June 10, 2014:
The Israeli military leadership and the elected officials who run the country are increasingly feuding in a very public fashion over continuing cuts in the defense budget. The latest manifestation of this is the air force commander ordering a halt in all training flights unless the government provided the air force with another $830 million. This was backed by the head of the armed forces who warned that the latest round of budget cuts (for 2015), amounting to over a billion dollars, was going too far and threatened Israel’s ability to defend itself. The politicians counter with accusations that the military has been wasteful and there are more economies that can be made without imperiling security. Pro-military members of parliament are backing the refusal of the generals to accept the latest cuts. In 2013 the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) had a budget of $14.5 billion. This is about what Iran spends, although dwarfed by Saudi Arabia’s $60 billion dollars. Yet the Israeli defense budget is larger than all other Arab neighbors and the majority of politicians feel the new cuts (proposals range from six percent to nearly 10 percent) are justified. The IDF wants a seven percent increase.
Like most other industrialized nations, Israeli government spending on social programs (favored by politicians to keep themselves in office) has increased since the end of the Cold War in 1991, and defense spending has declined. For Israel this meant military spending declined from 17.7 percent of GDP in 1991, to under six percent now. So, despite a booming economy, cuts have to be made and that has the military planning accordingly. Despite the decline in defense budgets as a percent of GDP, rapid GDP growth has generally kept the defense budget growing in absolute terms. Thus, the defense budget in 1991 was $6.4 billion (about $10 billion adjusted for inflation). But the military has also had to deal with inflation when buying equipment or paying its full time troops.
For most of the last two decades the IDF did not fight political decisions to cut defense spending this vigorously. Instead the IDF tried to use the cuts as an opportunity to shrink and restructure the military to make it more effective. This often works but not always, especially when so many interest groups were opposing the changes. Taking the military budget down to something closer to $12 billion would involve a lot of changes and opposition within the military grew over the past few years.
One of the more obvious changes was shutting down most of the military bases in the coastal cities, selling the land for what it is now worth (a lot) and moving the troops to four new mega-bases in the thinly populated interior. Other reorganization moves disbanded air force squadrons using elderly aircraft (so that the more modern planes can keep their pilots well trained). Reserve army units, some of them existing out of habit or tradition more than need or relevance, were disbanded or shrunk. This included several armored brigades using older tanks (M-60s and Merkava 1s). The growing use of smart bombs and guided missiles has made a lot of older artillery weapons obsolete and the guns and the troops who man them will go.
Another trend the reorganization took advantage of was the declining need for calling up for active service. Reservists are being called up less often since the 1990s. In that period reservist active duty has dropped 75 percent (from 10 million man-months to 2.5 million). There will also be changes in training and administration that will require less manpower and money. Politicians are also scrutinizing pensions and benefits for senior officers, which have crept up in the last few decades. There are new restrictions on retired generals from becoming politicians right after they retire. In short, the Israeli military has already gone through a lot of changes but now the generals are refusing to continue living with more cuts.
The Israeli military has already undergone several reorganizations since 2000. After the Palestinians began their terror campaign in 2000 (to try and sweeten the terms of a peace deal), the Israelis developed new counter-terror tactics and turned much of the military into a counter-terrorism organization. The Palestinian terror effort was defeated within five years, but the army suffered a major embarrassment in 2006, when Hezbollah pushed its cross-border terrorism a bit too far and triggered some more conventional combat. This revealed that the Israeli military had become good at counter-terrorism at the cost of many of its conventional warfare skills. The Israelis still defeated Hezbollah but the details revealed that the Israelis could have done it better and faster. Since 2006 there’s been a rebalancing to make the military capable of dealing with the continuing terror threat, as well as the prospect of more conventional combat in Lebanon (or with any of the other neighbors). The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, crippled most Arab armed forces, causing damage that may take a decade or more to repair. There’s still an Arab military threat to Israel, just not as much of it for a while.
The problem with these reorganizations is that you never know if they will work (or exactly how well) until there’s another crises or war. That said, the Israelis tend to learn from past mistakes and have a pretty good track record (compared to all other nations) when it comes to military reform. But the years of cuts have, according to a lot of senior commanders, left few more places to cut without, in their estimation, doing irreparable damage. In the end the politicians will win, but the generals want to make their case as clear and public as possible.