The Army Wants You - for a Second Career

If more experience than ever before is needed to fulfill top IDF roles, why is the army retirement age so low?

The Israel Defense Forces is getting older. Chiefs of staff used to be appointed in their 40s. Now they are at least 50. Yoav Galant, the next chief of staff, is 52. Incumbent Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was appointed at age 53.

This is logical and appropriate. Since the position is demanding more complex and difficult responsibilities, the chief of staff needs experience in a number of fields, as a general on the front and at army headquarters. This takes time, of course. But what applies to the chief of staff should also apply to all the other posts in the military, including the less senior ones. Thus it was especially disappointing to hear about the deal struck between the Finance Ministry and the IDF over the retirement age in the military.

After fighting over the matter for several years, the sides agreed last week that the "average" retirement age would be raised from 45.5 to 50, as part of a gradual, 19-year process. In other words, it will go into effect in 2029.

This deal is too little, too late. It is clearly a capitulation to pressure by the army. The treasury demanded that the minimum retirement age for non-combat soldiers - 80 percent of the career army - be raised from 42 to 57. Indeed, why should an army economist working in army headquarters in Tel Aviv be entitled to a pension for 38 years, presuming a life expectancy of 80, after only 21 years as a career soldier? The treasury also demanded that the minimum retirement age for combat soldiers, the remaining 20 percent, be raised from 42 to 46. These are certainly reasonable demands.

Ultimately, however, the retirement age for combat troops remained unchanged (42 ) while the retirement age for support staff for combat troops will be raised to 45 or 46. The retirement age for soldiers serving on the home front will be raised to 48. All of this is far from what the treasury had intended.

Why can police officers serve in the force until age 57? After all, policemen have much more physically demanding jobs than soldiers on the home front or in technical departments. Police officers disperse demonstrations, pursue thieves and fight criminals. But police officers do not enjoy the backing of the strongest labor union in Israel - the IDF's personnel directorate.

The personnel directorate's multiple-year battle against any attempt to raise the retirement age stems from the IDF worldview of a "double career." Officers in the standing army view their military service as one long "preparation" for a second career as civilians. Thus they make every effort to take on as many jobs as possible, both in the professional sense as well as in command posts, so that they will be more "worthy" in the civilian market once they retire.

An officer in the Ordnance Corps may become a unit commander at a base. Then he may decide to become commander of a weapons research division at army headquarters. Since officers want to fill as many roles as possible, the IDF reduced the standard amount of time per post to only two and a half years. This way, officers can add at least two significant posts to their resume and retire into the civilian marketplace at age 42.

IDF officers currently engage in a great deal of interaction with the business sector. Officers who are assigned to develop unmanned aerial vehicles form relationships with companies like Elbit and Israel Military Industries. Ordnance Corps officers maintain connections with IMI; Logistics Corps officers share ties with food companies; an officer responsible for the provision and maintenance of military vehicles works with leasing companies. Everybody begins planning their post-retirement career years before their last day in the army. This, however, is liable to adversely impact the soundness of their decisions.

The end result of this rat race hurts the IDF. The short amount of time each person holds each post means much of their service is spent learning the ropes and getting adjusted. The minute they begin to understand how it works, they are already on to their next position.

Thus, it is in the IDF's interest to raise the retirement age. But since this is diametrically opposed to the interest of the officers, an agreement was signed last week that was primarily good for officers, but not so good for the army.

Perhaps there is a silver lining here. If the new chief of staff decides to increase the amount of time each officer must hold a post, the IDF would become more professional, its output would increase, and it would be possible to better utilize the officers' knowledge and experience.

Galant is 52. He is slated to finish his term at 56. So he would certainly agree that life does not end at 50, not even in the IDF.