(January 6, 2019 / JNS) The Israel Defense Forces held its annual motivation poll last November among potential recruits in an effort to gauge their willingness to join combat units. The results, which are presented here for the first time, were very troubling: Only 64 percent of potential recruits said they would be willing to consider combat service.
This was indicative of a consistent trend: In 2010, the motivation survey found that 80 percent of respondents were willing to join combat units. This number dropped to 71 percent in 2015, and to 69 percent in 2016. The abysmal results of 2017 made the IDF decide to both shelve the results and stop using the survey as a key index.
One can dispute the scientific value this survey had in the first place or whether it truly represents reality. Most 17-year-olds have other things on their minds—like school, their social lives and traveling overseas. Military service is present in the background but hardly takes priority. The closer it gets, however, the higher their motivation becomes, and most of those who enlist in the IDF want to contribute and experience a meaningful service.
Still, this is a hot-button issue. Even if the motivation poll is scientifically unsound, it has been held for years and its data has always been conclusive, so ignoring it could be nothing short of catastrophic. Unfortunately, the military is the only one currently troubled by these findings. This issue is getting no attention on a national level, and the only ones paying attention are a handful of lawmakers on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Much will be said about defense and security in the weeks leading up to the April 9 election, but only a few candidates, if any, will know how to address the various challenges the IDF faces—from the number and quality of recruits to the duration of their service and the nature of the standing army, which itself is facing a personnel crisis.
Dreams of high-tech careers
The IDF has no problem filling up combat units, but it does have a problem getting quality recruits to voluntarily enlist into certain units. In the past, combat ranks were far more robust, but they have been steadily shrinking, partially because mandatory service has been cut from 36 to 32 months.
Next year, combat service will be cut to 28 months, and while the system can balance itself out, this is a process that takes time. Implementing the second cut too soon could prove devastating and the IDF’s Personnel Directorate warns it could deal the combat units a crippling blow.
Members of the top military echelon have been racking their brains on how to deal with the slump in motivation. The struggle, as they say, is real: In the absence of a true existential threat, Israeli youth feel less of a need to protect the homeland, and while elite units like the Golani and Givati brigades still enjoy an air of glory, the real prestige now lies with Military Intelligence, the cyber units, air defenses and the Homefront Command.
It is hard to blame them. Modern Israeli society sanctifies the individual over the collective, and “I” takes great precedence to ”we.” Today’s youth want to be rich and famous, something the cyber units—via a future career in the high-tech sector—can provide, and Golani cannot. The education system takes great pride in the increase in the number of students interested in sciences, and rightfully so, but on the flip side, these best and brightest have little interest in combat service.
The military, however, has the power to make recruits join combat units, as assignments are determined by medical profile and military needs first, and recruits’ preferences second. This results in thousands of disgruntled youths each year, who dreamed of joining Military Intelligence and find themselves performing maintenance on tanks instead, as the IDF needs them on the ground, not focused on a computer screen.
Fostering a change is critical for Israel’s defense interests. If you want to maintain a quality military that wins conflicts, then you must have quality, highly motivated troops in all units. The foundations for this lie at home and in the education system.
The IDF is doing what it can: Combat soldiers’ salaries have been increased and combat service makes them eligible for a wide range of substantial benefits in civilian life, such as school grants and housing subsidies, but still, a holistic solution is required on a national level.
The motivation to serve in combat units is only one aspect of the personnel issues plaguing the IDF. The standing army faces similar issues, as illustrated by a recent report by Military Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, warning that various logistical, training and personnel issues have dramatically eroded the Ground Forces’ ability to effectively wage war. Recent years have seen the IDF undergo a series of streamlining processes that have made it hard for it to keep quality officers, especially junior officers, in its ranks.
The changing nature of career service has also taken its toll: In the past, people searched for tenure, somewhere they could work until they retired, but today’s job market is much more dynamic. People change jobs every year or two. A company commander whose tour is over seeks new challenges. The best and the brightest want to be doctors, engineers and architects, and the IDF is in competition with companies that offer much better conditions.
The weaker socio-economic echelons also have alternatives. A noncommissioned officer serving in an emergency warehouse can easily find work in a factory and be home every day for dinner, without working weekends or getting phone calls in the middle of the night. If we want the IDF’s emergency warehouses to function properly, we have to make sure that they are filled with both quality supplies and quality personnel to run them.
The issue of motivation to serve in the military, especially in its combat units, will not be part of the election campaign. Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran are sexier topics that generate headlines and garner votes. The politicians will leave the IDF to figure things out for itself—as long as it continues winning.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.