Twenty-two of the U.S. army’s last tanks to be stationed in Europe, the Abrams model, were loaded onto a ship at the German port of Bremerhaven last week, on their way home. The era of American armored divisions in Europe is over. At the height of the Cold War, there were 20 such divisions. Now they have all disappeared. There is no need for them. The military legacy of the George Pattons and Creighton Abrams − the commanders and the tanks that immortalized them − has withdrawn in the face of the new political and economic reality.
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Over a decade has passed since American tanks conquered Baghdad. There is currently no acceptable scenario for armored divisions to operate under U.S. President Barack Obama’s watch − certainly not in Europe, and almost to the same degree of probability in the Middle East, nor in Korea. Special forces, yes; perhaps also infantry, supported by air and naval forces. But tanks? Where will they operate? Against whom, and for what purpose?
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed this subject last week at the National Defense University in Washington. Hagel took a provocative line, clearly designed to show senior officers and their political supporters who had opposed his appointment, that they can expect an ongoing battle − backed by Obama − to streamline the military establishment and adapt it to changing circumstances. He frequently emphasizes that he was a simple sergeant in Vietnam (and that he was wounded there), not an alienated officer. His challenge isn’t the armored tank but “the tank” − the chiefs of staff’s conference room at the Pentagon.
In his speech, Hagel said that every officer should always keep “three questions in mind before making decisions. First, does this help protect national security? Second, is this in America’s strategic interests, which includes the political, economic, and moral dimensions of our interests and our responsibilities? And, third, is this worthy of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and their families?”
From this we can understand that Hagel has not softened his well-known resistance to a military operation against Iran. For him, the central mission is to prepare the defense system for the future, due to the worsening budgetary crisis. Deep cuts are required in civilian and military personnel, and wide-reaching changes are necessary in the internal balance of the system. Hagel has yet to deal with the biggest expenditures of them all, such as the separate existence of the Marine Corps and its 200,000 Marines.
Foreign military officers were also in attendance − just as Benny Gantz was when he studied there in the late 1990s.The IDF is not expected to give up its tanks, but their numbers can be reduced, and the number of armored formations can be reduced accordingly, since the missions have changed. The armored division was the spearhead of the expanding Israeli kingdom in the late 1960s. In order to triple and quadruple the size of the regular divisions, the length of mandatory service was extended. But whether the IDF focuses on defense missions, or prefers firing rather than finesse − from a campaign against Hezbollah to the renewed crisis with Egypt − it could do so with less armor. Much less, in fact.
In order to force the reorganization of a stubborn army, one of two things is required: a retired military leader with civic awareness and an esteemed defense pedigree, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower (whom Hagel praised during his speech), or a citizen unintimidated by disagreements with the military leadership.
Israel’s previous finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, took advantage − despite the resentment of the top brass − of a loophole in government decisions and cut the defense budget by NIS 6 billion for 2013-14. The new government can ratify the cut or change it. New Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a retired lieutenant general, is not the Hagel type. So far he has been conservative and stable, a man of the system. It is more natural to expect him to get into a confrontation with the government rather than his former subordinates. If he does not lead − together with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, or alone if Gantz refuses to cooperate − the way forward toward a streamlined military structure, it is quite possible that Ya’alon will not be the only defense minister in the current government.