IDF, ombudsman again trade blows over army’s readiness for war

IDF, ombudsman again trade blows over army’s readiness for war

Chief complaints officer Brick says military unfit for combat, needs outside investigation; IDF calls his criticisms ‘improper and off-base’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

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

The Israeli military ombudsman on Thursday criticized the army’s plan to internally investigate his allegations that it is unprepared for war, in the latest bout of an increasingly public squabble over the Israel Defense Forces’ combat readiness.

In recent months, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, formally known as the chief complaints officer in the Defense Ministry, has led a campaign against the IDF top brass, particularly chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, warning of deep problems in the IDF which he says are in large part the result of the army’s ongoing streamlining effort, the Gideon Plan.

Brick has released multiple reports to the Knesset that detail his belief that the military is not prepared to fight another full-scale war, particularly the ground forces.

To address these allegations, Eisenkot this month appointed a panel of senior officers — some in active duty, but most of them reservists — led by the IDF comptroller, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari, to assess the military’s combat fitness. With this internal review, the military hoped to avoid an outside investigatory committee.

In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday, Brick attacked the idea, saying an IDF-led committee could not accurately assess the situation and claiming — without giving details — that even that measure was taken against the wishes of Eisenkot.

Israeli Merkava Mark IV tanks take positions near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

He also reiterated his position that the IDF was not prepared for war, saying the current situation was “worse than it was at the time of the Yom Kippur War” in 1973, when Israel was famously caught off-guard by a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria.

“In my opinion, an internal panel led by IDF Comptroller Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari — which was appointed despite the [wishes of the] chief of staff — does not have the ability to contain the severity and complexity of the deep flaws [in the military],” Brick wrote in the letter, which was also released to reporters.

Brick, who is set to finish his 10-year tenure in the position shortly, has called on the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to investigate the issue of the army’s preparedness for war.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, visits the spot where IDF Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper along the Gaza border, on July 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The ombudsman also dismissed the notion that his criticisms and warnings were the result of personal feelings about Eisenkot, saying this idea was put forward by “evildoers.”

The army fired back at Brick, saying his claims were “improper and off-base” and maintaining that the military was in peak combat fitness.

“The IDF never received the letter, and we only learned of it through the media,” the army said in a statement.

“Any attempt to cast doubt on the efforts by the panel or those on it is no less than improper and off-base, and we can only regret it,” the IDF said.

The military said its internal assessments of its preparedness for war show that the combat fitness of the IDF and its ground forces is “at the highest it’s been in a decade.”

It said the internal commission was working to complete its review and present the findings to the chief of staff and the head of the ground forces.

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.

Brick’s reports said the army’s decision to cut the number of career soldiers and to change its decision-making process on who it offers career positions were negatively affecting the quality and quantity of the IDF’s manpower.

He focused much of his criticism on the IDF’s streamlining 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 reached 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 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 Brick’s report.

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

“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 official said at the time. “One that is slimmer, stronger, more focused, better trained.”

Brick has faced criticism that he is overstepping his bounds, as the issues he has raised are not within the purview of his duties — to review outside complaints about the army. His supporters maintain that Brick has decades of experience in the military and that his criticisms and claims are valid and should be properly investigated.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman hears a briefing from the head of the IDF Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, on developments in southern Syria, on July 10, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman defended the military, saying it was prepared for war but acknowledging that the army had some “problems.” Until this week, Liberman had largely kept out of the squabble.

“As someone who knows it well, we are at 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,” he said. “In a big machine there will always be problems, it will never be ideal.”

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 has 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 has not been a level of preparedness as high as today,” he added.

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