When the highest official of the defense establishment spoke about the size of the defense budget last week, he said, “An army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy. It is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready.” His conclusion was that the budget must be cut back and the army downsized. These logical statements showed that he had understood the financial predicament and realized that the army had grown out of all proportion.
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Unfortunately, it was not Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon who made these statements, but the American secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel.
And that is where the difference lies. While the officials in charge of U.S. security work from a comprehensive outlook on national security and do not shrink from scrutinizing and criticizing the army, among us defense ministers represent the army first and foremost, and their worldview is derived from the Israeli army’s perceptions and demands. These statements are particularly true when the defense minister is a retired general, and apply all the more when he served as chief of staff before taking office.
That is how Hagel can announce a cutback of $75 billion in the American defense budget, a personnel reduction of 80,000 troops and the retiring of the entire fleet of A-10 “Warthog” tank-busting aircraft (at a savings of $3.5 billion) and U-2 spy planes.
But here? Minister Ya’alon accepts, without question, the army’s position (after all, he advanced the lion’s share of these positions himself when he was chief of staff) that taking 50-year-old tanks out of service would cause irreparable harm to security, among other things.
This state of affairs leads to the predictable failure of attempts to reduce the defense budget. When the defense minister says that national security will be compromised if the budget is reduced, what member of the coalition or Knesset will dare challenge him? That is how the defense budget swells as questions such as Hagel’s remain unasked: Isn’t the army too large in relation to the security challenges it must cope with, and isn’t its exaggerated size the reason it cannot be modernized properly?
This is also how a defective decision-making process regarding the budget becomes entrenched. As the Knesset vote on the state budget approaches, the army “agrees” to consider the situation and resign itself to cutbacks (NIS 3 billion in the 2014 budget). The finance minister brags about a “precedent-setting” budget cut, but army officials and employees of the defense minister’s bureau smile and wink. They know that before too long, not only will the budget cut be restored, but the army will also receive a significant addition to the original budget.
Indeed, less than two months went by this year before the army received a supplement of NIS 3 billion, and the budget cutback vanished without a trace. But the farce did not end there. This year has just begun, and the supplements to the budget will surely be making their appearance.
When I spoke with a high-ranking security official involved in putting together the defense budget, he expressed complete confidence that the army would receive even more billions during the year. “We will tell the ministers that we can provide much less security than in the past, and that they must decide whether they can accept that. It is obvious to me what the decision will be,” he told me with a smile. “You need to understand that this year, the army has NIS 10 billion less available in this budget than two years ago.”
When I wondered how this could be, when the defense budget is larger, in real terms, than the budget for 2012, his explanation was not all that convincing. But it is precisely what the ministers and MKs hear, not only from the generals but also from the defense minister, so they hurry to approve supplements to bridge the “gap” of NIS 10 billion. A budget cutback? For Hagel, yes, but for Ya’alon, absolutely not.