Paramilitary: Specialists For The Northern Border

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January 26, 2019: Israel has created a new army reserve battalion to improve defenses along the 79 kilometer long Lebanese border. With the increasing threat from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and the discovery of five and destruction of four Hezbollah tunnels at the end of 2018, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) revised its security measures for the Lebanese border. A key element in that is the new “Gates of Fire” reserve infantry battalion for the Baram reserve infantry brigade. The battalion was created at the same time the Hezbollah tunnels were being destroyed. This tunnel incident made it clear that Hezbollah considered surprise attack across the Lebanese border a high priority. It was already known that Hezbollah had been training special border crossing units with men prepared to try sneaking across the border before a war started and causing as much disruption and destruction as possible before and after thousands of rockets were fired from Lebanon during the first few hours of combat. The tunnels were to have made it easier for the border crossing units to show up in Israeli territory without risking discovery by border guards. With the risk of more tunnels and increased efforts by Hezbollah to get armed men into Israel, the IDF called on a major military asset, the reserve troops.

The new battalion is largely composed of soldiers who had recently served in the Reconnaissance Battalion of the Golani Brigade, which is in charge of defending the Syrian border and Golan Heights. Every Israeli infantry brigade has a Reconnaissance Battalion which handles more than reconnaissance. One of the three companies in these battalions is a reconnaissance unit the other two companies handle combat engineers and heavy weapons. Thus using men who ended their active service in the Golani Reconnaissance Battalion in the last four years provides the Gates of Fire battalion with troops already trained to handle the unique situation found on the Lebanese border (which now includes tunnel detection or at least dealing with the possibility of more tunnels) and defense of a wall that already covers a third of the Lebanese border and will eventually cover all of it. The new battalion will not only train to quickly defend the border area but will also plan how best to carry out attacks into Lebanon during wartime. Most of the personnel in this new reserve infantry battalion will end up serving for a long time (most Israeli veterans serve in a reserve until their late 30s after leaving their 32 months of active service in their early 20s). Although most reservists are only called up to active duty (for training or an emergency) 36 days a year they are constantly thinking about what is going on in the area they are assigned to. After all, that could be a matter of life or death in wartime. Israeli reservists have frequently demonstrated how well this works because the reserve troops get to know those they work with well and develop skills that only come from years of training with the same people. That’s a vital factor in combat because troops tend to trust someone they don’t know in a combat situation.

This Reserve system is one reason Israel has the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East and manages to achieve this with a population of only eight million. While only two percent of the population is in the active army, nearly five percent are in the reserves. There are former full-time soldiers who train regularly and can be called back to active service quickly. This is called the "reserve system" and it is a relatively recent development.

It all began in the early 19th century when several major European nations began conscripting civilians for the military on a regular basis. These soldiers served for only two or three years before being released. Shortly thereafter, clever staff officers in several nations came up with the notion of bringing some of these former soldiers back to the army in times of national danger. This was done by enrolling discharged soldiers in reserve units and having them show up in uniform and with weapons for some training a few times a year. Thus began the "reserve system," which enabled enormous armies to be created quickly and relatively inexpensively. World Wars I and II would not have been possible without the reserve system.

Some nations, like Israel, Sweden and Switzerland took the reserve system to an extreme. These three nations enrolled a large portion of the adult males into the reserves. As a result, full mobilization called up so much of the population that it severely disrupted the economy. Sweden and Switzerland are neutral and depend more on the threat of mobilization. Israel has had to mobilize many times in the past and will probably have to do it again. So Israel has to win quickly, and her enemies know that. However, Israel has adapted its economy to full mobilization. Back in the early 1980s, such a mobilization put 15 percent of the population in uniform, but now it's half that. So Israel can keep fighting for a bit longer.

Israel, Sweden and Switzerland all depend on reserve units, formed around reservists from the same area. While some reservists are used to reinforce active duty units, most mobilize and go to war with their local reserve units. In effect, reservists serve in units that will, quite literally, defend the homes and families of the reservists. That is a tremendous motivator to learn military skills and perform your duties effectively.

Israel is unique in that its reservists, especially those in combat units, are frequently mobilized in peacetime. About 30 percent of Israeli reservists are mobilized each year (for more than a few days), often for only a week or two. About two-thirds of those mobilized are combat troops. Not surprisingly, half of the reserve troops are married. Over 15 percent of the reservists are women (up from 11 percent in 2008). About the same percentage of Israeli reservists were born overseas. Reservists serve until their early 40s, if physically able, and can continue until 51. In combat units, most of the troops are in their 20s and 30s with some officers and senior officers still serving in their 40s.

The reserve system periodically goes through changes based on experience, new situations and new technology. By 2014 there were some major changes that took advantage of the declining need for calling up reservists for active service. Reservists are being called up less often since the 1990s. The change was rather dramatic with reservist active duty declining 75 percent (from 10 million man-months to 2.5 million). There were also changes in training and administration that required less manpower and money. Some of this was made possible by past experience but a lot of it was due to new technology (computerization of administration and simulated training). Politicians were also scrutinizing pensions and benefits for senior officers, which had crept up since the 1980s. There were now new restrictions on retired generals from becoming politicians right after they retire.

The continued heavy use of reserve duty had a downside. The most obvious sign of this was declining morale and the growing number of young men and women who are avoiding service (draft dodgers in U.S. parlance). The Israeli armed forces has about 176,000 people on active duty, about 60 percent of those are draftees (men serving for 32 months, women for 21 months) and a third are women (who can serve in 90 percent of military jobs). There are another 445,000 reservists (those who have already completed their active service). You get drafted at 18 unless you have a deferment. Currently, about a quarter of men and nearly half the women get some kind of deferment. The arbitrary or perceived unfairness of many of those exemptions is causing a lot of unrest among Israeli voters and the government has to pay attention to that.

Moreover, about 25 percent of potential male recruits are exempt (unless they volunteer) because they are Moslem or Christian. It's easy for women to get exemptions and over 40 percent do. As a result, Israel is having a difficult time keeping its armed forces up to strength and that has become a contentious political issue. For the moment the system is working and the constant attacks from hostile neighbors make it easier to keep the system going despite complaints and rancor over proposed changes.

 


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