Pilots Versus Peacocks

Without admitting it directly, however, when it comes to centralized control of the budget, the larger IDF - the one that also continues to function as the ground army - is imitating the aerial branch.

The cost of training a combat pilot in the Israel Air Force is NIS 22 million. That is the price tag for a three-year program, including a bachelor's degree and then advanced training after the pilot gets his wings. When this is finished, the State of Israel has at its disposal an aerial warrior capable of flying to the ends of the earth.

Once this cost has been absorbed, it is more efficient to use fully trained pilots who have signed up for 10 years of service, and to limit training of the next generation. The pilots and navigators of Israel's combat squadrons include career officers, those who belong to its emergency back-up force and those on active reserve duty. The emergency back-ups, who spend most of the week "piloting" desks in the operations, intelligence or training departments, are the cheapest to put into action.

And here is the scandal: All these youngsters enjoy a challenging and satisfying job that puts them into F-16s, F-15s, Apache Longbows and Black Hawks, enables them to bask in the joys of flight and lets them practice destroying nuclear installations throughout the region. And not only are they not charged for the pleasure; they are even paid for it! Squadron leaders - lieutenant colonels who personally lead their teams of pilots on the most dangerous missions - earn over NIS 20,000 per month!

But on top of this purposeful and focused aerial organization, the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry have imposed complex, clumsy bureaucracies. Every pilot - and also every trained land or naval warrior, intelligence code-breaker or genius in technological development - supports a peacock: an officer who glories in his uniform and his symbols of status, seniority and rank. Not that the IAF is perfect. It is still too inclined to cling to its combat-pilot heritage.

Two months ago, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ousted the commander of his air force and, for the first time, appointed a cargo pilot in his stead, the reasons for his decision included internal organizational culture clashes. For instance, the U.S. Air Force insisted that unmanned aerial vehicles be operated only by pilots and navigators who had earned their wings.

In order to break the combat pilots' outdated monopoly, Gates had to carry out an internal revolution and bring in the cargo general Norton Schwartz. But even though Schwartz is Jewish, he is able to command only the U.S. Air Force, not the Israeli one. The combat pilots used to tell their counterparts in the General Staff that "to be a shepherd, you don't have to be a sheep." But heaven forbid that a helicopter or cargo pilot, however fine a commander he may be, should dare to stand at the head of the IAF. Only now, with the transfer of the air force's Lod base to Nevatim - which will be commanded by Brig. Gen. Eden Attias, a cargo pilot who will have combat squadrons reporting to him - will the cargo squadrons finally be represented in the IAF's top echelons.

Yet for all the air force's flaws, its management model could save the petrified IDF. However, this idea, which was embodied by Dan Halutz's appointment as IDF chief of staff, died with his resignation. Current chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi has rolled back the changes introduced by Halutz, and all that remains of his predecessor's term is greater personal and organizational familiarity between the various commands, branches and General Staff directorates, and the IAF personnel who served in the Planning Directorate and have now returned to key positions in the air force: its commander, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, and the head of its procurement department, Brig. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer.

Without admitting it directly, however, when it comes to centralized control of the budget, the larger IDF - the one that also continues to function as the ground army - is imitating the aerial branch. The spearhead of this effort is an energetic and sophisticated officer, Brig. Gen. Maharan Prosenfer, 42. He was appointed last year to the dual role of the chief of staff's financial adviser and the head of the Defense Ministry's budget division. He knows how to both feed the security monster and defend against it. His predecessors made do with a title that reflected their substance: giving advice. But Prosenfer, as the chief budgetary officer, will be the professional supervisor of all the other budget officers. He will thus be the chief of staff's long - and tight-fisted - arm with regard to oversight, control and restraint.

Rehabilitating disabled IDF vets (as well as those of the police - often, due to illnesses that stem from age - and those of the Shin Bet and Mossad agencies) costs NIS 4 billion a year. An attractive retirement plan - which will not save money this year, but only in the future - is easier to offer to Defense Ministry bureaucrats than to people in uniform. Officers and others with needed professional expertise will be enticed with grants to stay on for limited terms of service following the end of their compulsory service, in order to save the costs of training those behind them in line. A compound of training bases in the Negev will be built and managed by civilian contractors, with an eye to economic efficiency.

But the crisis from which the IDF and affiliated agencies are suffering is not material; it is one of spirit and values. If they were imbued with esprit de corps and a sense of excellence, they would make do with the salaries and service conditions of the 1990s. After all, things were really not so bad back then.