sayeret Matkal, MI and others.

To compensate Military Intelligence for its lower priority, those recruits who start out in pilots training but were also accepted to prestigious MI units will be guaranteed that if they wash out of pilot training during the first year, they will be able to choose to transfer to the Intelligence Corps – and not be sent to a field unit against their will.

In addition, the Manpower Directorate instructed the Air Force to examine how to move up its selection process in such a way that it will end before the selection begins for all the other elite units – and which in practice would give the Air Force the first right of refusal for those recruits it wants.

This story shows how the IDF is still thinking over how to organize its selection processes. But the basic numbers have not changed: The abilities of the most sought-after recruits make them attractive to all the elite units and the IDF will have to set clear and firm rules, which will also guarantee the priority of the spearhead combat units over all other service, however important and prestigious they may be.