What Price Safety?

In about a week, four officers responsible for investigating and preventing accidents in the Israel Defense Forces will meet with Brigadier General Danny Biton, head of the General Staff's doctrine and training division. The officers include two colonels - from the Air Force and the ground force - and two lieutenant colonels, from the Navy and the logistics department. Biton, who coordinated the investigations into the conduct of last summer's Lebanon war, can look forward to an hour of satisfaction. The presentations summing up 2006 will illustrate the continuing decline in the number of people injured in accidents (weapons, training, roads, work) and in the number of "friendly fire" casualties.

According to the statistics, the situation is so good that one begins to suspect it's bad: that the number of casualties has decreased because training no longer reflects realistic preparation for combat. What's gained by cautious exercising is lost in moments of truth. This approach was succinctly summed up - after the Sayeret Matkal's Tse'elim II accident in 1992 - by one of the unit's former commanders, Brigadier General (res.) Ran Shehor.

"The mission of the IDF is to win the next war. That cannot be accomplished without training, and training cannot be carried out without casualties. No distinction should be drawn between soldiers who fall in training versus soldiers who fall in battle. The former fell while serving their duty to build the IDF."

If the IDF disappointed in its performance in Lebanon, was one of the reasons for this the effort to save lives in combat preparation? Without saying so explicitly, this note accompanies the nostalgia of the retired generals - the sharpest critics of the 2006 IDF - for the good old army they knew, the one that was so wasteful and so self-destructive; a silent, masculine army, in which 89 soldiers were killed in accidents in 1978, compared to 29 last year. An army that, under the cover of heavy censorship whose pretext was concealing information from the enemy, and before the courts let bereaved families obtain details about the deaths of loved ones, hid serious facts from the public. What was not known did not kick up a furor, nor did it push senior figures out of their positions. Today less is happening inside but more is known outside, with a commensurate price to pay.

Take, for example, IDF deaths caused by friendly fire - Air Force versus Nahal Brigade, armor versus armor, artillery versus infantry. In the first week of the 1982 Lebanon War, about 200 IDF soldiers were killed. A quarter of them, 50, were casualties of friendly fire - which caused three out of every 10 casualties in that protracted war. Ori Orr, then GOC Central Command and later GOC Northern Command, investigated the situation, and found that this is the nature of war and that even if all the serious shortcomings were corrected, the phenomenon would never be totally eradicated. The 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, and the much more intense Lebanon war last year - in which 170,000 shells were fired - proved Orr was right in principle, but that in practice, a far-reaching change could be achieved. In those two operations, 6 percent of soldier fatalities fell to friendly fire. In Lebanon, all four casualties occurred in the last days of the fighting.

Incidents are investigated thoroughly by the three experienced officers of the Army Headquarters' safety and quality control department.

The reversal of the previous trend is attributed, in the wake of the shock caused by the Tse'elim II disaster, to the chief of staff at the time, Ehud Barak. He was not tempted to adopt the arguments of Ran Shehor and Doron Avital, the commander of Sayeret Matkal at the time of the disaster (he was not involved). The two of them maintained, "Training ahead of imminent operational activity must resemble what the fighter is liable to encounter during the operation. Otherwise the soldier's life will be in danger when he confronts this for the first time in the face of the enemy. Not taking these risks in training generally means shifting them to operational activity." For example, spreading out the training over a longer period to ease things for the soldiers is liable to cause the operation to be deferred to a time of year when the nights are shorter, thus increasing the risk of exposure and clashes.

The sovereignty granted to the Special Forces units of Sayeret Matkal, Shayetet 13 (Navy Commandos) and Shaldag (Air Force) under the cover of secrecy, compartmentalization and the aura of mysterious activity deep in enemy territory has ended. It turned out that strict concern for safety, formulating an exercise file and locating points of weakness have no adverse effect on the boldness and creativity that are supposed to characterize these units. The turnabout was total, to the point of being revolutionary; today the special units are considered the IDF's leaders in the realm of safety, too.

Officers with combat and safety experience are convinced the quality of the performance is not compromised. One says, "Today greater risks are taken, but in a calculated manner." According to old casualty figures from the Manpower Division, from 1978 to 1993 an average of 42 soldiers a year were killed in IDF accidents. That includes training, aerial, weapons and ammunition, work, operational and "military road" accidents - in other words, it does not include soldiers who were killed in road accidents while on leave.

That small difference changes the whole picture, because figures for the past seven years, in which an average of 37 soldiers annually were killed in accidents, include those killed while on leave - in the past year they accounted for two-thirds of the total, 19 of 29. The safest place for a soldier is still the army, under the responsibility of his or her commanding officers. On weekends, on the roads, the danger is extremely high.

The IDF takes pride in the fact that training accidents "are approaching zero" casualties, a particularly impressive achievement given that every night, thousands of soldiers train in the dark, both on foot and in vehicles.

The summary for the past year shows an upward thrust because it includes soldiers who were killed while off-duty in criminal incidents. Seventeen were wounded in weapons accidents, and the number suspected of deliberately harming themselves increased. This phenomenon is particularly glaring in a certain village in the north. Four soldiers from the village, including new recruits, discharged a bullet into a toe or hip. They did not do this to get out of army service, but to be considered disabled soldiers and as such entitled to a car (the village mode is a red BMW) and an allowance of thousands of shekels a month. Now the Military Police has also begun to take an interest in the phenomenon.

The steep decline in ground force accidents can be seen as a positive imitation of the Air Force's sober-minded approach. For at least a quarter of a century, combat pilots were wild men. Outgoing Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, during his tenure as Air Force commander, said, "Preserving human life precedes every exercise or training mission. From the 1960s until the 1980s, flight safety was low; the risks in the flying profession were not internalized, and there was a mistaken conception that this was the price of uncompromising quality."

"Today society is different," said Major General Ido Nehushtan. "It preserves and cultivates its precious assets - people and equipment. Today the mission is qualitative performance while preserving the force. We don't want pilots who memorize the regulations and fly only with the desire to return safely, but neither do we want wild, dangerous pilots who care only about their mission. We want to develop boldness and tenacity, but also strictness and order."

In the year before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, 30 planes were lost - one-tenth of the Air Force. In the war itself, at least one Air Force Phantom was downed by an Israeli Mirage plane. That was an extreme, but typical, year. In 1980 there were only six accidents in wintry weather, 11 members of air crews were killed and seven planes lost. Until the end of the 1980s there were one or two collisions a year in training for dogfights: 12 collisions, five killed, 17 fighter planes scrapped.

The dangerous training created a superb air force, perhaps the best of its kind in the world, but also threatened its force preservation for war. In the past two decades the slogan has been "Don't die in training" - save the self-sacrifice for the real thing. Since then combat aircraft have collided only once, in 1995. The old average of 25 planes a year lost has decreased since 2000 to zero to two, despite a crowded arena - nearly 1,000 aircraft, military and civilian, and a great many long and tiring night sorties. The year 2006 is considered an exception - four accidents, three due to the war - and one of the accidents, of the Apache Longbow helicopter, is the subject of a controversy between the Air Force and Boeing, the helicopter's manufacturer. The lessons of the Yassur helicopter disaster have been fully applied, apart from one, for which no solution has yet been found: In a flight formation, there is no system capable of providing advance wa rning that two helicopters are getting dangerously close.

The Air Force's supreme mission to "leave people and equipment alive" between wars has thrust Israel into the forefront of aerial safety among the armed forces in the West, alongside the Americans and the British. Accidents have decreased greatly, but their causes have not changed. In three out of every five accidents, the cause has been found to be "personal, air crew," meaning the pilot is responsible. Investigations are carried out not only of air incidents but also of work, maintenance and road mishaps. The Air Force, like the safety and quality control department, is not nostalgic for the good old wild days, when soldiers dropped like flies and the mind-numbed public cheered the distinguished commanders. It's also known that there is no place for complacency when training for long flights, sometimes lasting 10 or 12 hours; and that it's important to be meticulous about nutrition and rest. Training is also carried out with other air forces. The risks lurk at every moment, at the home base and in the skies.