Forwarded from THE JERUSALEM POST of May 11, 1997
Syria is waving the war option. A shrinking budget is driving the IDF to a red line. Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Matan Vilna'i speaks out in an Independence Day interview
After close to an hour of talking about ballistic missiles, chemical weapons and bereaved families, Maj.-Gen. Matan Vilna'i looks out the window of a conference room in the prime minister's office to reflect on a brilliant spring Friday. "People have to understand that we have not reached the stage of repose," the deputy IDF chief of staff says. "Even if it is hard to understand on such a beautiful day in Jerusalem."
Vilna'i, who turns 53 this month, regards himself as a professional soldier thoroughly ingrained in spit-and-polish discipline. He doesn't seem to feel much at home in the prime minister's office. He grimaces as he passes a bag of potted dirt that had spilled in the corridor. Just as he was getting settled into a cushioned swivel chair, Minister Ariel Sharon comes in with his aides to conduct a discussion.
But Vilna'i is used to discomfort. A lean man with a ready smile, he waits hours outside the Cabinet conference room to be summoned for a presentation on civil defense. He appears relaxed with the man who will decide whether Vilna'i is promoted to chief of staff: Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, once his longtime rival as both rose up the ranks of the military.
These days Vilna'i's main job is planning for the increased prospect of war. He says he is hoping for the best but expecting the worst. One scenario is a preemptive missile strike from Syria and Iran. Both countries have huge arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. The Israeli challenge will be to protect Israeli civilians, knock out as many incoming missiles as possible and launch a swift and lethal counterattack.
That costs money and Vilna'i says the military simply can't make do with its NIS30 billion. The IDF, he says, has to be prepared for three realms of threats. One is the terrorist threat; the other is the conventional military threat from Israel's Arab neighbors; the last is the long- range missile threat from such countries as Iran. Such a preparation is costly. Money is required for research into new weapons, protecting the soldiers on the battlefield and civilians at home and maintaining a powerful offensive force, whether in the armored corps or the air force.
Vilna'i is an easy conversationalist but he avoids giving details of assessments of Iranian non-conventional weapons capability, saying this belongs in the shadowy realm of intelligence. He also won't talk about security cooperation with the Palestinians. "This has turned into a political question," he says. "What [Palestinian Authority security chief] Jibril [Rajoub] said and what we said. It has already turned into a political question and I don't want to deal with this."
Q: How does the IDF prepare for a situation in which the chances of war with Syria have increased?
A: There are three circles and people have to understand the complexity of the subject. They see a terrorist bombing and react to this. We have to invest in the three circles and act accordingly. The first is terrorism, both inside and outside [our] borders. This is Islamic fundamentalism. [Dealing with] the subject of the suicide attacker is very difficult and requires manpower and funding.
In addition, you have the conventional threat. Right now, it focuses on Syria. The Egyptians and Jordanians are at peace with us. And then [we know] from the Gulf war, there are countries who don't share borders with us but threaten us. There is arming by Arab countries with long-range ballistic missiles. We have a great air force. They can't reach us so they use missiles. This [threat] requires a lot of resources.
And the most important [thing] is that this threat is being fleshed out. I can't say what will happen. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, it is said that the ability of prophecy was given only to children and fools. Q: Are there any changes in IDF priorities since the military began to improve its preparedness for war?
A: Since last August the Syrians have begun to wave the war option. They didn't say they are going to war. They said this is an option and we took this seriously. We think that this option is being fleshed out.
Q: Are the Syrians actually preparing for war?
A: We are listening to their words very carefully and we are examining what they are doing in the field. The Syrians have a large army and a standing army. So, the Syrian forces in the Golan facing us at any particular moment are larger than ours. Just from this they can make one short move in order to achieve something. We have to prepare for this. It's very hard to assess.
Q: What is the role of the Syrian missiles in any future war? Are they a deterrent to an Israeli attempt to widen a war that Damascus starts in the Golan?
A: This is in the realm of speculation. The missiles allow them to strike within Israel. We are having discussions [about] what they want to do with them. The Syrians learned the lesson from the Gulf war. They saw the influence of 42 Iraqi missiles against Israel. They could use the missiles to disrupt mobilization. They could reserve the missiles to deter us from striking deep within Syria. In the Yom Kippur war, we struck infrastructure throughout Syria. They may be saying to themselves if Israel tries it again, they will attack. We have to be prepared for a difficult scenario. And that scenario is that in the beginning of the war they will try to exact the maximum from these tools.
Q: Does the Syrian introduction of VX nerve gas change Israel's policy of civil defense?
A: It's part of the process. Only the Syrians have it. It's a dangerous gas that has an effect over time. The Iranians tried to develop this. Everything comes to this region. The only question is when.
Q: Does the stress on civil defense detract from Israel's deterrence to enemy attack by non-conventional weapons? During the Gulf war, we gave out gas masks yet never retaliated against Saddam, leading several strategists to conclude that we simply encouraged an Iraqi missile attack?
A: Our assessment is that the difference between a protected population and an unprotected population means the difference in dozens of percentage points [ie. of numbers killed] in the achievements of the enemy. When the enemy strikes against a protected population he understands that [the] effect will be limited and that he will be in trouble. You can't use the Gulf war as an example. There was a coalition and it was understood that we wouldn't act. Whoever deduces our future response from that of the Gulf war is mistaken.
Q: What does this do to the defense budget?
A: For several years, we have maintained that there is no proportion between the size of the army and the budget. They try to cut from here and there. There is no doubt that [we are] reaching a red line. We are presenting our gaps and from there the discussion ends.
We are saying day and night that the budget is too small for [our] missions.
Q: Are we in a better position regarding the level of military supplies needed for war?
A: The models used to explain this issue are very difficult. It is clear that we have to determine whether
the soldier in south Lebanon is to be protected or that we have [war] supplies for 30 days. I prefer that the soldier be protected. Every decision has to be balanced by the three circles of threats. It is a difficult decision.
The simplest decision is that the soldier has to be protected. But what happens on the 29th day [when the military supplies run out]? One thing is clear. We would rather have more units with shortages in supplies than fewer units with a full compliment of supplies. We would prefer four artillery battalions with 30 percent of required supplies than two artillery battalions fully stocked.
[We] could always bring the ammunition from somewhere. But to establish battalions? That's something else. We have invested more than NIS1 billion [in resupply] and our situation has improved.
Q: Does the sensitivity of the IDF to casualties represent a failure of our fighting spirit?
A: We have the most protected army in the world. The IDF is sensitive to casualties. From the start of Jewish settlement here, this has been true. We went through the Holocaust. [The late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser said during the War of Attrition he would hurt us through [the fact] our casualties [would be] reported in the newspapers. We would have 6-8 casualties a day. He didn't understand this [willingness to sacrifice ourselves] was the source of our strength.
Q: Today Israeli society has changed. Can we sustain high casualties in conflict?
A: We [regard] anything that can protect the soldiers as a supreme principle [to which] we invest without accounting. We have increased investment in protection by hundreds of percent. There are cases when not only has this saved lives but [it has] improved the efficiency of our forces. If you are in an unprotected vehicle and you are attacked you are finished. But if you are protected you can counterattack. You can see this in the recent incidents in south Lebanon. Protection is a means of battle. It does not mean we are cowards.
The fighting spirit is something else. We draft wonderful boys who volunteer for combat units. But like every society there are developments that we have to cope with. People have to understand that we have not reached the stage of repose. Even this is hard to understand on such a beautiful day in Jerusalem.
Q: What is the role of bereaved families in the considerations of the IDF?
A: The IDF is a huge establishment and we must provide an explanation [in regard to] anybody killed. This is part of our commitment to the citizens of the state. It seems to me logical that we have to support the families and explain the tragedy that has befallen them.
On the other hand, these families don't turn into experts in these fields from the moment the tragedies
occur. The expertise remains with the experts. We aren't trying to hide anything. We will defend any commander who operates according to the orders of the army. He will get our full support. We do inspect mishaps. Indeed, in the last helicopter tragedy, we arrived at [a] personal conclusion [and people lost their jobs].
Q: What do you tell these officers who fear that they will be put on trial because of pressure from the bereaved families? Is the message that they have to worry about covering themselves in case of accidents?
A:This is a profession. If they erred, we can't overlook this. It doesn't matter if there is a tragedy or not. There are orders and they must be observed.
Q: Do you agree that the mid-level officers don't see their jobs as being part of Zionism but as a career?
A: Why only take the mid-level officers? Take a command general, chief of staff and intelligence chief. All of them were dismissed after the Yom Kippur war. It was an earthquake. But did people stop becoming chief of staff? They had to cope with this. People have to treat it as a profession. But it is a unique profession that is done because of what is beyond it. It is not [like being] an accountant. That's why the people are the best in the country.
Q: How can Israel maintain a qualitative edge over its Arab neighbors, as the US has promised us, in this era of an open arms market?
A: There are professional parameters to maintain the qualitative edge. Acquiring planes is part of the qualitative edge along with acquiring other systems that I don't want to elaborate on. The US is committed to this not only in words but in deeds. We feel they are listening to us and are trying to help us as much as they can.
Because of the complicated situation in the Middle East, we have to constantly maintain this edge.
Q: Talking about US warplanes, what are the considerations of choosing Israel's next fighter-jet?
A: We are discussing this. The $2.5 billion [for the current batch of F-15 Is] is no small amount of money. Can we use it for terror? No, it goes for other circles of threats. Had we spent it on terror, we could have made a difference. There will be a discussion. There are many possibilities. The US money is [to help] improve the capability of the Air Force. The F-15 I is an old decision. There could be a new US airplane. It is clear that the giant US manufacturers will present us with options. There could be improvement of the F-16. It could be more F-15s. We haven't even decided on a timetable. If you have delivery in the year 2000 it's one thing. If it's 1999 it's another thing and this could make a difference of millions [of dollars].
Q: Turkey and Israel are engaged in a strategic dialogue. What is the significance of Turkey in Israel's strategy?
A: The Turks and us feel that the ties between us are very important. The geostrategic position of Turkey is very [important]. I don't want to go into details but there is another side to consider. They have geostrategic position; there is a market [for weapons in Turkey].
Q: Has the dialogue made Turkey more sensitive to Israel's concerns and vice versa?
A: I believe in talks. Every discussion clarifies things.
Look at the visit of the foreign minister [David Levy to Ankara in April]. They said they didn't want him and look how he was accepted. One meeting and things look different.
Q: We also have a military dialogue with Russia and China and they are the biggest suppliers of non-conventional weaponry to Iran. Can this dialogue end up helping our enemies?
A: Dialogue doesn't guarantee that you get what you want. Dialogue with Russia and China is better than not having any dialogue. But a dialogue doesn't mean your interests change.
What are the Russians and Chinese giving Iran? Why don't the Americans share our assessment? These are discussions conducted in the intelligence community. In general, the Iranian unconventional programs depend on outside help. The question is what is the extent of the help. There are [attempts] to present this as only an effort by a few companies. It's an intelligence issue and each side presents its evidence. I can tell you, however, that wherever we have presented the issue we have convinced others. The Americans have acted in response to our requests.
Despite the growing size of the standing army, will the IDF continue to be a force based on the reserves? The IDF doctrine that was begun under Ben-Gurion is that there is a professional career nucleus and around it is built the reserve forces. Wherever the professionalism is greater the more you need career soldiers. This is the why the air force, navy and intelligence corps have a larger standing force. A significant change in our doctrine can only take place when there is a change in the Middle East. So the essential structure remains with adaptations. There is no revolution. Also, the reserve army has great
weight in the image of the army as a people's army and also helps society understand what is required of it. I don't see any revolutions in this despite efforts to ease the burden on reservists.
Q: On Israel's 49th birthday, should we feel safer living in this country?
A: I can say that we still face many threats and we haven't gotten to the stage of repose and the capability to stand up to this depends on every citizen. The IDF is us. The more people understand this the better off we are.
Q: Finally, as deputy chief of staff what do you see as the role of the IDF in society? Many visiting US commanders are surprised at the refusal of their Israeli counterparts to discuss anything they regard as political. These US officers say they feel a need to speak out regarding anything that affects US security. Why does the army here regard this as political?
A: What is the threat to the American army - the Mexican army, the Canadian army? Where are we living? The Americans are happy. They are dealing with strategy. We are dealing with issues that divide Israeli society. It is true [both] with the Palestinians and Lebanon. [Former US Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger said that we don't have a foreign policy, only a domestic policy. So, I prefer that the IDF stays out of the political debate and takes professional positions. We will express our professional position. This is my mission and this is what we will do.
(c) Jerusalem Post 1997