Better scrutiny of defense spending

Could it really be that the dubious outcome of the war was the result of an underfunded military?

idf tanks lebanon 298.88 (photo credit: IDF)
idf tanks lebanon 298.88
(photo credit: IDF)
With an inquiry of some kind certain to investigate the way the war in Lebanon was managed, the security establishment has already taken the first step in its defense: On Sunday, the Defense Ministry asked for a NIS 30 billion boost to its budgets over the next three years. Strategic lessons from the fallout of the war in Lebanon, it argues, dictate the need for a significant increase in spending. By directly linking its request for a budget increase to the war against Hizbullah, though, the Defense Ministry has stepped into a potential minefield. Could it really be, the taxpayer might reasonably ask, that the dubious outcome of the war was the result of an underfunded military? And would pumping so many more billions of shekels into a defense budget that is already larger than the combined expenditures of all our neighbors really solve the military's deficiencies? On both accounts, great skepticism is in order. If the army insists that recent years' budget cuts were to blame for the dearth of flak jackets for infantry soldiers, for instance, then it will have a hard time explaining how it nonetheless managed to fund the air force's spectacular tally of 15,500 sorties. What's more, criticism of the management of the fighting has thus far focused on its operational aspects - meaning the IDF's competency, not its capability. Deeper pockets wouldn't necessarily make commanders deeper thinkers. The war did cost the Defense Ministry an estimated NIS 7 billion, however, and that puts a serious dent in its budget. But the transfer of some NIS 2.2b. to the Defense Ministry from the Health, Welfare and Education ministries has already been authorized. And the other costs of the war - some NIS 15b. or so to civilian infrastructure and other costs - will also have to be borne by the state. Even if the government wanted to compensate the Defense Ministry for its losses with further funds from numerous other ministries, it would be impossible to do so. There simply isn't enough money to go around. Going forward, there will be no shortage of difficult decisions. For example: The army lost 20 tanks during the fighting. Should the Defense Ministry now build more Merkava tanks, at a cost of roughly $3 million each, or invest in the Trophy, a system that promises the kind of unprecedented protection that could defend our remaining tanks from future attacks? As always, the most important question in this budget debate is not simply how much to spend. The allocation of resources is a matter of priorities. What is most disturbing is that the public can not adequately address the question of what the Defense Ministry's priorities should be, because it does not know what those priorities have been until now. For almost 60 years, the entire civilian mechanism that is responsible for the nation's defense - namely, the Knesset members and the citizens to whom they are responsible - has been denied the ability to fairly judge the budgetary needs of the Defense Ministry. This confusion is due to the fact that the defense budget is so closely guarded that even the Prime Minister's Office and the National Security Council have no role in preparing it. Much of it is kept secret, allowing interested parties to make of it what they will. The army has argued that its "real" allotment is some NIS 13b. less than the number stated in the annual budget report, because so much of the defense budget goes to fund pension payments and other non-combat-related costs. But the state comptroller has revealed that indirect payments and covert payments to the security establishment regularly total about NIS 13b. more than the amount approved by the Knesset. The discrepancy cries out for a closer accounting. What the defense establishment has inadvertently done by demanding more money is to highlight just how necessary it is to ensure far greater civilian oversight of the defense budget. This doesn't necessarily mean further cuts - well-informed citizens are actually more likely to support the IDF - but it does mean that defense decisions would be more open to criticism. Considering the recent decisions that could have been amended had more contextual information been more widely available and more closely scrutinized, a more informed debate on our national defense budget could do more than save money. It could save lives.