For years, Moshe Feiglin has been urging Israel's Defense Forces to streamline into a professional volunteer army. His ideas are now mainstream.
The Israel Defence Forces
Israel’s armed forces are shifting emphasis from mechanised warfare toward air and cyber power
Aug 10th 2013 | JERUSALEM |From the print edition
SOME 30,000 soldiers are slowly vacating their bases in Israel’s main city, Tel Aviv, and moving to the Negev desert. By the end of the decade, much of the country’s army will have migrated to four huge bases alongside Bedouin shanties. Tel Aviv’s developers, relishing the prospect of building on vast tracts of the country’s most valuable land, talk of turning swords into timeshares. They plan an 80-storey tower for the Kirya, the old British base in the city centre, which for the past six decades has been the headquarters of the general staff. Large parts of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) expect to withdraw from coastal population centres. Overall, the men in uniform, who long dominated the state, are becoming more peripheral.
Israeli defence spending remains the world’s fifth highest per person and young Jews continue to do up to three years of military service. In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the army’s hold on the body politic can still be felt, but it is no longer as strong as it once was. As Israel’s economy has boomed, military spending has fallen from 17.7% of GDP in 1991 to around 6% today. The Knesset sliced $1 billion off the most recent defence budget, the steepest cut in two decades. Led by a maverick hawk, Moshe Feiglin, politicians of all stripes are campaigning to professionalise what has long been a people’s army. “The compulsory draft produces adverse results,” says Mr Feiglin. “The IDF relies on cheap manual labour instead of specialisation and technology and this harms the country’s defences.”
Although stopping short of ending the draft, the Knesset this month approved a military restructuring plan that prods the army towards professionalisation. It urges a shift away from manpower-intensive armoured divisions in favour of the air force, intelligence collection and cyber-warfare. Conscripts are encouraged to extend their three-year terms.
Plodding ground forces increasingly feel like a burden, lawmakers say. Out will go some 4,500 officers, an artillery brigade wielding howitzers and hundreds of ageing Merkava and M60 tanks, some as old as the Vietnam war. In will come the new training ground in the Negev desert. It resembles a high-tech park, fit for an age when a technician in Tel Aviv can attack a target in Teheran. “The current and future battlefields are totally different from what we knew in the past,” writes Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, fittingly, on his Facebook page.
One of the reasons behind Israel’s new order of battle is the Arab spring. The armies in the largest neighbouring countries no longer represent the conventional threat they once did. Egypt’s is too busy with domestic politics and Syria’s has ceased to exist as a coherent force. “We’re surrounded by failed states,” declares a minister. Syria and Iraq are “to a great extent” out of commission, an officer echoes. The gap in technical capabilities widens every year. Arab armies cannot keep up.
To be sure, Israel still has lots of mortal enemies. Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia, controls tens of thousands of missiles. Extremist groups in Sinai, Gaza and Syria loathe the country and so does Iran, which sponsors some of them.
Yet, these outfits do not present traditional threats. Tanks are useless against Iran’s nuclear programme or a band of jihadists. Air force commanders praise rapid-reaction units that make use of fighter jets, drones, intelligence and cyber-warfare. They stress that operations using such forces cause fewer casualties and thus reduce the risk that a conflict will escalate. A series of Israeli strikes in Syria and Sudan on missiles apparently bound for Hizbullah and Hamas have resulted in no tangible fallout so far. They have also spared Israel the international condemnation that ground invasions tend to ignite.
The IDF has already changed enormously in recent years. Its largest unit, 8200, is focused on cyber-warfare. The air force has taken over some tasks from ground forces. “In 2000 only 1% of Gaza’s terrorists were killed from the air. Today it’s 98%,” according to a senior air force commander. Last November’s offensive against Gaza militants was conducted almost entirely from the air, without the deployment of ground troops. “Fewer and fewer civilians are serving in the reserves and in combat roles,” says Yagil Levy, an Israeli academic who writes about Israel’s armed forces. “There’s a growing gap between the army and the rest of society.”
Israel still needs some boots on the ground, however. In a fight with Hizbullah, infantry would search southern Lebanon for hidden missiles aimed at Jewish population centres. Retired generals, having won their medals in epic ground battles, complain that the reduction in armoured brigades and a declining number of soldiers with combat experience has left Israel exposed. “It’s very risky,” says one. “Wars have a habit of popping up when you least expect them.”
But even they admit that Israel’s relations with its armed forces are changing. Military street parades belong to a bygone era. The chief of staff, Benny Gantz, consciously acts like a bureaucrat. “We no longer have charismatic military figures,” says Shlomo Swirsky, who runs Adva, an Israeli think-tank. “It’s not the vehicle for upward mobility it once was.” Today’s party leaders are more likely to be journalists than generals. A recent law bars retiring security officials from politics for three years.
Political priorities are changing. A new generation of politicians scrutinises the military budget more closely, forcing the army into ever new sleights of hand to keep generous pensions and vacation allowances. Voters too seem to want a more normal, less militarised state. The number of days spent by ex-conscripts on reserve duty—once a mandatory month a year for all men under 40—has fallen from 10m days annually to 2.5m in a generation, despite a sharp population increase. Were it not for the labour-intensive occupation of the West Bank, the number would fall lower still. Should the negotiations with the Palestinians bear fruit, it might yet.
From the print edition: Middle East and Africa