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Israel’s Defense Budget Dilemma Looks Familiar

June 3, 2014

By Benjamin Runkle, JINSA Director of Programs

I have begun to retype my notes from the recently completed Generals and Admirals Trip to Israel in preparation for drafting the trip report.

This year’s delegation participated in more than thirty briefings with senior Israeli political leaders and military commanders, to include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff LTG Benny Gantz, the Chiefs of Staff of the Israeli Air Force and Navy, and the Commanders of Israel’s four regional commands. One recurring theme that came up in several of the meetings was one familiar to those of us who have been closely following debates about the U.S. defense budget over the past three years. Specifically, as Israel faces a greater diversity of operational threats and increasing regional instability, it also faces significant cuts to the IDF budget.

cutsAn op-ed by Amos Harel that appeared in Ha’aretz while the delegation was in Israel — and was passed from general officer to general officer on the bus while en route to Central Command headquarters — conveys Israel’s dilemma. Without commenting on Harel’s political analysis (i.e. his depiction of the IDF as having cried wolf in the past) I have to say that the parallels between the IDF’s budget crisis and that of the U.S. military (especially our Army) is striking. Just as LTG Gantz had to halt training exercises – the only flexible component in the IDF budget – in order to “close the budget gap,” budgetary pressures have forced the U.S. Army to raid its “readiness” accounts in order to produce immediate savings. In 2013 the Army cancelled six rotations at its premier training centers and limited 80 percent of its forces to basic home-base training at only the squad level or below. Whereas LTG Gantz complained about the government’s failure to approve the IDF’s multi-year plans, a common criticism of the 2011 Budget Control Act (a.k.a. “sequestration”) is that by mandating across-the-board cuts, the ensuing uncertainty prevents the Services from conducting effective long-range planning on issues such as weapons procurement and force structures.

Moreover, since the JINSA delegation’s return to the States, Defense News reports that Israel’s Defense Ministry has suspended planned procurement contracts, slowed work on major R&D projects, and warned of a wave of defense industry layoffs to come if the budget shortfalls persist. Interestingly, Israeli Treasury officials credit the Ministry of Defense (MoD) with improving efficiency “in its effort to squeeze more spending power from the non-fixed portion of its budget,” a goal that still generally eludes our Defense Department. However, Treasury still insists “that MoD could and should reform procedures governing the amount of money it spends on pensions and rehabilitation,” a statement that echoes the question of U.S. military personnel costs that was at the center of debate regarding last winter’s Ryan-Murray budget proposal.

These budgetary crises emerge from related corners of each country’s political landscape. In Israel, the success of deterrence and defensive measures since 2006, and the perception of Israel as an oasis of calm amidst the Middle East’s growing turmoil made possible the mass protests in 2011 that called for the prioritization of domestic over defense spending. In the United States, a decade of war has left the public weary of international entanglements and eager to conduct what President Obama termed “nation-building at home.” Indeed, there is no easy answer to the hard choices posed by the Scylla and Charybdis of increased threats to national security in the near-term and the long-term threat posed by America’s ballooning national debt.

I don’t know whether it is reassuring or disconcerting that our ally Israel faces a similar dilemma.

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