Many distinguished military figures are blasting the slimmed-down Israel Defense Forces budget and reform program in the two weeks since they were unveiled by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny.
The defense budget cutback of 1$ billion per year and attendant reforms were dictated by –
1. The deep, across-the-board 20-25% reduction of the state budget in order to start bridging the national debt, support the Israeli shekel, head off high inflation, keep unemployment low and make Israeli exports more competitive.
2. The changing military risks facing Israel from across its borders in the Middle East. It was decided that since the Arab Revolt overtook many parts of the region, Israel no longer faces the danger of aggression by large, conventional Arab armies.
The Egyptian armed forces are fully engaged in domestic upheaval, it is argued, and only this month executed a coup d’etat. In any case, they are starved of financial resources for embarking on full-scale war. The Syrian army is mired in a brutal civil conflict and the Iraqi army has no air force and is in any case hamstrung by raging sectarian strife.
3. The nature of war is swiftly changing. In keeping with contemporary demands, Ya'alon and Gantz decided to use budget cuts to introduce a radical reform program, under which the Israeli military would virtually junk hundreds of ageing heavy tanks, shut down mechanized infantry units and take outdated fighter plane squadrons requiring upgrading out of service.
Junking old tanks, airplanes and ground units for new technology
Instead, they plan to switch the IDF’s operational focus to highly-mobile special units with greater operational flexibility, a modernized air force, special covert intelligence units to feed the new forces and emphasis on cyber offensive and defensive systems.
DEBKA Weekly's military sources add: One complete armored division is destined to go by the board, along with two mechanized infantry brigades, and two F-15 fighter-bomber squadrons. The drastic reduction in training for reservists will affect the combat readiness of 70 reserve battalions.
Many senior officers and military experts are up in arms about these reforms.
The most common rebuttal relates to the poor timing for slashing Israel’s military leverage. The Syrian conflict has brought Iranian and Hizballah armies closer than ever before to Israel’s northeastern border, they say, and there is no knowing which way this conflict will eventually head.
Other critics have no issue with the principle of reform but urge the closure of units to be executed in slow stages, so that in the event of need posed by sudden aggression from Syria or Hizballah, the process can be reversed on the spot and the units put back into service.
Those are the moderates. Harsher critics are in the majority: They argue that there is no such thing as partially dismantling a unit or reversing the process halfway through.
Slashing ground forces exposes Israel to disaster unarmed
Shutting down a tank division means stopping the production lines of the Israel-made Merkava (Chariot) 3 and 4 tanks, laying off hundreds of workers specializing in tank manufacture and dismissing technical maintenance crews.
This process cannot be stopped on a dime or reversed in an instant.
Former Israeli National Security Adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland said this week it would take five years to rebuild a unit and restore it to operational service. That’s a very long time in the Middle East, he remarked, where things tend to change suddenly in the space of weeks or even days.
Dispensing with essential conventional units, he warned, would leave the IDF vulnerable to being caught unready by a typical Middle East surprise.
Eiland was strongly backed by Brig. Gen. (res) Moshe Tamir, one of the IDF’s notable field commanders, who said the reform program plan would leave Israel without credible land forces for warding off a disastrous attack. Israel will have given away a vital component for deciding any war, the capacity to confront an enemy by seizing his territory. It would be a bad mistake, said Gen. Tamir, to invest in a modernized air force, military intelligence and cyber warfare while dismantling land units and tank outfits.
The strategic rationale offered by Ya’alon and Gantz for slashing Israel’s armed forces is strongly attacked by other critics on several grounds:
– The argument that the leading Arab armies are in no state to embark on sudden aggression against Israel has been disproved in the past. There have been times, especially 40 years ago, when several Arab armies ganged up for a surprise war on Israel, under Soviet influence and using Russian arms.
Russia is dabbling once again in Arab decision-making and supplying them with weapons.
Iran, Hizballah and al Qaeda are very much still around
– Claiming that the key Arab armies are falling apart is no argument either. In the 1967 Six-Day War, the Egyptian and Syrian armies were totally routed, yet six years later, they had recovered sufficiently to launch the bigger, more dangerous and costlier 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Today, it would take them less time to recover. There is no guarantee that seemingly unthreatening hostile armies won’t bide their time until Israel has fully implemented its reform program and then, in say, 5-6 years, emerge as strong and effective forces ready to fight again. It has happened before.
– In all their calculations, Ya'alon and Gantz are neglecting to take into account Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Hizballah, which today ranks as a professional, combat-ready armed force. In the balance, the IDF still holds the edge. Still, although a surprise Hizballah attack on northern Israel would not endanger Israel's very survival, it could cause serious casualties and destroy strategic assets and infrastructure.
– The IDF is underestimating the magnitude of the military threat facing Israel from Al Qaeda forces gathering in Syria and Sinai. As soon as the second half of 2013, Israel might find itself up against situations there of the kind faced by the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Special forces and high technology are no answer for this kind of war, only conventional units like the ones Israel’s war planners are planning to dump.