Defense Ministry ombudsman says IDF ground forces unprepared for war

Army acknowledges budget and personnel woes, tells lawmakers it has fixed most problems found by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick

Soldiers from the IDF Commando Brigade simulate fighting the Hezbollah terror group,  in northern Israel, in November 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
Soldiers from the IDF Commando Brigade simulate fighting the Hezbollah terror group, in northern Israel, in November 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Defense Ministry’s ombudsman warned lawmakers on Wednesday that Israel’s ground forces are unprepared for a future war.

In a contentious meeting of the Knesset State Control Committee, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick warned that personnel cuts imposed by cost-cutting demands from the government, and the shortening of men’s military service from 36 months to 32, was among the factors leading to “critical gaps between the missions [given to the army] and the manpower needed to carry them out,” according to the Ynet news site.

He also pointed to the switch to digital communication between commanders and subordinates throughout the military, including via email and WhatsApp, as well as the prevalence of smartphones, as liable to hamper effective communication in battle.

He railed against the outsourcing of many logistical operations in the military to private companies, and said the warehouses containing the war supplies of many ground forces units were woefully understocked, which could leave units without the necessary supplies in the battlefield.

“In wartime, we will fail because of these [private] companies running [the army’s] inventories. The Defense Ministry has been chasing after the IDF to deal with this issue, but it feels like there’s no one to talk to,” Brick lamented.

A former tank commander and head of the army’s college system who has served as Defense Ministry ombudsman since 2008, Brick has long complained about many of the issues he raised Wednesday, but his criticism has grown more vocal in recent months, drawing rebuke from army leaders who have labeled him an alarmist.

Defense Ministry Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick at a Knesset State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset, on December 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Brig. Gen. Uri Gordin, chief of staff of the Ground Forces Command, who bears command responsibility for many of the concerns Brick raised in the committee, told lawmakers he partially agreed with the ombudsman.

There were gaps in needed manpower, he said, as well as budget shortages when it came to stocking equipment the ground forces will need in wartime.

“We’re doing everything we can to ready the army” for war, Gordin said, but added, “There are resource gaps and the defense budget is limited. We have advanced a great deal in the current multi-year [budget] plan, and will need two more multi-year plans before the ground forces are at the level at which we want them to be. I, too, am worried about the warehouses. NCO pay is inadequate and we face a manpower challenge in the modern world.”

But, he insisted, “the army is a very well-supervised organization” that works hard to identify such problems and correct them. “Every division supervises its units. The General Staff supervises the army as a whole, alongside the Defense Ministry’s comptroller and the state comptroller. The army, in my view, has done a great deal to correct shortcomings over the years.”

Gordin turned to the committee’s chair, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, and invited her to pay a surprise visit to any ground forces supply base she wished. “This is one of the biggest challenges the ground forces face. I invite you tomorrow at 7 a.m. to any warehouse you pick anywhere in the country. Come visit. The gaps exist everywhere, but we’re completely transparent about them. We’ve invested NIS 200 million in closing these gaps. Do we need more? The answer is yes.”

In August, Brick presented his concerns in a 270-page report submitted to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which oversees his office.

Brig. Gen. Uri Gordin, chief of staff of the Ground Forces Command, left, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, center, and Defense Ministry Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, right, at a Knesset State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset, on December 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I’ve visited 1,400 separate units, spoken with tens of thousands of commanders and soldiers,” Brick said Wednesday. “I think I know the army in the field better than anyone in the IDF today. I have found serious problems in the logistical, technological and operational systems of the army, and I have informed the army of these findings. The army has corrected the individual problems I have pointed out, but the central problem is the organizational culture [which has fostered] problems so deep that they are not easily solved.

“The seriousness of the situation requires the establishment of an external commission of inquiry, headed by a judge, so we can begin to change the IDF’s organizational culture from the foundations. There is a conspiracy of silence at all levels,” he charged. “It is the unifying thread in many units, that commanders sometimes don’t acknowledge to the political echelon the realities on the ground.”

Brick rejected the criticism that he was being alarmist.

“We have a good air force and a good navy, and most of the ground forces are good, and the commanders and soldiers of the IDF are excellent. I’m not out to fight with anyone,” he insisted.

IDF Comptroller Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari tried to reassure lawmakers that Brick’s concerns were being heard in the army.

IDF troops operating in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, August 2014. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

“The IDF and its leadership take criticism seriously, and my reports have not been kind. I have assigned 100 reserve officers to check Brick’s claims, on the chief of staff’s orders, and there is a steering committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Avi Mizrahi that is directing our work.”

In his response to the committee, Brig. Gen. Gordin dismissed some of Brick’s complaints as untrue. On Brick’s criticism of the prevalence of smartphones and other digital communications channels, Gordin said, “Everyone uses smartphones. It’s part of how we communicate today. What are you going to do? It’s how MKs talk to their employees too. But when I was with the Nahal Brigade during Operation Protective Edge, there were 2,500 combat troops inside the Gaza Strip. Not one had a phone on him. Orders came over the military radio. That’s how it works during operations.”

The army has insisted in recent months that it has dramatically expanded the ground forces’ training regimen and has worked diligently to correct many of the problems pointed out by Brick over the years.

Two committee members, both retired generals, criticized Brick.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, a retired major general, asked Brick to remove him from the ombudsman’s office mailing list, saying his warnings were over-the-top and “no longer interesting.”

Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven in the Knesset on March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven said he had “great respect for Maj. Gen. Brick” and that he had “read both the classified report and the public one.”

In the wake of Brick’s concerns, he noted, the Knesset committee had visited two ground forces warehouses and met with brigade and battalion commanders.

“No one argues that we aren’t seeing these gaps [in budgets and manpower], with NCOs not willing to remain in the military, with insufficient manpower — but there are also strengths, reserve battalion commanders who tell us that it’s been many years since they’ve seen this many training days.”

He slammed Brick’s accusation that commanders in the field were involved in a “conspiracy of silence.”

“Are we crazy? Are we calling them liars? The public’s trust in the army is important,” Ben-Reuven said. “I’m all for criticism, but what Maj. Gen. Brick has done has crossed the line. Brick has gone from doing good to doing harm, from a very respected office to a persona non grata. I don’t accept Brick’s assessment that the army is unprepared for war. The IDF generally and the ground army in particular are going through a rapid upgrade in its capabilities.”

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