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National Agenda : Israeli Military Forced to Do More With Less : * Reduced budgets and shifting strategies in the Middle East.

July 16, 1991|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — Deep and painful change is in store for the Israel Defense Forces, the Middle East's most powerful army, as it tries to reduce costs while strengthening itself in a region that is speedily rearming only months after the short and devastating Persian Gulf War.

So far, cuts for Israel's army have been cosmetic: the closure of about 30 military journals, a threat to silence the rock'n'roll-heavy army radio station. But the first slices foreshadow a new, lean era for the IDF in what is described as the most thorough shift in resources and priorities in the last 30 years.

Long-delayed cutbacks in troop numbers are expected. Noncombat units may disappear from the map. Planes and tanks are going into storage.

A plateau in defense spending is the primary cause for the coming moves, but money is only part of the issue. Israel wants to proceed briskly into the era of high-technology warfare to maintain its military edge over Arab neighbors. High-tech can mean high costs, especially during a transition period. That's where the balancing act between money and modernization begins.

"Israel has to be ready for war at any moment, change or not," said Ariel Levite, an expert on Israel's military doctrine. "Long-term change cannot get in the way of immediate readiness."

Signs of distress have begun to break out, and there are suggestions that rather than cut, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would prefer that Washington provide extra money.

Two weeks ago, Defense Minister Moshe Arens appealed for a sharp increase in U.S. military aid, to $2.5 billion from the $1.8-billion annual rate that has prevailed since 1986. He also called on Washington to invest in the Israeli arms industry and buy more Israeli weapons to keep military factories afloat.

Arens also wants to increase the amount of U.S. aid that Israel can use to pay for Israeli-made arms. Under an arrangement unique to the Jewish state, Washington currently permits Israel to spend almost $500 million of its American aid at home rather than in purchases from U.S. arms makers.

Arens justified the request for increased aid on the grounds that inflation has eroded the value of the U.S. military aid package, and that U.S. arms sales to Arab countries require a parallel boost for Israel.

"The sale of weaponry to Arab armies, including sale of American arms, has put an increased burden on Israel," Arens said in an interview here.

"Everyone wants to have everything. You can imagine what will happen when forces are cut and people lose jobs," declared Zeev Eytan, who researches defense issues for Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Beneath the surface lie subtle modifications in the way Israel plans to defend itself. Since the mid-1950s, Israel has committed itself to decisively taking combat to the territory of its adversary. For Israel, small and poor in resources, quick and powerful offense was considered the best defense.

But the Gulf War, in which Israel became a target for Iraq's erratic Scud missiles, suggested to some that Israel may have overplayed offense and deterrence. Deterrence did not deter; Iraqi missiles killed at least two and injured scores of civilians, damaged hundreds of apartments and disrupted life in two of Israel's biggest cities--all this despite solemn and repeated warnings that any attack on Israel would be repaid hundredfold.

"An Israeli weak point was exposed," said Aharon Levran, a retired general and former analyst at the Jaffee Center. "Deterrence is not a solid component, but something fluid. It may work or not work, depending on the situation."

Israel was restrained by Washington, which worried about expanding the war into a generalized Israeli-Arab conflict. But had Israel been let loose, it would have been faced with new and difficult choices. For the first time, Israel was hit not by a country on its border or by armies trying to cross its frontier, but by an enemy two borders away. To stamp out the missiles, Israel would have had to mass scores of jets to scout out and hit the elusive launchers in repeated sorties over Iraq. One plan called for Israel to ferry troops to western Iraq in order to destroy the missiles at their hidden sites.

Had Israeli jets flown over Jordan, they would have risked widening the war, exactly what Iraqi President Saddam Hussein wanted. Given the unusually complex transport problems and dispersal of the missile launchers, success of commando operations would have been even more problematic.

"Even if Israel used the offensive option, good results were not guaranteed," Levran said.

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