On July 11, 2006 Ehud Olmert met with the IDF General Staff at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Olmert had been elected prime minister a few months earlier and had come to meet Israel's generals, to hear about their work and listen to their concerns. The elections had been partly about social issues and the IDF feared that after several years of gradual cuts to its budget, more were on the way. Some of the generals told Olmert that not only could the military not cut its budget, it actually needed more money. One went as far as to call the IDF a "hollow" army due to the dramatic drop in training. But Olmert rejected the arguments and told the generals that they would have to make do with what they had. No more money, he said, was available.
The next morning, just before 10 am, Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel from Lebanon, attacked a military convoy and abducted two IDF reservists: Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Olmert decided to respond and Israel embarked on the 34-day Second Lebanon War. Needless to say, the defense budget was never cut back in 2006. On the contrary, after the war, the IDF received a major boost to its budget to purchase new platforms and to reinstitute a new intensive training regimen for its active and reserve forces.
Seven years later, it seems we are back in the same place, although this time there might be an opportunity to use the pending cuts to institute structural reforms and much-needed change within the IDF.
According to a government decision last month, the defense budget for 2013 will be cut by about $400 million. The budget will be cut by another $400 million in 2014 and reach a low of NIS 51.5 billion ($14 billion) but will then enter a steady climb in the following years until it reaches NIS 59 billion ($16 billion) in 2018.
While the IDF first said they were prepared for the cuts to contribute to covering Israel's deficit, it has since made a point of dramatizing the consequences of cuts, embarking on what some might refer to as a "fear campaign."
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz announced that training and call-up orders for reservists would be cancelled for the remainder of the year.
In addition, the IDF has said that it will fire about 4,000 career servicemen, close several units, combine air force squadrons and cut back on education workshops for active units. The planned procurement of new aircraft like the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey approved recently for export by the Pentagon is also in jeopardy.
Most worrisome are, of course, the cuts to training, which are also expected to soon begin to impact the IDF’s active infantry and armored units. As a result, former generals are warning that Israel is repeating the mistakes that led to the failures of 2006.
“Our region is undergoing a major upheaval and the thing we need to ensure is that the core units designated to protect us are ready,” retired general Amos Yaron said on Israel’s Army Radio. Yaron’s criticism was not directed at Gantz or at new Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon but rather at the government.
The defense budget is a complicated issue. There is no question that there is room for the IDF to balance its books, to tighten its belt and chip in to covering the large national deficit. But the question is whether now is the right time. Syria is in the midst of a civil war that is already spilling over into Israel; Hezbollah is openly fighting in Syria; Iran is continuing its pursuit of nuclear power and Hamas is continuing to bolster its capabilities in the Gaza Strip. Is now the time to cut back on IDF training?
There is, however, a substantial difference between 2013 and 2006. Israel today does not face a real threat from an enemy capable of invading and conquering the country. While the threats Israel faces are grave, none of them really consist of a conventional military that can take on the IDF.
Syria’s military is barely managing against lightly-armed rebels and Egypt, which Israel has peace with and where the quality of the military is often questioned, has domestic economic challenges that will keep it busy for years to come. The purpose and need for the old-fashioned tank divisions the IDF still keeps in storage is no longer as clear. The same questions apply to some of the Air Force’s older combat squadrons.
This is not to say that the IDF does not need ground forces. It does. But it needs forces that have the most advanced technology, which can maneuver quickly through enemy terrain when fighting against enemies like Hamas and Hezbollah.
While the cuts will go through, the government should use this opportunity to finally decide what type of military it really wants and needs to deal with the current and future challenges it faces in the Middle East.
Does the IDF need to continue drafting every 18-year-old Israeli? For years, consecutive commissions have recommended trimming the IDF’s size but no defense minister has agreed to take the bold steps to make this happen. Instead, they decide every once in a while to shorten the length of the service and then, if the strategic situation changes, it goes back to 3 years.
Now, though, there seems to be a real opportunity. As chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, Yaalon began a process of trimming the IDF and trying to create a lighter but still aggressive and powerful force. With the changes to the region and the need for financial reforms, Yaalon might be able to continue now what he started over ten years ago.
Generals, it is said, are often guilty of preparing for the last war. Israel now has the opportunity to change that.