Second-guessing Israel's Army Budget

How much security are we getting for our money? The vagueness of the strategic threats that serve as the basis for the IDF's budgetary demands makes it ever more hard to tell - for the layman.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

We understand numbers. We raise a ruckus when the army receives an additional NIS 2.75 billion. Those in the know, and those less in the know, have a hundred suggestions of where to cut. Like a group of dietitians, they take out their calipers to pinch the sides of the military pot belly, calculate the percentage of fat and recommend a slow or drastic diet that will result in the creation of an army that is well-built, muscular and efficient.

But the debate over the army’s hip measurements obscures the only sphere we don’t understand. How much security are we getting for our money, and how good is it? Unlike other fields such as education or health care, there is no way to measure the concept of “security.” The same army we trust with our eyes closed, which states on the insurance policy it gave us that it is “prepared for any possible scenario,” is the very army that we do not trust when it comes to its budget.

It is obvious that the army does not need to give cars to low-ranking officers, nor is there any need for the soldiers who fill the General Staff camp, looking as though their purpose is to walk its pathways as though they were extras in a Cecil B. DeMille film. Every reservist is familiar with the sweet hours of sleep that follow signing for equipment as they wait for someone to tell them what to do. But those observations do not require much wisdom.

How many tanks does the army need? Does it need F-35 fighter jets that can fly as far as Iran? Can our sophisticated intelligence agencies tell us when the war is going to break out? Does the enormous investment in the Home Front Command ensure that the key to the bomb shelter will be available, or that the Iron Dome system will intercept everything it is supposed to intercept? How many annual training days are required to prepare a suitable military response, and do the thousands of troops protecting the settlements really fulfill their purpose? There is no convincing answer to any of these questions. The citizens are asked to pay and trust.

The series of strategic threats that serves as the basis for the budgetary demands is also so vague that it is hard to make a connection between it and the amount of money being demanded. We are told that tens of thousands of rockets are aimed at Israel, but we are not told that most of those rockets will be destroyed in the first stage if they are ever fired from their launchers. We are not told whether the armies of Jordan, Syria, Iraq or Egypt are preparing an attack. Instead, we are spoken to in the opaque language of “scenarios” and predictions.

It is true that there is no way to test our defense capability except when we are at war. There is also no exact way to test how much of a deterrent is needed to prevent war. Countries have gone to war even when they took on a state with enormous deterrent strength or when they had fewer troops than the enemy. The strength of a country’s “private” army is no longer a criterion for deterrence. Who that country’s allies are, the amount of international legitimacy it has managed to mobilize, the resilience of its citizens, its economic power, the wisdom of its leadership and its historical record of managing wars are a safety belt of vital fundamentals that every country tries to buckle around itself.

None of these things can be measured in money. The public is left to judge and critique only after the fact. Did the Second Lebanon War end in victory or defeat? Was Operation Cast Lead an accomplishment, and if so, why was Operation Pillar of Defense necessary? And what about the first Lebanon war? And the Yom Kippur War? Has the army’s deterrent power made Iran back down on its nuclear program?

There is no argument that the additional three to four billion shekels being given to the army is not small change. But the debate over this money is like a person buying a car asking whether magnesium wheels and leather upholstery are necessary, or whether he could make do with less. And what about the car’s quality? He does not ask about it. After all, the car has only one previous owner: the chief of staff.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz with paratroopers, July 2013.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

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