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'Tis the Season for Another Israeli Military PR Blitz

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IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi.
IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

As is the case every year during the Jewish holidays in the fall, a considerable effort is underway by the Israel Defense Forces to – in the words of a former IDF spokeswoman who has since advanced into politics – paint the screens green. The decades-old custom takes place twice a year: in the early fall and in the period between Passover and Independence Day.

The tradition is also related to the need of the newspapers and electronic media to fill the supplements and prime time with some sort of content. But in this season of the year there is also a response to a deep psychological fear whose roots lie in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The public needs – actually, it’s more like the army thinks the public needs – a reminder of the IDF’s power and of its preparedness to address every security threat.

This year has been no exception. The chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, launched a blitz of interviews (three questions, three answers) on several websites, and the television stations and newspapers added a series of extensive interviews with many officers of the General Staff.

The headlines generally repeated themselves, as though according to a prepared message sheet: The IDF is strong, and its power was proved in the last operation in Gaza; the attacks on the army over the death of the sniper Barel Hadaria Shmueli on the Gazan border are unjust; and the public criticism over the pension hikes in the military will detract from cohesiveness and undermine the motivation to serve. It’s all backed up by a slew of colorful reports accompanying our units on the front. Some of the items might prompt viewers or readers to form the – mistaken – impression that if we only launch drones and hovercraft in the next military campaign, the IDF will finally win.

There is one issue about which the army’s stance is more convincing than it was in past years. This time, it has resources at its disposal. Kochavi waited more than two years for a budget increment that will allow him to move ahead with his multiyear plan called Tnufa (momentum). The political crisis brought about a budget freeze, but when the barriers were removed last month it turned out that the army will get a budget hike, despite the deep crisis fomented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, for years the IDF has found it difficult to plan its force building for the long term. A large proportion of the plans are devised as an immediate response to urgent problems. There is scant involvement by the political decision makers in the chief of staff’s decisions. Many times it appears as though the plans are too vague, rest on overly optimistic forecasts by Military Intelligence and exaggerate the ability of advanced technologies to transform reality on the battlefield. In the case of Tnufa, its success over time depends largely on the IDF’s ability to cope with two long-term, worrisome trends, which the high command consistently plays down. The two are connected: the status of the ground forces and the quality of its personnel.

In retrospect, it looks as though the roots of the crisis were discernible already in 1973. In that war the IDF had at its disposal the most professional and experienced command structure in its history, which had accumulated combat knowhow in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the War of Attrition that followed. But the intelligence and diplomatic failure that enabled the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur brought about the loss of an entire generation of outstanding field commanders (who, despite the adverse opening conditions, succeeded in reversing the situation toward the end of the war). The IDF has never fully recovered from that blow.

Israeli reserve unit training at an IDF base.Credit: Amir Levy

After the war, under the impact of the trauma, the infantry was almost doubled in size. One of the results of the shortage of personnel was a lowering of standards and the acceptance of compromises in the quality of the commanders. The severe shortcomings that emerged in the Lebanon War, in 1982, were also influenced by these developments. The limited achievements in Lebanon and the fierce political dispute over the war’s justification deterred many of the outstanding combat soldiers of the 1980s from volunteering for the officer corps and the career army.

“With a great many more positions to fill and far less quality, you guarantee mediocrity,” says a senior officer who was involved in the personnel realm. “And mediocrity is a malignant disease. These are processes that had an impact 30 and 40 years down the line, even when you look at the composition of the General Staff today.”

In the General Staff they’ve been rereading “Crisis in Command,” a 1987 book by Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage that describes the severe consequences of the Vietnam War for the U.S. armed forces. The crisis there is not viewed through the prism of the political dispute, but focuses on the lack of cohesion in the combat units, at the company and battalion level. In the absence of cohesion and when the commanders aren’t good enough, the debate in society wields greater influence. To a certain degree, that is also what happened to the IDF in those years.

It’s only lately, in conversations with commanders, that one can hear a certain acknowledgment of what I suspected for years but was almost always officially denied. The IDF, and in particular the ground forces, is having difficulty getting many of the outstanding officers to remain in its ranks. They are abandoning the military in favor of a civilian career following a stint as a company commander, or even before that. The chain is clear: An outstanding battalion commander will more easily persuade a young officer to follow in his footsteps; a mediocre commander will sign up mediocre officers.

Israeli soldiers with a tank near the Gaza border. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The quality gap is also being felt at the top. For years in the General Staff there has been a clear qualitative and quantitative bias in favor of pilots, special ops personnel and paratroops over other infantry brigades and blander corps such as the armored and artillery corps. The decline in quality is also discernible at the intermediate levels. Thus, the bar for admittance according to the psychometric exam in the tactical command college (which trains young officers at and around the company commander level) is far lower than in most academic institutions.

In part, this is a result of the classification method, which for years has granted a tremendous advantage to the air force, the intelligence branch and technological units. Those units enjoy almost a qualitative monopoly, and Military Intelligence, too, recruits soldiers who in other circumstances could have excelled as commanders in a combat unit. There’s also a problem with the “food chain” in the ground forces themselves. Thousands of pre-draft young people show up for every day of selection for the reconnaissance units, though only a select few will be chosen for the elite units, such as Sayeret Matkal and Shaldag. The rest of the top individuals go to special ops units, commando brigades and the paratroops. The result is that the base commanders in the Givati or Golani brigades get many new recruits who have already been cut in three or four earlier tryouts.

Mending the bar mitzvah suit

In the past 30 years the manpower directorate has been commanded largely by adjutants and pilots. Maybe it’s not surprising that the ground forces have lost all the internal power struggles they waged. “For years the adjutants determined policy, without understanding the broad context of a military organization and its strategy,” an army source tells Haaretz. “In recent years the ground forces have encountered a large number of niche population crises: women, Haredim, reserve service, conditions of service and the salary of the conscript soldiers. But no one is asserting that things have changed fundamentally or is thinking of creating an alternative model, with adjustments to the original model drawn up by David Ben-Gurion in 1948. We are still stuck in our bar mitzvah suit and trying to mend it so we’ll have a little space to breathe.”

The idea of the people’s army, particularly the ground forces, rests on a quality command level that springs up from the ranks. At its base is a large mass from which the quality core leaps ahead, with the ground forces supposed to supply a strong enough backbone to carry the entire IDF. But in reality a large number of the soldiers with high personal data end up in other corps and other units. When the time comes to send cadets to Training Base 1, the units are compelled to compromise in some cases over individuals with insufficient attributes.

The results are sometimes also discernible in the limited ground operations which the IDF continues to conduct, in Lebanon (2006) and in the Gaza Strip (four times, from 2008 until this year). When one goes back to examine tactical hitches that in some cases affected the war picture and the way it was accepted by the public, it’s clear that in some cases the platoon and company commanders were completely unsuitable for their posts, but were promoted due to a shortage of better officers.

Israeli reserve unit training at an IDF base. Credit: Amir Levy

Vicious circle

A vicious circle is thus formed. A mediocre quality of command leads to more hitches and to casualties in training and in combat. Minuscule achievements also affect doctrine and force building. And at the practical level they deter the political decision makers from making broad use of the ground forces in war. The lack of use of those forces, in turn, reduces the desire of high-quality draftees to serve in them, because they think in any event they will not see action in a war. Another factor that is influencing motivation for combat service in the ground forces is the diminished feeling of a security threat among the public, after the second intifada and the war in Lebanon.

On top of this, there has been a prolonged decline in the quality and quantity of training of the ground forces; only four years ago, under the previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, did a partial effort begin to rectify the situation. Things are even more serious in the reserves. First, the number of days of reserve duty was cut, beginning in the 1990s, from the moment that the IDF was compelled (and rightly so) to finance them from its funds. Afterward, in the second intifada, at the beginning of the 2000s, almost all the regular and reserve forces were assigned to the territories. Even today, in a quieter security period, there is not enough training in large segments of the reserve forces.

In the end, an army is built on two foundations: ethos and operational experience. Both are lacking in the ground forces today. For years, the quality of their ranks has eroded and confidence in their ability has declined. The IDF is aware of the problem, but is looking for the coin under the street lamp. It could well be that the solution needs to be based on locating the potential for officer rank already at the classification stage and by dividing the candidates more justly. But to that end the chief of staff will have to impose his opinion on the two strongest bodies in the IDF: the air force and Military Intelligence.

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