On June 1, the IDF might make history, but for all the wrong reasons. Unless the cabinet makes an emergency cash transfer of NIS 750 million to the Defense Ministry, combat training – the lifeblood of any battle-ready military – will grind to a halt across all three branches, in the air force, navy, and ground forces.
In addition to the freeze on training, the IDF will reduce operations to the point where only the most basic, vital functions continue.
And it will prepare for what defense officials described as a “shut down” next year, should the Finance Ministry get its way and pass another defense budget that is billions of shekels short of the sum called for by a government- appointed committee of experts, headed by ex-Finance Ministry director David Brodet.
A signal of the defense establishment’s genuine concern came this week when senior officials revealed that this year alone, NIS 4.5 billion have been set aside for “special, classified projects.” Those may well include longrange strike capabilities.
The deadline for talks between Iran and the international community over the Islamic Republic’s clandestine nuclear program is July 20, not long after IDF plans to freeze all training.
The timing is likely not a coincidence. It seems fair to assume that the military is preparing to sacrifice training to ensure that present, strategic capabilities remain intact – capabilities that must be available for decision makers to activate at any time.
The budget crisis is forcing the defense establishment to prioritize the most immediate, pressing concerns at the expense of the intermediate and long-term defense needs.
Conscripted forces have trained this year, and that should be enough to carry them over to the end of this year. After that, however, the IDF’s combat readiness will become eroded to the point that the situation will become precarious if the financial picture does not improve.
In the long term, the money crisis is beginning to cause significant damage to investments in future defense platforms. Israeli defense industries have quietly let go of thousands of employees recently, as the Defense Ministry has had to freeze all planned acquisitions that have not yet been signed.
Funds for acquisitions of defense platforms have plummeted drastically over the past two years. As budget funds dry up and costs continue to grow, defense planners are facing an authentic crisis when trying to figure out how to pay for all of the above, plus the growing number of pensions for career soldiers.
The Defense Ministry spent NIS 7b. this year on pension funds, and NIS 3b. on rehabilitation programs for injured soldiers and their families alone. Contrary to populist claims, the ministry cannot unilaterally alter the pensions of career soldiers without facing devastating lawsuits.
Other compelling figures include the following: In 2014, Israel’s defense budget formed the lowest percentage of the national budget (12.7 percent), compared to nearly 50 percent in 1973.
While owners of buses, commercial vehicles, and tractors are free from paying fuel taxes, the military receives no such pass for its fleets of vehicles. Similarly, in no Western countries do armies have to pay property tax, except in Israel. The result is that billions of shekels go toward tax payments, instead of to combat training.
The time is ripe for the cabinet to make a long-term commitment to Israel’s defense needs, and to back up its commitment for years to come. Then, the IDF will be able to approve a multiyear plan (and stick to it), training can resume, and investments in future weapons and technologies, which will be vital, can gradually be revived.
While it has become trendy to bash military spending, the fact remains that without the enhanced capabilities of the IDF and other security agencies, the relative security calm that has enveloped the country would not be possible. It is this calm that has enabled social bread and butter issues to dominate public discourse.