Israeli defence spending remains the world’s fifth highest per person and young Jews continue to do up to three years of military service. In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the army’s hold on the body politic can still be felt, but it is no longer as strong as it once was. As Israel’s economy has boomed, military spending has fallen from 17.7% of GDP in 1991 to around 6% today. The Knesset sliced $1 billion off the most recent defence budget, the steepest cut in two decades. Led by a maverick hawk, Moshe Feiglin, politicians of all stripes are campaigning to professionalise what has long been a people’s army. “The compulsory draft produces adverse results,” says Mr Feiglin. “The IDF relies on cheap manual labour instead of specialisation and technology and this harms the country’s defences.”
Although stopping short of ending the draft, the Knesset this month approved a military restructuring plan that prods the army towards professionalisation. It urges a shift away from manpower-intensive armoured divisions in favour of the air force, intelligence collection and cyber-warfare. Conscripts are encouraged to extend their three-year terms. Plodding ground forces increasingly feel like a burden, lawmakers say.
Out will go some 4,500 officers, an artillery brigade wielding howitzers and hundreds of ageing Merkava and M60 tanks, some as old as the Vietnam war. In will come the new training ground in the Negev desert. It resembles a high-tech park, fit for an age when a technician in Tel Aviv can attack a target in Teheran. “The current and future battlefields are totally different from what we knew in the past,” writes Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, fittingly, on his Facebook page. One of the reasons behind Israel’s new order of battle is the Arab spring. The armies in the largest neighbouring countries no longer represent the conventional threat they once did. Egypt’s is too busy with domestic politics and Syria’s has ceased to exist as a coherent force. “We’re surrounded by failed states,” declares a minister. Syria and Iraq are “to a great extent” out of commission, an officer echoes. The gap in technical capabilities widens every year. Arab armies cannot keep up.
To be sure, Israel still has lots of mortal enemies. Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia, controls tens of thousands of missiles. Extremist groups in Sinai, Gaza and Syria loathe the country and so does Iran, which sponsors some of them. Yet, these outfits do not present traditional threats. Tanks are useless against Iran’s nuclear programme or a band of jihadists. Air force commanders praise rapid-reaction units that make use of fighter jets, drones, intelligence and cyber-warfare. They stress that operations using such forces cause fewer casualties and thus reduce the risk that a conflict will escalate. A series of Israeli strikes in Syria and Sudan on missiles apparently bound for Hizbullah and Hamas have resulted in no tangible fallout so far. They have also spared Israel the international condemnation that ground invasions tend to ignite. The IDF has already changed enormously in recent years. Its largest unit, 8200, is focused on cyber-warfare. The air force has taken over some tasks from ground forces. “In 2000 only 1% of Gaza’s terrorists were killed from the air. Today it’s 98%,” according to a senior air force commander. Last November’s offensive against Gaza militants was conducted almost entirely from the air, without the deployment of ground troops. “Fewer and fewer civilians are serving in the reserves and in combat roles,” says Yagil Levy, an Israeli academic who writes about Israel’s armed forces. “There’s a growing gap between the army and the rest of society.” Israel still needs some boots on the ground, however. In a fight with Hizbullah, infantry would search southern Lebanon for hidden missiles aimed at Jewish population centres.
The Israel Defence Forces: Taking wing, Economist, Aug. 10, 2013, at 44