The IDF decides to fly blind

Reforming the draft is probably a good idea, but the report doesn't seriously evaluate the options.

idf 88 (photo credit: )
idf 88
(photo credit: )
The Ministry of Defense recently unveiled a new reform of Israel's military conscription system that would shorten army service from three years to two years. The exception would be for combat soldiers, who would serve for two years and eight months. As compensation, combatants would receive a generous financial bonus not offered to other conscripts. According to the Defense Ministry, the proposal was based on the recommendation of a commission of experts that had carefully studied the subject and decided that this new reform was the best approach. Well, I actually bothered to read the report. It is, to put it mildly, a disappointment. First, the commission's report does not actually compare the proposed reform with other options. There are no cost projections relative to the existing situation or to obvious alternatives like shifting to an all volunteer army. In other words, the report is not helpful in determining whether the proposed reform makes sense. Second, the report is poorly researched. For example, it states several times that the quality of military manpower declines when conscription is replaced by a volunteer system. This not only cannot be assumed; the evidence indicates it is not correct. The quality of recruits for the US military, as measured by standardized testing, has risen sharply since America switched to a volunteer approach. The commission would have discovered this had they actually examined the available data, but clearly they did not bother. The single research paper cited in the report dated from 1990. Third, the report is poorly reasoned. For example, it spends a lot of time in an embarrassing discussion of the role of the reform in rectifying the inequitable distribution of military service between men and women that does not reflect the real impact of service on families. The proposition that my wife (who was never conscripted) bears none of the financial and emotional burden stemming from my military service is ridiculous. Consider the financial costs. One 32 day stint of reserve duty at the Girit outpost in Gaza cost us NIS 25,000 in lost income, despite the compensation provided by the IDF. That money, of course, belongs to both of us. Military service imposes emotional costs as well. Data suggests that Israelis who served in combat units face a substantially higher rate of divorce and an increased likelihood of sexual dysfunction. Wives suffer from any problems affecting a marriage as much as their husbands. The real question - that the report studiously avoids - is whether it is fair to call up some women while automatically excusing others. The obvious answer is that it is not. Yet, it would be absurd to suggest conscripting Haredi or Arab girls. So the only conclusion is that the conscription of women is inevitably unfair. That does not mean that the draft of women should be canceled, but that it cannot be justified on grounds of equity or burden sharing. Why did the commission, staffed by some very smart and serious people, produce such a inadequate report? I can only guess, but let's say that my guess is an educated one. The mission of the commission was to rubber stamp a program that the IDF has already decided to implement. Since commission members understood that their task was to act as a fig leaf, they didn't take their job too seriously. So why does the IDF want to implement this new reform? To answer that question, we must recognize that the army is facing several challenges that are pulling it in opposite directions. On the one hand, the security threat to Israel has declined substantially, suggesting that the order of battle should be reduced. Reinforcing that, the so-called "revolution in military affairs" has also changed military needs, putting a premium on experienced professional manpower while rendering numbers rather less important than they used to be. These developments are pushing Israel gradually towards a professional army. Offsetting this, a demographic bulge in draft age youth is on its way. This surge in potential conscripts creates a tricky problem. The IDF wants to shrink but the number of potential conscripts is set to rise. As the IDF sees it, there are two alternatives for dealing with there evolving realities. One is to cut back on the number of conscripts by excusing a larger number of draftees from service. This will exacerbate already deep divisions within Israel regarding the sharing of the burden of military service. The other alternative is to reduce the period of conscription. Of course, a certain minimum amount of time is required to properly train a soldier. The accepted figure is about two and a half years for a junior commander. This means that the IDF cannot really consider anything less than 2.5 years as a service requirement for fighters without radically changing the way it does business (for example, by introducing a professional cadre of non-commissioned officers who serve in field units). Hence, the IDF's preferred solution: A shortened draft period combined with a longer requirement for combat soldiers, who will be compensated with money. Is this a good idea? Maybe. It certainly will work better than simply continuing the current system while ignoring political, technological, and demographic realities. It also has the virtue of being the solution that will require the IDF to make the least changes in the way it operates. But it is not clear that the IDF's solution is actually the best alternative available. That would require a serious analysis of other options, including a transition to a volunteer force, an altering of the balance between regular and reserve forces, and even the possible introduction of "buy outs," as is done now in some European countries, for people who do not want to serve in the IDF. Such an analysis has never been conducted, and the Ministry of Defense report is not even a poor substitute. The writer is a senior lecturer in economics at the College of Judea and Samaria and portfolio manager of the Forum International Equity fund.