The debate over the defense budget: Size vs. process

This paper aims to examine whether the issue is actually "the correct size" of the defense budget, or whether the main issue is the absence of an ordered process to create "the correct budget."

defense biz 88 2198 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
defense biz 88 2198
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The size and composition of Israel's defense budget provide a regular subject for public debate. The debate revives every year in the fall, when the time approaches to decide on the defense budget, and perforce includes the question of prioritizing among various defense and social welfare needs (or as Shaul Mofaz was wont to say, between "life and the quality of life"). This year, in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, a new dimension has been added to the debate: were the IDF's inadequacies in the war due in part to an insufficient defense budget (no funds for reserves training), or to an incorrect distribution of the budget (a great deal was allocated to the air force and less to the army). Alternatively, perhaps there is no correlation between the war and its results and the defense budget. This paper aims to examine whether the issue is actually "the correct size" of the defense budget, or whether the main issue is the absence of an ordered process to create "the correct budget." The Current Process of Defense Budget Approval The defense budget in Israel is a product of "a clash of giants" - the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry. It is approved as part of a regular procedure that recurs annually. Approval of the 2003 budget, which was negotiated in the fall of 2002, is emblematic of the process. There were four stages involved: On one Thursday evening, three days before the government discussion about the national budget, Prime Minister Sharon held a preparatory discussion with officials in the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry. IDF officers were the first to present their case. They presented "the essential defense needs," whose price tag was NIS 39 billion. They cautioned that "every shekel below this price will lead to an unacceptable security risk." Finance Ministry officials then made their presentation. They analyzed all the macroeconomic parameters and concluded that "the defense budget will be NIS 30.6b., and every shekel added to the defense budget will puncture the economic program." The discrepancy between the ministries' positions was NIS 8.4b. There was no possibility of bridging the gap at the discussion so the prime minister instructed the director general of the prime minister's office to meet with the two sides to put together a compromise proposal. The director general of the prime minister's office called an urgent meeting for the next day (Friday). The compromise proposal was put together, whereby the defense budget would be NIS 32.6b., NIS 2b. more than the Finance Ministry requested and NIS 6.4b. less than the Defense Ministry wanted. The proposal was submitted to the government meeting on Sunday, where it was approved over the protestations of the other ministers, who were suddenly informed that they had to weather a NIS 2b. cut. The important part of the meeting was the comment by the chief of staff, who said that while it was the government's authority to decide on the defense budget, he requested the opportunity to demonstrate to the prime minister the security ramifications of the ("irresponsible") budget. Naturally, the prime minister agreed. Two months later there was a meeting between top IDF officers and the prime minister. One after another, the generals presented the damage that the IDF's capabilities would suffer. The prime minister, who began to waver, convened a meeting of the government two weeks later to approve an additional NIS 4b. to the defense budget. This chain of events reveals six problems, four connected to the process and two to the outcome. The problems with the process are: a. There is no staff work by the government. There is no professional process that "connects" cost to effectiveness, or the budget to the quality of the defense solution. b. There is no discussion of specifics by the government. The ministers have no idea about the risks involved in a particular budget versus the smaller risks of a larger budget. c. The final decision is made months past the time when it should have been made. Consequently, the other government ministries undergo an across-the-board cut after having finished planning the work year and finalizing their budgets. d. Every year, an enormous amount of energy is expended on the same process that in the end leads to a result that could have been predicted from the outset. This creates uncertainty about the size of the defense budget, which prevents optimum multi-year planning. In terms of the outcome, the cost is twofold: a. There are specific expenses that the Defense Ministry considers justifiable, but one can assume that they would not be approved by the government if the ministers knew enough to vote on them. An opportunity for genuine control of the particulars of the Defense Ministry budget is missed. b. The ministers, including the prime minister, are not familiar with the IDF's capabilities. They do not have anyone who is not an interested party who can explain to them the significances of various budget levels, or what the alternatives are within the framework of a given budget. In other words, there is no real government control of the "defense output" produced or that would be produced by different budget levels. 2004: A Proposal for Change In the course of 2004 a committee made up of David Ivri, Yossi Kuchik, Yaakov Sheinin, and the author of this essay prepared a proposal on the defense budget that was presented to the government in August 2004. The proposal comprised four elements, three general and one specific: a. A recommendation that the defense budget be a multi-year budget with changes made to its framework only in extraordinary situations and if initiated by the prime minister. The same recommendation appeared in the Meridor committee report in 2006. b. It was recommended that the multi-year budget comprise fixed annual sums (in real terms). Since the GNP increases by 3-5 percent each year, the defense budget's share of the national product will (gradually) decrease. The state budget also increases every year, and thus, the share of the defense budget in the general budget will also decrease annually. c. The staff entity of the government (the National Security Council) will prepare a graph displaying the connection between the level of the defense budget and the level of defense. The government will be able to hold an informed discussion on a selected budget area in the graph. For example, the government can ask how much would be saved from the defense budget if Israel decided to waive the capability for a direct military operation against Iran, or if the government agreed to take a risk and decided that in the coming "x" number of years Egypt will not be involved in a war against Israel. Each of these two examples represents a possible savings of billions of shekels. The "right budget" is the budget that reflects the acceptable degree of risk and the alternative price (i.e., which "civilian" objectives would we have to forego to allow a solution to these threats.) d. The concrete component was a recommendation on the size of the defense budget. A graph was prepared based on the above recommended elements, the significances of each point were presented, and the recommendation was to set a budget of NIS 35b. (excluding the dollar aid budget). The government discussed the committee's recommendations and did not approve or reject them. The matter fizzled out. The actual defense budget was approximately NIS 34b. each year. The damage to the state of preparedness (training and stock levels) increased. In April 2006 the defense budget was cut suddenly by a further NIS 0.5b. In July 2006 the government decided to go to war, without checking or knowing the IDF's state of readiness. The Size and Composition of the Defense Budget Although this article addresses the deficiencies in the process of determining the defense budget and not the sum that should be allocated to defense, two aspects that impact on the size of the budget should also be noted: a. Every year, prior to the budget discussions, there are calls for a deep cut in defense spending. The sums mentioned start from NIS 4b. The rationale used includes a comparison between Israel's defense budget and its potential enemies' defense budgets. One of the arguments claims that Israel's budget is larger than the combined budgets of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and thus can be cut. This argument ignores a number of key factors. One is the nature of most military confrontations in the 21st century - clashes between state armies and terror and guerrilla organizations. An outlay of $100 is required in order to "produce" a suicide bomber, but $1 million is needed to prevent the attack. How does the comparison between the budget of Hamas or Hizbollah and the IDF budget contribute here? b. In November 2006 the prime minister held an urgent discussion about a solution to the increasing threat of incursions by terrorists (and criminals) into Israel through the Egyptian border. The IDF presented a plan, including procurement of numerous types of equipment. The cost of the plan requested by the army as an addition to its budget, due to "the new task," was about $1b. The prime minister quite rightly rejected the request. The more general and more important conclusion to be drawn from this incident is - defense requirements change all the time. There are tasks that required significant resources in the past (e.g., the Golan Heights front) and require less today, and there are tasks that require greater investment. By the same token, the relative need to provide a solution for new types of threats at the expense of old ones is also changing. If the defense budget is administered on a multi-year basis funds would be able to be transferred between areas within the budget framework. Just as it is not right to make deep cuts because "the wars have ended," the budget should not be increased every time "a new need" emerges. Conclusion Prime Minister Olmert established a committee headed by David Brodet to examine the defense budget in the wake of the Lebanon War and it recently submitted its findings. It seems that the committee reached conclusions similar to those of this article, at least with respect to the need for a multi-year budget. However, the need to provide the government ministers a means of connecting a budget (input) and defense (output) that would act as the basis of any discussion on the matter is no less important. In addition to the above recommendations regarding handling of the defense budget on a government level, steps to increase efficiency in the process of formulating the budget and its implementation within the defense system should also be examined. Not everything that appears axiomatic to the Defense Ministry or the IDF is also right in terms of a "civilian" approach that has no prior commitment to existing practices. For example, there is a principle in the defense bureaucracy according to which "officers do not deal with money." According to this principle, after the professionals in the IDF decide what equipment they want, the requisition is transferred to the Defense Ministry whose personnel are the only ones authorized to issue a tender and administer the requisition process. The duplication of systems costs millions of shekels. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland is former head of the National Security Council. Reprinted with permission of INSS (Institute for National Security Studies)