Opinion: Despite warnings of waning conscription into the military, the Israel Defense Forces does not lack the manpower nor the means to subdue our enemies but does suffer from a dearth of clear objectives and the modus operandi to achieve them
IDF troops operating in the West Bank (Photo: AFP)
Outgoing Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir is one of the military’s leading generals. During my years on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I sat in front of him many times and was deeply impressed by the professionalism he demonstrated but yet, the comments he made this week must be thoroughly examined.
“In my opinion, the IDF is on the verge of the minimum size needed to face more complex threats than those we have experienced in recent years,” Zamir said earlier this week.
The deputy chief of staff, who is primarily responsible for building the military’s capabilities, warns us that the army does not have enough resources and manpower to tackle a multi-frontal campaign — war on the northern and southern fronts, heavy fire on the home front, violence boiling over on the West Bank and maybe even renewed unrest within Israeli cities.
As we mark the 15th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, I remember how the military’s top brass blamed suggestions to shorten time served in the army and budget issues on the IDF’s slim achievements. It was a bunch of malarkey back then, and we must not fall for it now.
The way in which the IDF operated and its achievements in recent campaigns do require a professional examination, detached from the boasting about “the lesson that Hamas learned” and the heavy damages inflicted upon the Gaza Strip.
It was not the outgrowth of lack of resources that determined the results of those campaigns, but lack of discernment, hesitancy about using ground forces and nebulous military goals.
The IDF is not short on manpower. There are now more youths waiting to begin their military service than ever, and they are only expected to grow in number thanks to Israel’s high birth rates. This makes up for the growing trend of youths who choose not to serve in the army for various reasons, which shakes the foundations of its ethos as “the army of the people.” And that even before we mentioned Israel’s considerable reserves pool.
The IDF does not lack the means. Whatever was more than enough to fend off large regular armies back in the day should be enough to fight today’s threats — zealous and determined hybrid guerilla armies.
They do not own a single tank or aircraft while we have got whole divisions and squadrons equipped with the world’s most advanced platforms. Hamas and Hezbollah’s combined budget does not even amount to 15% of that of the IDF, which in and of itself makes up less than half of Israel’s defense budget.
So, what do the IDF and Israel lack? First, a national security agenda that will set goals, and a modus operandi that will determine for the army how to achieve them. Second is lack of commitment to make significant changes to power structures and the flexibility to make such changes in real-time and third is the lack of real discussion and courageous decisions by the political and military echelons about what exactly to do with the size of the IDF that is becoming more of a problem than a solution.
Several years back, now Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and I published a report on the future of the military’s ground forces back when we served on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
We stated in it that, “it would be appropriate for the IDF’s qualitative advantage to free it from the need for a significant quantitative advantage at any point.” But all this is contingent upon the military being structured and operating properly.
Since then, the IDF has not had a complete and approved multi-year plan; nor does it have a multi-year budget, and both the old and new cabinets failed to hold comprehensive discussions on the issue or make any binding decisions.
This is the reality in which the IDF chief of staff and his deputy operate, and it should concern us far more than the number of soldiers and tanks.
Ofer Shelah is a former member of Knesset, who served on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and related subcommittees; he is currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv Univesity.