Thousands of Israeli men got a phone call in recent weeks that changed their summer schedules. A week of training with their reserve units had been cancelled due to cutbacks.
For some, this signalled the end of their army lives, as the Israel Defence Force closes down a number of reserve units, including an entire armoured brigade.
For over six decades, the Israeli military maintained large armoured formations, calling up their soldiers twice a year for training and active service along the borders or in the occupied territories.
Now, the IDF has decided that in a period of increasing budget austerity, changing attitudes towards military spending and general chaos in the neighbouring Arab countries, the day of these large formations is over.
Around NIS 3 billion (£550m) have been cut from the defence budget — but that is not the only reason the army is scaling back its ground forces. The IDF’s basic structure was supposed to allow it to fight against large regular armies, on two fronts simultaneously. But the last time Israel fought a regular army was over three decades ago in limited skirmishes against the Syrian soldiers in the First Lebanon Army.
Few believe Israel will need a large ground force in the foreseeable future
With Syria and Egypt both now in deepening turmoil, and Jordan and Lebanon — which have small armies anyway — looking increasingly unstable, few analysts believe Israel will need large ground forces in the foreseeable future.
The cutbacks are not just to the large tank divisions. The IDF is also closing down an artillery brigade, one fighter-jet squadron and another attack helicopter squadron, as well as retiring three missile boats.
The army will be investing more in advanced intelligence capabilities, guided weapons and unmanned systems, areas that Israel’s defence planners say will be crucial over the coming decade. The IDF faces the morphing challenge of jihadist groups on its various borders and terror organisations such as Hizbollah and Hamas acquiring ever-more sophisticated weaponry.
Some senior officers believe, however, that the emphasis should remain on ground forces with work carried out to improve their mobility and survivability. Retired Brigadier-General Moshe Tamir said last month in an interview with Haaretz that “every Israeli should be worried that the ground forces are disappearing from the toolbox that the political leadership can use in time of war.”