At the start of July, as the second wave of coronavirus engulfed Israel, a decision to shorten mandatory military service for men from 32 to 30 months took effect. In the past few years, a number of versions of shorter compulsory service have been tried: in June 2015 an amendment to the law cut four months off men’s mandatory time in the military, from three years to 32 months. In December 2016, a decision was made to cut more time off mandatory service, despite the chief of staff’s objection.
The main push for shortened service came from the Finance Ministry, whose functionaries argued that less time in the army meant that young workers would be available sooner, and would help narrow the gap between those who serve and those exempt from service, like the haredim or the Arabs. There is no doubt that Israel’s economic infrastructure is an important element of its security, and the defense budget must take economic considerations into account as much as possible. However, there will be no national economy unless the Israel Defense Forces can effectively counter the challenges posed by the country’s strategic surroundings.
There are major ramifications to shortening mandatory military service, including not-inconsiderable risks to national security. The first and clearest ramification is a reduction to the personnel available to the IDF. The military depends on soldiers serving their mandatory time as its main source of personnel and already suffers from a manpower shortage, especially in combat and tech units. These problems will only worsen if the compulsory service stint is shortened.
A modern army demands skills that take longer to acquire than military professions did in the past. This is true for combat units and even more so for units in which the technology element requires lengthy study and training. Shortened service will give the army less time with those same soldiers in whom it invested time and money. The shortened service will increase the rate at which soldiers in sensitive roles are rotated out, causing a loss of experience and more clashes within the organization.
Shortening mandatory service does not carry with it enormous savings, certainly not at a time of economic crisis and massive unemployment. After the first cut to compulsory service in 2018, there were soldiers who served an additional four months and were paid salaries of career army personnel. In addition, shortening service will increase the need to use reservists, especially for ongoing security operations. It costs much more to call up reservists than to deploy soldiers on mandatory service.
Proposals to cut mandatory time in uniform have already been made.
One committee recommended it in February 2006. A few months later, the Second Lebanon War broke out and changed opinions on the matter. Indeed, unexpected security and defense incidents, which are to be expected in our area, demand greater caution in the IDF’s personnel policies. The age of peace has not yet arrived. At a time of potential for a wide-scale conflict—particularly given Iran’s stepped-up attempts to achieve military nuclear capabilities—the message Israel—sends to both Israeli society and our enemies in the region by shortening mandatory service is the wrong one, and even dangerous.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Institute.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.