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NATO: Czech Military Woes Prove Alliance Membership No Cure-All

  • Jeremy Bransten

If proof were needed that joining NATO is no panacea to resolving a country's military deficiencies, the Czech Republic presents a textbook example. Three years after joining the alliance, the Czech military remains far from the motivated, cost-efficient, flexible force it hopes one day to be. Senior commanders continue to delay essential reforms, while at the highest military and political levels consensus is still lacking over exactly what kind of military, armed with which types of weapons, the Czech Republic needs. The country's defense minister is the first to admit the road to reform will be a long one.

Prague, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the countries where they operate on missions alongside their foreign colleagues -- from Kosovo to Afghanistan -- Czech soldiers are known as consummate professionals and have earned the highest praise. At home, it is a different story.

For years, stories of military inefficiency, misappropriation of funds, and outright corruption have been regular fodder for the country's newspapers. But few articles could top Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik's latest interview with the leading Czech daily "Mlada fronta Dnes."

In that interview, Tvrdik told the newspaper he had hit "rock-bottom." He blasted military commanders for obstructing reforms and repeatedly ignoring his orders. Tvrdik painted a picture of an overstaffed, directionless army equipped with outdated munitions, plagued by theft, and unable to fulfill most of its tasks, save for participation in limited foreign missions.

Three years after joining NATO, the alliance's influence has yet to be strongly felt in the Czech Republic, and Tvrdik's comments have raised doubts about the immediate value of membership.

Czech journalist Jan Gazdik, an expert on defense issues, interviewed Tvrdik for "Mlada fronta Dnes" and mostly agrees with his evaluation, although he notes that Tvrdik may have chosen his words for effect, at a time when politicians seem more inclined to focus their attention on the armed forces than they have in the past.

Gazdik cites several reasons for the perilous state of the Czech military: first, the lack of long-range planning reflected by the constant switching of defense ministers since the Czech Republic emerged from the defunct Czechoslovakia at the start of 1993. "Only in the past decade, there have been something like 11 defense ministers. Basically, every year, year and a half, or at most two years, there was a new defense minister. Of course, this affected the work and effectiveness of the ministry. Each minister had a different concept of how the ministry should work, or rather, most ministers didn't even have the opportunity to get much of an idea of what was needed before they found themselves out of the job," Gazdik said.

Successive Czech governments have had a history of making decisions on defense appropriations that contradict recommendations made by military experts. Often, the need to satisfy a certain lobby group appears to overrule long-range strategic considerations. Such was the case with the infamous "parachute scandal." "This is a typical example of what is possible in this country and in this army. In 1996, the army bought a large quantity of newly designed parachutes. The tender for the production of these parachutes was won by a company that had never manufactured parachutes before. The parachutes are of poor quality. There were several accidents involving their use, and even one death. Although it was clear that the parachutes were substandard and overpriced, the army kept purchasing them -- up until the year before last. The result is that the army has stores full of useless parachutes," Gazdik said.

There have been numerous other questionable purchases and attempted deals, including the failed $3 billion tender for supersonic fighter jets, a purchase NATO itself discouraged. Legislators shelved the deal earlier this year after charges of corruption and following a withdrawal from the tender by four of the five international bidders.

An earlier order of 72 Czech-made L-159 subsonic planes did get the green light, and the purchase will continue to eat up much of the country's defense budget, originally destined for modernization, for the next two years, though the planes' military value remains in doubt. According to most analysts, the deal was aimed more at rescuing an ailing domestic industry than improving the military's capability and interoperability with NATO.

Gazdik says it's not an issue of there being too little money -- current defense spending per capita matches NATO recommendations -- but rather of how that money is being used. "I don't think that the Czech military lacks funds -- it just uses them ineffectively. The budget -- 2.2 percent of the GDP -- is not the lowest. On the contrary, it's quite a good budget if we compare it to others in the alliance. But the problem is that there is a lot of waste and a large part of the budget that is supposed to go to investment and modernization is currently tied up in the purchase of the L-159 tactical fighter jets -- up to 80 percent, in fact. And the remaining 20 percent is not enough to modernize the armed forces. So once the purchase is completed and the planes are bought, the situation should finally improve," Gazdik said.

Last year, the government established a new office and tasked it with drawing up military-reform plans for the country's planned transition from its current conscription army to a fully professional force by the year 2006. General Jaroslav Skopek was put in charge and has won praise for his team's conceptual approach. Skopek's deputy, Jan Vana, told RFE/RL that everything is now in place for significant changes, starting next year. But he warned that there is a limit to the pace at which reforms can progress. "It is very difficult to talk about instant changes in an army, which, to some degree, can be likened to an icebreaker or other large mechanism. You may swing the rudder now, but the icebreaker will only turn after a certain time. Reforms are prepared. What is important is that a draft budget that will allow us to start these reforms in earnest in 2003 is in place," Vana said.

To get an idea of the task at hand, Vana cited some illuminating figures. "If we note that [in 1989], the [Czechoslovak] Army had some 200,000 people [of which we inherited the bulk], for comparison's sake, I will tell you that we are aiming at having 34,000 to 36,000 professional soldiers by the year 2006, plus some 10,000 civilian employees. So, it's [an 80 percent] reduction in the space of 15 years," Vana said.

At present, Czech forces still number some 60,000, meaning tens of thousands of men will have to be demobilized in the next four years. Equipment is a further complication. As Tvrdik noted in his interview with "Mlada fronta Dnes," soldiers' ranks may be thinning but they are largely made up of conscripts who continue to guard -- and sometimes steal from -- vastly oversized munitions stocks unchanged since communist times.

Some senior officers find it hard to accept downsizing plans, especially when their jobs are most threatened, and they continue to put a brake on reforms.

Gazdik said: "Commanders who feel threatened by Tvrdik's intended reforms definitely exist. I am not going to name names but I believe I know who they are. And understandably, if these commanders were to agree with the reforms, they would be among the first to have to leave the armed forces. Reforms threaten them directly, so I wouldn't say that they are not listening or are refusing to take orders. They are simply engaged in passive resistance. They don't fulfill orders too quickly, so that they can survive in their jobs, which are often well-paid and carry high social prestige, as long as possible."

Vana added that old habits die hard and that many commanders continue to promote pet projects, regardless of cost. "Reforms begin in people's heads, in their way of thinking. It's going to take a certain amount of time before everyone accepts that individual ambitions must be measured against the amount of money available and must be evaluated on the basis of their cost-effectiveness," Vana said.

Three years into its NATO membership, reform of the Czech armed forces is a work very much in progress. Both at the political and the military level, decisions on the long-term future of the army are only now being made, and their implementation will necessitate much effort, money, and determination.

For now, the Czech Republic will continue to present its best face abroad while struggling at home, although here too, as Gazdik emphasized, there is a "price" to be paid. "The foreign missions have been excellent, but the price that the army pays for them is high. In the documents prepared by the government reform team headed by Deputy Defense Minister Skopek, mention is made of the fact that in order to send one battalion abroad, two to three battalions at home have to be cannibalized, so that one excellent contingent can be prepared. The price [for such missions] is truly high," Gazdik said.

But if it were not for the foreign missions, Gazdik noted, the Czech armed forces would have precious little to offer NATO.