The defense budget

We cannot afford doctrinaire tight-fistedness when our very survival prospects may be on the line.

soldiers walking at sunrise 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
soldiers walking at sunrise 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Budget deliberations are generally dreary enough to cure insomnia. Yet although the latest defense budget tussle ended in a predictable compromise, it is precisely the sort that should deprive us of sleep.
At first glance, it looked like another set of officials with vested interests coming cap in hand to the Treasury to demand additional money. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, backed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, managed to increase the defense budget by NIS 2.7 billion after issuing dire warnings about the security of all of us if they don’t get NIS 4.5b. more.
This is nothing to scoff at, no matter how cynical we have grown over the years or how inured to grim predictions. There’s always a plausible likelihood that the defense chiefs aren’t playing us for suckers and that we are indeed playing with fire if we ignore their ominous messages.
The 2014 defense budget was trimmed by NIS 3b. last May but in real terms the loss could exceed NIS 7b. because, like the rest of us, the military is also affected by assorted price rises – from its utilities bills to the benefits it shells out to retirees.
To be sure, there has always been plenty of excess fat to trim in the IDF. Already back in 1948, when the civilian population’s food supplies were severely rationed, the garbage cans at military installations – generally not those in the front lines – were overflowing with discarded provisions. Things are considerably worse nowadays.
But while such waste is no secret, actually ending it quickly in a manner that would save the IDF funds is another matter.
Pensions provided to retirees eat up an increasing portion of the budget, but there’s no legal way to for the IDF to ditch its commitments. An even greater problem is posed by the billions spent each year on benefits to disabled veterans or the families of fallen soldiers.
Such outlays are treated as hallowed, despite the 2010 recommendations of the Goren Committee that a clear distinction be drawn between servicemen killed or injured in the line of duty and those who were not. About NIS 5b. is shelled out annually in benefits and the whopping figures only keep growing. Yet only a third of the deaths and 23% of the injuries occurred in actual service. In other words, the defense budget is seriously depleted by, for example, recognizing as military invalids soldiers injured at a night club during furlough.
However, since our defense establishment dares not slaughter sacred cows – even bogus ones – the alternatives are cuts that perceptibly sacrifice substantive security interests. This starts off with pulling IDF guard units from communities adjacent to the borders in the North and South. Next in line is the halt from June to operational activities for reserve units and particularly painful are the looming dismissals of thousands of civilian employees and career officers. This means that reservists aren’t getting the training they need and that the IDF stands to lose some of its most motivated personnel.
To be sure, not all reserve call-ups or salaried IDF officers are essential, but many are.
When putting together the big budget puzzle it’s not possible to focus on every minor folly in every last encampment, but it can be said with unqualified certainly that wholesale cuts cause irreparable harm.
There’s no way that pilots or tank crews can be just as good with less drill and practice. It’s easy for Finance Ministry bureaucrats to make light of what they dub as “bluffs and scare tactics,” but we can never be absolutely certain that there are no real risks.
Therefore, the budgetary compromise was inevitable.
We cannot afford doctrinaire tight-fistedness when our very survival prospects may be on the line. We shouldn’t sleep soundly when we recall what lack of preparedness and lackadaisical budgetary slashes wrought in the Second Lebanon War – a mere seven years ago.