T., 40, recently stopped serving in the Israel Defense Forces’ reserves. After 15 years of service, this wasn’t due to a lack of time or motivation. Rather, the experience changed.
“There was no point anymore,” T. said “Over the past few years we stopped doing operational duty and had fewer exercises. When you meet the guys only every two or three years, the connection weakens. The policy of taking reservists off operational duty damaged our unity. I asked to be transferred to a post where I’m almost never called up.”
This reflects the change in the IDF’s reservist policy of the past few years, which raised a storm among defense officials after the leaking of a dossier by IDF Ombudsman Yitzhak Brik on the IDF’s preparedness for war. Brik, for example, warned about the implications of the major cut in career army manpower.
Still, the largest chunk of IDF manpower is actually reservists; the IDF is comprised of conscripts, career soldiers, civilian employees and reservists.
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The IDF has significantly changed its policy toward reservists over the past decade. Between 2004 and 2017, the number of reserve-duty days performed dropped by 83 percent. The number of Israelis called up for reserve duty was cut by 100,000 under the current IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot.
This was done to cut costs, and the IDF decided it needed far fewer reservists. This was also due to the law on reservists passed in 2008 that puts a lid on the number of reserve-duty days a soldier must perform.
G., another former reservist, remembers what broke him. He was called up at the start of the 2006 Second Lebanon War and served on the northern border. After the cease-fire, his unit spent another two weeks at the border. But a few months later he was called up for a two-week exercise. At age 31, after 10 years of reserve duty, he asked to see a mental health officer and get taken out of service for emotional reasons.
Reservists who served before 2001 know the feeling of being drained. The reserve-duty burden isn’t shared equally – only half of Israelis are drafted, and only around 5 percent do 20 days or more of reserve duty over three years.
Until sometime in the previous decade, this small percentage found themselves serving up to 30 days a year. But their time in uniform wasn’t utilized well; the feeling was that once you’re in uniform, time loses its meaning.
Reservists who were called up for 9 A.M. knew there was no point in arriving at the base before 4 P.M., and their first day there would be spent waiting for the quartermaster to show up and unlock the storage facility. The final day meant hours of sitting around waiting to be released.
Billions in savings
In 2004, Israelis served 10 million reserve-duty days; by 2017 it was 1.9 million days, so that’s serious savings. The IDF pays a bit over 500 shekels ($135) per reservist day. Most of that goes to the National Insurance Institute to compensate the reservist’s employer, or the reservist himself. The NII is paid back by the Defense Ministry.
As of 2017, the IDF was saving 4 billion shekels a year by calling up fewer reservists, compared with 2004. Defense ministers have neglected to mention this statistic in their calls to increase the defense budget, but the IDF uses this money in other ways.
The use of reservists’ time has also changed. Before the law on reservists was passed in 2008, around half of reservist days were spent on training, and the rest on operational duties. Now more than 70 percent are spent on training. The IDF cites these figures as evidence of its preparedness for war. But given the steep drop in the total number of reserve days, total training days are actually down 75 percent.
Does the IDF know for sure it won’t need a massive reserve call-up in a future war? During the Gaza war in the winter of 2008-09 (Operation Cast Lead), the IDF called up 10,000 reservists. During the eight-day air offensive on Gaza in November 2012 (Operation Pillar of Defense), it called up 60,000 reservists. During the 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge), it called up 70,000. But the last time reservists were used in a significant operational capacity was during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when 90,000 were called up.
The changes in the use of reservists are partly a reflection of changes in warfare and technology.
“You don’t need a simple soldier with a katyusha so much anymore,” said Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shuki Ben-Anat, who headed the reservists from 2008 to 2013. “Currently the army’s main areas are cyberwarfare and precision warfare, for which reservists are less needed.”
Reservists have a harder time maintaining their skills in these areas, Ben-Anat says. For instance, a soldier who develops and builds missiles needs significant skills; a reservist can’t serve enough days to maintain this level.
Also, training for these positions happens in the conscripted army. But after five years or so, systems become obsolete, and with them, soldiers’ skills, Ben-Anat says.
Conscripts do it better
Nowadays, nearly all ongoing operations are done by conscripts; nearly all the soldiers on the Gaza front and in the West Bank are conscripts, he says. Commanders often prefer conscripts to reservists who show up for three weeks.
“Reservists are used nowadays mainly for old-style warfare,” Ben-Anat said. “Many reservists were called up during Operation Protective Edge for what was supposed to be the second assault wave – war against Hezbollah [in the north] or an all-out war against Hamas [in Gaza].”
Ben-Anat added: “Our concept of warfare and the enemy is constantly changing.”
Reservists are inherently different from conscripts; there’s no comparing the responsibility and maturity of a 30-year-old reservist to that of an 18-year-old conscript. Over the years, reservists have been credited with putting the breaks on politicians eager to launch military adventures. For example, in the 1980s, it was reservists who sparked the wave of protests against the first Lebanon war.
But MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) notes that Israel’s enemies also have smaller armies nowadays. “We’re no longer facing five Syrian armies .… Warfare is more sophisticated,” he said, noting that Hamas probably has no more than 15,000 to 20,000 foot soldiers, and that Hamas too avoids head-on confrontations with Israel.
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) says the process of scaling back reserve duty is positive for Israel and the economy, even if it’s a problem for the morale of the remaining reservists.
“It’s problematic in terms of the idea of a people’s army. And then there’s the issue of politicians and the army brass not wanting to use reservists for operational duty,” Shelah said.
“So the reservist says to himself, ‘They’re not going to use me.’ Ultimately there’s no monetary figure that can compensate him for upending and risking his life,” Shelah added.
“The compensation was always the significance of the service, and the knowledge that reservists won wars and saved Israel during the Yom Kipper War. The moment you’re saying, ‘They won’t use me, so why should I go,’ we have a crisis.”