In about one month’s time, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi stands to mark his first anniversary as chief of the Israel Defense Forces. Common wisdom says that what a chief of staff doesn’t accomplish during his first year in office, he may never get around to doing.
Kochavi had many plans for his first year, but he—like the rest of Israel’s citizens—got thrown for a loop by the country’s unprecedented electoral crisis.
With the exception of the operational theater, which goes about its business regardless of politics—business dictated by a Middle Eastern reality that, for the most part, doesn’t care about politicians’ interests—the military has been treading water.
A mountain of streamlining efforts, procurement plans and various other objectives—some of them critical—has been reduced to a small list of “must-dos.” Everything else has been delayed.
Kochavi will never admit it publicly, but he’s angry—and he’s not alone. Most top defense officials say the paralysis imposed on them by the political logjam is outrageous, and that the damage it has inflicted on the military and, by extension, Israel’s security, amounts to gross negligence.
The interim government that has been in place since the April 9 election cannot put together a state budget, meaning defense spending has been put on hold and with it, the IDF’s new work plan. The current one sustains the military’s immediate needs, but cannot take it forward.
Kochavi’s work plan, called “Momentum,” was carefully outlined to cover dozens of issues, from procurement and R&D, to force build-up, structural changes and social adjustments, but is now stuck in its tracks.
As things stand, even setting aside the perils of managing a significant security crisis in such a fragile political reality, Israel’s national security is paying a heavy price for the political chaos.
For example, two weeks ago, a Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter crash-landed during a training exercise after one of its engines caught fire. The aircraft was completely engulfed in flames within minutes of hitting the ground; it was only by miracle that none of the troops on board were hurt.
The Israel Air Force’s aging fleet of Sikorsky helicopters is fast approaching the end of its operational life cycle and is slated to be replaced. This move was set in motion last year, but in the absence of a functioning government and an orderly work plan, everything has ground to a halt. The same is true for dozens of other projects.
Were Kochavi a cynic, he would make the full details public and inform the Knesset’s 120 lawmakers that they can already hold themselves responsible for any operational failures that may occur in the next war.
But Kochavi is far too professional and discreet for that. Besides, it is doubtful such a move would do any good—the average Israeli politician is impervious to shame.
No such thing as cheap wars
The IDF’s current multi-year work plan, “Gideon,” will run its course by Jan. 1, 2020. The plan was put together in 2015 by then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, and its bottom line was that the military promised not to ask for additional funds and the Finance Ministry pledged not to demand cuts to defense spending.
Eizenkot kept his end of the bargain and for the most part so did the Treasury, with the exception of lateral budget cuts that were imposed on all government ministries and therefore applied to the Defense Ministry as well.
The problem is that the political standstill has prevented the transitional government from giving “Momentum” the final green light, meaning that once “Gideon” elapses, the IDF will be working off a monthly budget until such time as the plan can be approved by the next government.
Under Israeli law, in the absence of a state budget, government ministries operate on a monthly stipend that equals one-twelfth of their last sanctioned budget. As the IDF’s budget depends on the Defense Ministry, this means it will have to make do with a fraction of the funds it needs.
That in turn means that the military will be unable to do anything beyond the here and now and will have to plan month-to-month. For a system that requires stability to thrive, this is nothing short of a catastrophe.
When Eizenkot outlined “Gideon,” the geo-strategic situation in the Middle East was different: Many of the nations in the region were embroiled in civil wars, and Iran was restrained by the 2015 nuclear agreement. Fast-forward five years and the regional reality has changed—and not for the better, especially where Iran is concerned.
As a result, the chances of a security escalation in the northern sector have increased exponentially, and to win a future war there Israel needs to ensure it has four basic components in place: good operational plans, trained forces, comprehensive weapons stockpiles and the ability to make correct and timely decisions. The IDF is solely responsible for the first component, but depends entirely on the political echelon for the remaining three.
Training in 2019 is far more expensive than in the past. Armaments, too. Every bomb, every Iron Dome interceptor, costs a fortune. The “campaign between the wars”—an ongoing Israeli military and intelligence effort to disrupt the force build-up of the Iranian-Shi’ite axis throughout the Middle East—has afforded Israel peace and quiet in the northern sector, but if anything, has proven that a budget war is never good.
As if that were not enough, the Finance Ministry is also pushing for cuts in career officers’ salaries, which if approved will deal the military’s very backbone a crippling blow.
Contrary to popular belief, career officers are actually at the bottom of the pay grade as far as public servants go. Below police officers and wardens, and light-years away from Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) agents and Mossad intelligence agency officers.
Any further injury to this echelon could result in permanent disability. Recent cutbacks and streamlining efforts have already taken their toll and the IDF is having real difficulties retaining junior officers in some units. Officers serve in two, sometimes three positions simultaneously, and burnout rates are high.
People want professional stability, and Israel’s vague budgetary reality means the IDF cannot provide it. The result is a loss of quality human capital, which in turn impairs war readiness.
In this situation, Kochavi has two options: Be a gentleman, or come out swinging. For now, it seems he is opting for the former—which may be a mistake. The damage done to national security has already superseded his legacy as chief of staff.
Kochavi has the responsibility to present the hard facts to the government, and in the absence of one, to the public. Just as hospital administrators did this week, and school principals the week before. And not just to avoid being labeled the one who shirked responsibility, but rather from a true desire to protect and defend Israel.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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