Defense minister backs IDF in squabble over preparedness for war

Liberman says military in best shape since 1967, as ombudsman warns that streamlining has hurt combat readiness

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with senior IDF officers during an exercise simulating warfare in the Gaza Strip on July 17, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with senior IDF officers during an exercise simulating warfare in the Gaza Strip on July 17, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday defended the military against accusations that it was unprepared for war but acknowledged that the army had some “problems.”

In recent months, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, formally known as the chief complaints officer in the Defense Ministry, has led a campaign warning of deep problems in the Israel Defense Forces, which he said were in large part the result of the army’s ongoing streamlining effort, the Gideon Plan.

The IDF top brass has largely dismissed Brick’s assertions, maintaining that the military was fighting fit. However, in light of the growing calls for an investigation into the ombudsman’s claims, the IDF launched an internal review of its preparedness for war.

Liberman had kept out of the squabble until Tuesday, when he sided with the IDF against Brick, saying the army was at its highest level of readiness since the 1967 Six Day War.

In a big machine there will always be problems, it will never be ideal

“As someone who knows it well, we are in the peak preparedness,” Liberman said.

“It’s not that there aren’t problems. You have a giant machine with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, tens of thousands of vehicles — from planes to armored personnel carriers — and sniper rifles. In a big machine there will always be problems, it will never be ideal,” he said.

Brick, who is soon due to end his 10-year tenure in the position, has released two extensive reports to the IDF top brass and senior lawmakers about the issue and called on the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to investigate the matter.

The defense minister acknowledged that Brick had legitimate criticisms of the military in his dire reports, but disagreed with his conclusions.

“I read his report and I spoke with Brick more than once. He was important points. But I think he’s wrong about one main thing — IDF preparedness for war. I’m saying this not just because it’s what I think, but as someone who has spent decades in the security cabinet,” Liberman said.

“I think we need to take it seriously, but at the end of the day, I think he missed the mark… When I compare us to previous years, since 1967 there hasn’t been a level of preparedness as high as today,” he added.

Brick’s reports said the army’s decision to cut the number of career soldiers and change how it decides whom to offer career positions to were negatively affecting the quality and quantity of the IDF’s manpower, among other criticisms.

Eisenkot has rejected these concerns, but ordered a panel to investigate the claims in light of the repeated warnings, the military said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at Glilot military base near Tel Aviv, March 28, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The committee, created under the auspices of IDF Comptroller Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari, will be led by retired general Avi Mizrachi and will be made up of senior officers in the reserves.

The army said the committee will work “transparently and in cooperation with all units of the IDF.” It was given 45 days to investigate the ombudsman’s claims.

In the statement, Eisenkot stressed that he still believed that the IDF’s “preparedness and fitness for combat and victory are high.”

Brick has faced criticism that he was overstepping his bounds as the types of issues raised are not within the purview of his position, which is to review outside complaints about the army.

In a possible reference to Brick’s outsider status, Eisenkot said the new committee’s investigation would be conducted “in a professional manner and with the wide and deep evaluation tools that are in the hands of official auditor figures, including the IDF comptroller.”

IDF Ombudsman Yitzhak Brick poses with a copy of his annual report on May 28, 2017. (Defense Ministry)

The internal probe could be seen as an attempt by the army to head off any possible external investigation by the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee.

Earlier this month, Eisenkot assured lawmakers on the committee that the military was prepared to fight a war under any scenario.

“The IDF is at a high level of preparedness and readiness for war with regard to any threat,” Eisenkot wrote in a letter to members of the security cabinet and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

An F-35 fighter jet takes off from the Nevatim Air Base in central Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

“As the person responsible for the army’s readiness for war, I declare that IDF is prepared for any mission required of it,” he added in the letter, which was attached to a classified report.

Eisenkot went on to hail the military’s “intelligence and aerial superiority, ground capabilities and abundant operational experience, which is tested daily at all the theaters of war.”

Brick focused much of criticism on the manpower changes made in recent years under the IDF’s Gideon Plan, which the military started rolling out in 2016.

Under the plan, the number of career soldiers was significantly scaled back, with officers being reviewed when they reach the ages of 28, 35 and 42. At those times, if the officer does not appear to be heading for promotion, he or she is drummed out of the military.

According to Brick, that “up or out” policy is having a negative impact on the army’s ability to function.

“The army’s decisions will be based on compromise, and military service will become service by mediocre officers,” he wrote.

An illustrative photo of Israeli reserve soldiers take part in a training drill in Baf Lachish army base in southern Israel, on December 22, 2016. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

The ombudsman said the military’s decision to cut back the number of positions for career soldiers as part of the Gideon Plan has negatively affected the army’s ability to wage war in a number of ways.

The plan, which was announced in late 2015, cut the number of career soldiers down to less than 40,000. “The idea is to create a younger military,” an IDF officer said at the time. “One that is slimmer, stronger, more focused, better trained.”

The cuts to the number of career officers, along with the recent decrease in the amount of time that male soldiers are required to serve under the draft, mean those remaining soldiers end up having to do more to make up the difference, according to the report.

As a result, the shortages “cause burnout, lack of sleep, failure to carry out orders and is also liable to cause a loss of motivation for continued service” for the remaining career officers and non-commissioned officers, Brick wrote.

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