Priorities for the IDF Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted priorities that animated nations only weeks ago, severely disrupting daily life and the global economy. As Israel struggles to contain the outbreak, its military must reckon with the dramatic changes unfolding at home and across the volatile Middle East – and recalibrate accordingly. In these uncertain times, Washington should protect its own regional interests by considering ways to support its ally, without expending resources that must be spent domestically.

Israel is situated in a hostile neighborhood on the best of days, facing what Israel Defense Force leaders often describe as three concentric threat circles. The first is populated by nearby terrorist groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, all of which receive Iranian aid. The second includes conventional threats, namely the Syrian military, which is bolstered by Iran’s Shiite militias and Hezbollah. The third circle encompasses unconventional dangers, mainly the specter of nuclear warfare with Iran. The Islamic Republic stands as a driving force in all three categories.

To address these challenges, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi formally launched the ambitious five-year plan “Momentum” in February, following an extensive, yearlong assessment. The plan aims to increase the military’s lethality while shortening the duration of operations. It calls for integrating IDF systems into an advanced network that will empower fighting units to access precise, timely intelligence and rapidly locate and destroy enemy targets, all while minimizing damage to Israeli forces and the home front. “Momentum” recognizes that despite its missile defense systems, the Israeli economy and critical national infrastructure suffer while the country is under attack, and aims to neutralize threats with maximum efficiency.

Yet funding for “Momentum” was unclear before the pandemic hit, amid protracted political deadlock and efforts to reduce Israel’s snowballing budget deficit. It now faces complete derailment, as Israel implements unprecedented restrictions to fight the pandemic that have raised its unemployment rate from under 4% to a staggering 24%. This economic crisis led the government to recently introduce an NIS 80 b. ($22.6 b.) stimulus plan, further swelling the deficit.

With plummeting tax revenues, increased expenditures and declining growth, the Israeli government will face serious budgetary difficulties even before it considers additional IDF funding. The makeup of Israel’s expected unity government will add another layer of complexity, as a cabinet with broad backing and two former IDF chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, can more easily question military requests or reallocate defense spending without major political blowback.

Kochavi will have to reassess the IDF’s operational requirements in light of what the economy can now afford, and to reevaluate Israel’s strategic environment. Though coronavirus has severely impacted Iran, Tehran’s proxies have continued confronting US forces in Iraq while a Hezbollah drone recently breached Israeli airspace. The pandemic’s lasting impact on the Middle East remains to be seen.

Kochavi has multiple solutions at his disposal, as well as the requisite experience, vision, and leadership ability. The IDF could prioritize its response to first-circle threats like Hamas and Hezbollah, and rely on its existing capabilities to counter the nuclear threat. The military can also explore outsourcing second and third-tier support activities that do not directly impact readiness. Such tradeoffs would both reduce fixed costs and provide a needed boost to the civil sector.

The IDF should also reconsider its “mega projects,” such as the Eitan armored personnel carrier (APC) and the new self-propelled artillery gun ATMOS. It could use US foreign military support to procure American platforms, or to manufacture them in the US. Critical R&D operations, both domestically and with the US should, however, not be suspended, as they will ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and support economic growth.

The IDF should pursue further solutions along with its American ally, whose regional interests Israel helps protect. As detailed in a November report by JINSA, the countries could frontload the funds already designated by the 2016 memorandum of understanding (MoU) on US defense assistance to Israel, which are currently locked at a steady annual level through 2027. For instance, Israel could take a commercial loan against the MoU and use the funds to procure critical weapons. The US would incur no additional costs, while its post-pandemic economy would benefit as Israel must spend most of the funds on American equipment.

Washington may also consider replenishing its prepositioned munition stockpiles in Israel, to further improve readiness and deterrence. This could be done by relocating existing US regional stocks, which would not initially involve new outlays.

These solutions will still require the IDF to sacrifice portions of its strategic vision, at least in the short term. Yet the military already has the advantage of strong tactical leadership, rigorous training, and extensive operational contingency plans. With careful preparation, it will be able to deftly navigate the challenges of the post-pandemic landscape.

IDF Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaacov Ayish is a former Israeli Defense Attaché to the United States and Canada, and former head of the IDF General Staff Operations Branch. He is senior vice president for Israeli Affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).

Originally published in Jerusalem Post