Faced with no credible threat from a standing army and a massive national budget deficit, the IDF on Wednesday unveiled a series of proposed cuts and re-organizations which would slash career soldier positions, old tank and artillery units and even flight squadrons.
IDF representatives are to meet with the defense budget committee in the Knesset on July 21 for a pivotal hearing, 10 days before the final July 31 voting deadline on the national budget. Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz indicated on Wednesday that the army will present a plan that will save seven billion shekels (some $1.9 billion) over the coming five years.
In order to do so the army will retire some of its ancient Patton tanks and M109 artillery cannons – neither of which are particularly relevant to the modern battlefield, where Israel’s enemies are often embedded among civilian populations. The army will further propose shutting several air squadrons and naval units and forcing the retirement of 3,000-5,000 career soldiers over the course of five years.
Channel 2’s military analyst, Roni Daniel, called the cuts and the re-shuffling – which includes the construction of a new division guarding the Golan Heights – “a reform unlike any other since (the army’s) inception.”
That would seem to be a stretch. In the seventies, after the Yom Kippur War, the defense budget represented 28.7 percent of the GDP. In 1984, after the peace deal with Egypt took hold, the defense budget was cut to 19.2 percent of the GDP and in 2012 it represented a mere 6.7 percent.
The 2013 budget, which passed a first vote in the Knesset in May, calls for a three-billion-shekel cut (some $820 million) in the defense budget, winnowing it down to 58.4 billion shekels – part of a six-year plan that calls for significant growth in 2016-2018.
Public discourse on the nature of the budget and the manner in which it addresses future threats is hobbled by the need for secrecy. For instance, while it is known that the Defense Ministry intends to spend 6.8 billion shekels on pension funds, 3.3 billion shekels on rehabilitation and 1.6 billion shekels on payments to the families of the fallen and memorialization in 2014, the majority of the budget, some 32.7 billion shekels, is classified.
Two recent flagship projects, however, both representing large chunks of the budget, have come in for rare criticism. In January, former prime minister Ehud Olmert called Israel’s recent purchase of a sixth Dolphin-class submarine, for a base fee of $500 million, “a megalomaniacal purchase that was done on a whim.”
The submarine can, according to international news reports, carry nuclear weapons.
The F-35 fighter plane, at roughly $150 million per unit, plays an even more central role in the budget. A single squadron will cost the tax payer some $2.8 billion. Three squadrons, which the IDF has indicated it may seek, along with all of the additional costs of outfitting and maintaining the new plane, might cost $15 billion. And yet one former defense minister, Moshe Arens, an aeronautical engineer by profession, said the purchase had not been carefully considered or come up for any true scrutiny. “I’ve said it’s a mistake and I’ve said it many, many times,” Arens told Channel 2 News in March.
Citing a series of delays and problems with the plane, alongside its price and its percentage of the annual US military aid, Arens said “there are a lot of questions that are worthy of discussion but it is entirely unclear that that has happened.”
“The 2013-2014 budget is forcing us to carry out difficult measures in terms of the army’s readiness and operations,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had told The Marker last month. “We are doing it responsibly and judiciously but also with great concern and a heavy heart, because the threats have not diminished, they have just changed,” he added.
Gantz, speaking in early June, said the current fiscal reality created challenging circumstances for the IDF but promised that the army would contribute its share to the national belt-tightening. “We are not something apart from Israeli society. We are Israeli society,” he said.