The Israeli government will have to decide on a new budget in 2020 for the Israel Defense Forces, after the current military funding program comes to an end. The question of just how much money the IDF needs has, in the past, caused political crises and long-running feuds between the ministries of Defense and Finance, until, in 2015, a multi-year program was finally worked out.
According to the Israel Ministry of Defense, the IDF received 55.3 billion shekels ($15.4 billion) in 2019, not including additional special cash injections. The question of how much money the military will need to develop its capabilities and meet its many challenging operational requirements in the coming years will be key going forward.
If you ask the IDF, the answer appears to be that the current budget needs to get bigger.
In a December 2018 report, IDF Comptroller Brig. Gen. Ilan Harari called for an increase in the military’s annual budget by 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion shekels ($400 million to $667 million) to ensure that the ground forces remain in good shape.
Eado Hecht, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a defense analyst specializing in military theory and military history, told JNS that any budget consideration must take into account the fact that Israel must prepare to win against “an alliance of potential rivals,” rather than a single foe.
Hecht, who also lectures at the IDF Command and General Staff College, pointed out that none of Israel’s neighbors, except Saudi Arabia, has a defense budget that approaches the Israeli one.
At the same time, he said, “every shekel or dollar in Israel’s possession is worth less than the same shekel/dollar in the hands of these [neighboring] entities because they have much cheaper expenses than [Israel]. Thus, for example, an Israeli professional soldier is more expensive than his counterpart in every Arab army [including in the armies of Hezbollah and Hamas]. An Israeli reserve soldier is more expensive than their reserve soldiers. In fact, an Israeli conscripted soldier who is very cheap in Israeli terms is far more expensive than a professional soldier in the entities that surround us.”
In addition, Hecht said, Israel produces its own weapons or purchases them from the West, primarily from the United States, and some from other countries. “American and Western equipment in general is more expensive than its Russian equivalent and weapons from other places. Does the qualitative gap justify the gap in prices?”
Ultimately, he argued, Israel has to make sure that it has sufficiently trained soldiers—and enough of them—and sufficient weaponry to be able to deal with an alliance of potential enemies. This assessment leads to a critical question, he said, “Is our priority in defense spending correct?”
Hecht noted the four clauses that make up all defense budgets: personnel, acquisition of means, training and continuous operational needs, such as infrastructure, structures and food.
When it comes to spending on personnel, Hecht believes that the IDF is acting as efficiently as possible. Any cuts in this area will result in damage to the military’s operational capabilities, he cautioned. As one example, the IDF’s reduction of personnel at weapons’ storehouses resulted in harm to its readiness in providing equipment for the reserves, according to a 2018 report by the former IDF Ombudsman, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brick.
Expenditure on personnel accounts for roughly two-thirds of the defense budget—35 billion to 39 billion shekels ($10 billion to 11 billion), not including U.S. assistance money, stated Hecht.
“The British army, whose conscripted personnel size is approximately the same as that of the IDF, but which only has one-tenth of the reserve personnel of the IDF, spends $22 billion to keep these people,” said Hecht. “That is the gap between a military of salaried-volunteer soldiers and a military of conscripts who receive enlarged pocket money.”
Expensive technology at the expense of adequate numbers?
Addressing the military’s expenses on continuous needs, particularly in regard to the building of structures and furniture, Hecht said he spotted some overindulgence. “On the other hand, some of this spending is about service conditions,” he added.
The most amount of wastefulness appears in acquisitions, according to Hecht. One example is the upgrade of the already advanced Merkava 4 main battle tank. The upgraded version will be known as the Barak 4 and will feature an onboard artificial intelligence system that will provide tank commanders with recommendations for courses of action.
“I think we are wasting a lot of money on unnecessary means,” said Hecht. “We have fully utilized this tank’s development, and it is better to use the money on enhancing other things. That is also true for artillery guns, mortars and rockets. Here, too, the IDF is going for extreme acquisitions of expensive technologies at the expense of numbers [of weapons].”
Hecht argued that “in most areas, the technology is already sufficient,” and said that Israeli defense industries should invest in developing similar capabilities for less.
He pointed out the Israeli Navy’s surge in new platforms is also forming a major black hole for expenses, especially with warships that will be carrying the “most expensive items on the menu—expensive to buy and to maintain.” Israel is set to receive four German-made Sa’ar 6 Magen ships with highly advanced radars, missiles and command networks. Additionally, the maintenance costs for Israel’s new Dolphin submarines will “be very high,” said Hecht.
“The more the onboard technology costs, the less we buy of it and the less we have of it—and the more we fear using it,” he said. Instead, the IDF could invest in a force that is a little less powerful, but which has a greater number of cheaper weapons.
Hecht acknowledged that the IDF is training much more than it did in the years 2000 to 2006, but added, “We are really not training enough.”
The former Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Gadi Eizenkot, increased the period of allocated training time, but “if we don’t enlarge the resources allocated to this same training, this will remain an illusion. So more money is needed for training. But I think most or all of it can be taken from wasteful acquisitions. This is especially true for the ground forces, but also, the air force and navy would not be harmed if they review their investments.”
All in all, Hecht said, “I would cautiously assess that I think the defense budget is certainly big enough, and a central problem is the correct management in terms of priorities.”
He referred to the principle that states that “the worst enemy of the good enough is the attempt to create the excellent,” adding, “Once the IDF knew how to do this [achieve good enough capabilities], not because everything was perfect in the past; it never was. But against much more severe threats, we managed with much less.”