Low budget cripples army

BOOSTING defence spending was US President Barack Obama’s message as he addressed NATO member states during his visit to Poland on June 3 and promised $1 billion to bolster the US military presence in Europe. Such comments have particular resonance in Slovakia, where budget cuts and a lack of interest in defence issues are weakening the armed forces and leading to greater dependence on Russia, analysts say.

BOOSTING defence spending was US President Barack Obama’s message as he addressed NATO member states during his visit to Poland on June 3 and promised $1 billion to bolster the US military presence in Europe. Such comments have particular resonance in Slovakia, where budget cuts and a lack of interest in defence issues are weakening the armed forces and leading to greater dependence on Russia, analysts say.

“It is not possible to endlessly go out for coffee with friends expecting that just others will pay,” Central European Policy Institute (CEPI) Senior Fellow for Defence and Security Jaroslav Naď told The Slovak Spectator. “Informal pressure is increasing and it is obvious that more responsible allies are discussing this issue behind the scenes and somehow it will turn against us.”

Slovakia allocated €745 million for the Defence Ministry in 2014, which is 0.9 percent of its GDP, while NATO member states spend 1.6 percent of GDP on average and members have pledged to spend at least 2 percent.

Besides insufficient funding, CEPI representatives also point to poor training and the fact that the majority of vehicles and ammunition have exceeded their service life, claiming that army modernisation would cost the government between €3 and €4 billion, the Sme daily reported.

“This state [of the army] which we have here is a result of deeply underestimating Slovak defence and security interests,” Alexander Duleba from the Slovak Foreign Policy Association told The Slovak Spectator. “It is very irresponsible.”

Slovakia should also be more proactive in offering help to NATO forces, like the Czech Republic and Poland do, according to most analysts. The European Reassurance Initiative project proposed by Obama plans to use more US naval forces in NATO missions, including long-time rotations in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea regions, while the number of military practice exercises and training missions in Europe should increase as well, the TASR newswire reported.

However, Prime Minister Robert Fico said he cannot imagine that foreign soldiers will stay in Slovakia. He even likened such a situation to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pack armies back in 1968.

“I can’t imagine that there will be anti-missile stations operated by foreign soldiers,” Fico said, as quoted by the SITA newswire. “Slovakia has its historical experiences with the presence of foreign soldiers - let’s recall the invasion in 1968; therefore this topic is extremely sensitive to us.”

Fico said that he spoke for himself, as the government has not received any official request, adding that as a NATO member state, Slovakia wants to fulfil its commitments even though finances often make that difficult.

Fico’s statement contradicts regional solidarity, and boosting NATO’s presence in central Europe should be the country’s strategic interest, Director of the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs and Former Defence Ministry state secretary Róbert Ondrejcsák said, as quoted by SITA. Moreover, it is hard to understand why Fico compared the democratic states of NATO with soviet countries of the USSR, he added.

Fico sceptical of budget

Over the past five years, Slovakia’s GDP has grown by 10 percent, but the defence budget has decreased by 26 percent, CEPI analyst Marián Majer together with Naď told the press on May 29.

Majer pointed out that Slovak representatives often use phrases that it is not important how much money government spends on army but how they are used. But those are meaningless phrases even if funds would be properly and transparently invested, he said.

“The [funds] decreasing by one-third in past five years by far surpassed moment when raising eyebrows to show surprise is enough,” Majer wrote in Sme in early May.

Even Fico stated that other issues take precedence over the army.

“During the past two years we have been passing unbelievable consolidation measures,” Fico said, as quoted by SITA, during a May 15 discussion among premiers from the Visegrad Group (V4) countries. “I cannot imagine that in the following years there would be a source to increase the budget for the army.”

CEPI sees such claims negatively since Slovakia is a NATO member state and should behave as one, Naď said.

According to Duleba, Fico should not make such statements because as prime minister he has a direct responsibility for the country’s security. Especially during the Ukrainian crisis, the government should do everything it can to change this situation.

“Such things should not be said,” Duleba stated. “It is like he resigned the government’s responsibility for the security of this country.”

The current management of the Defence Ministry does its best to allocate as much money as possible to the army’s modernisation and equipment, increasing this number from 8 percent of the budget to 16 percent in two years while planning to raise it near 20 percent next year. However, to get 2 percent of country’s GDP in the current economic situation is something that must occur over the long term, ministry spokeswoman Martina Balleková told The Slovak Spectator.

State of the Slovak army

Around 70 percent of the Slovak military’s land vehicles and 90 percent of ammunition sources have exceeded their service life. Moreover, Slovakia’s army is the most dependent on Russia in all of NATO, mostly in terms of replacement components for existing outdated equipment, according to CEPI.

The Slovak army should be more compatible with other NATO members, be able to react to crisis situations and be able to, above all, think strategically, Naď said. Events in Ukraine showed that Russian foreign policy is aggressive, and Slovakia’s dependence on this country, particularly in the military sector, is wrong, he added.

Duleba highlighted the fact that a third round of sanctions aimed at Russia include those on trade and would halt Russia’s supply of military goods. Therefore, the Slovak army would be without replacement components.

“We would simply have non-functional weapons systems,” Duleba said.

Aircraft are in a poor state, too. Russian MiG-29 jet fighters should last until 2029, but in reality they will expire much sooner. Even internal Defence Ministry documents point to the high risk of their use. They, too, depend on unreliable supplies of Russian replacement parts, and pilots can spend only one third of requested flight hours in the air because of a lack of funds. Pilots of transport aircraft and helicopters are in a similar situation, Majer wrote in Sme.

To reduce the army’s dependence on Russia, the ministry has made several agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland. For example, Poland promised to provide complete service to Slovak aircrafts should they need it, and the Czech Republic can provide temporary protection of Slovak skies after 2016, Balleková said.

Anti-air defence, radiolocation devices, mobile communication and information systems are also in bad shape. According to NATO preparedness and interoperation standards, Slovakia reaches just 50-60 percent, according to Majer.

“After 20 years of defence reforms and 10 years spent in NATO, this is a truly an alarming number,” Majer wrote.

Majer and Naď proposed creating a task force of experts and representatives of the defence, foreign affairs and interior ministries to come up with solutions for Slovak defence. The group intends to present the results ahead of the NATO summit set for September.

Offering help to allies

In recent weeks some allies intensified their cooperation with NATO forces. A contingent of 150 American soldiers and a dozen F-16 combat aircraft has arrived in Poland, and Polish MiG-29 fighters together with British, Danish, French and Canadian aircraft took control of the eastern NATO border replacing US forces. Additionally, the Czech Republic offered 300 soldiers, along with chemical units and Gripen fighter aircraft to NATO in mid-April, Sme reported.

While other countries proactively offer their help, Slovakia and Hungary seem to be non-participants. Slovakia should be more active in showing it is a responsible ally ready to help, Naď said.

Duleba called such behaviour irresponsible. Slovaks lack strategic thinking and currently are just consumers of security provided by NATO, he said.

The CEPI’s criticism of the Defence Ministry is simply a list of well-known facts as some of its members are former ministry employees, Balleková asserted.

She disagreed with claims that Slovakia is a passive NATO member, pointing out that Defence Minister Martin Glváč offered NATO member states the Lešť training camp, Sliač airport, Slovak infrastructure and education or logistic capacities during a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels on June 3-4. Furthermore, the Slovak military is organising a joint training with Czech troops and is willing to provide areas for other NATO trainings, Balleková said.

“NATO member states do not see Slovakia as some passive observing member,” Balleková said, “and the NATO summit in Brussels proved it.”

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