In 2016, the Israel Defense Forces reduced its reserve fighting force by 20 percent and placed a greater emphasis on training for its remaining reservists, a senior army official said Thursday.
Last year’s decrease is a continuation of a belt-tightening trend, as the IDF looks to streamline itself, cutting away unnecessary positions and better preparing the people who remain for war or disasters.
The military released the statistics ahead of National Reservists Appreciation Day, an annual celebration of reservists, which Israel will mark on Sunday.
“The IDF is investing much, much more in exercises and training. Some 68% of reserve duty days are spent in exercises, mostly for emergency. That’s the trend,” the officer said, on condition of anonymity.
“There has been a lot of work in reducing reserve duty by about 20%, as we focus on the operational efficacy of the IDF and cut what we can, where we can,” she said.
In 2013, some 34 percent of Israelis eligible for the reserves (people under the age of 40 who served in the IDF) held an “active” status, meaning they’d completed a total of 20 days of reserve service in the previous three years, according to IDF statistics.
In 2015, that number dropped to 26 percent. Last year, it went down further, to just under 21 percent, the senior official said.
“We have units that are bigger than they need to be. We need to keep what we actually need — plus a little flexibility — and to do away with the people who don’t do their part or aren’t necessary,” Col. Amir Chai, head of the IDF Ground Forces’ Reserves Department, told The Times of Israel last year.
Despite the decrease in the number of reservists in 2016, the military increased the total number of time spent by the remaining reservists on duty from the year before.
Last year, reservists collectively served for 2,078,660 days, up from 1,850,000 days from 2016. However, this is still approximately half a million days fewer than the year before that, though the statistics from 2014, in which the IDF fought an extended ground war in Gaza, are not truly comparable with the war-less 2015.
While Israel is often remembered for its compulsory draft of 18-year-olds, the majority of the army’s total fighting force in fact comes from its older reservists — the average age of reservists is about 32 years old — who make up approximately 71% of the military’s manpower, according to 2016 statistics.
This level has remained relatively constant over the years, but the country’s move to the 21st century has not made that easy.
In the early days of the state, when more people worked in factories, it was easy to take off a week for reserve duty, but as the Israeli labor market has diversified and more people have begun working as freelancers or in small companies, that has become more difficult.
“The goal is not to waste the valuable and important time of businesses and workers,” the officer said.
In addition, the army is working to offer better incentives to reservists and to their partners, who have to pick up the slack when their spouses are in the military.
For instance, the state granted tax benefits to reserve officers, collectively saving them NIS 4.2 million ($1.16 million).
The military also changed its system of compensating freelancers for the days they spend on reserve duty.
“Self-employed reservists are different from salaried employees, and their losses are different. From that benefit, we paid NIS 25 million ($6.92 million),” the officer said.
In an effort to make reporting for reserve duty easier, the army also rolled out a website this year specifically for reservists. Through it, they can be called up for duty via email, as opposed to the antiquated method of physical letters sent in the mail.
According to military figures, the positions for men that were called up the most in 2016 were combat medics, squad leaders, infantrymen and truck drivers.
For women, the most common positions for reserve duty were soldiers in operation rooms, code decrypters, human resource officers and infantry officers.
Though the number of women serving in the reserves has increased over the years, men still account for some 83% of the reservists in Israel, a very slight decrease from 2015, when they accounted for 84% of reservists.
Again Tel Aviv, with its younger population, contributed the largest number of reservists in the country — 37,156 — while Jerusalem offered 28,252, despite the capital having a larger total number of residents between the ages of 18 and 40. (This is likely attributable to the large number of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, most of whom do not serve in the army.)
The number of reservists who have children dropped dramatically from 2015 to 2016. Some 29% of all reservists were parents in 2015, but last year that number dropped to 11%.