Slovakia's defence department has planned a major modernisation project that should cost more than the ministry's entire budget for one year. While any modernisation of the military is much welcome in Slovakia, experts also point to other needs, like making soldiers' salaries more competitive.
There has been an open discussion about the state of the Slovak Armed Forces since the brief term of the government of Iveta Radičová, when the then-defence minister Ľubomír Galko carried out an analysis of the armed forces and found many shortcomings in technology and infrastructure.
President Andrej Kiska, who is the highest commander of the armed forces, was very open about the problem in his speech to members of the military at the General Staff whom he visited in late January 2017. He called the army undernourished.
“Nothing can be said. We have a problem. We really have a problem and we have had it in the long term,” President Kiska said in his speech as quoted by the Denník N daily.
“It is impossible to effectively participate in joint exercises and defend state territory when most of our technology is not interoperable with our partners and is in poor condition,” Tomáš Čižik, director of the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs (CENAA) non-governmental think tank, told The Slovak Spectator.
Čížik, just like other security and defence experts, therefore welcomes the project that the Defence Ministry recently proposed and the government approved. The plan is to purchase different military vehicles and light armoured cars for a total amount of around €1.2 billion. That amount significantly exceeds the budget of the ministry, which for the current year is around €990 million.
Defence spending still lags
Spending on defence currently represents some 1.19 percent of the GDP of the Slovak economy, which is well below the general commitment for NATO members to spend 2 percent GDP on defence and security annually. Only a few countries fulfilled that commitment last year, based on NATO data: the US, Greece, Estonia, the UK, and Poland.
Slovakia had planned to reach that figure by 2020, but that deadline is widely considered unrealistic. That is why the goal was revised and the leadership of the country has come with a compromise goal of 1.6 percent of GDP by 2020. This followed the 2014 outburst of the conflict in Ukraine and the NATO summit in Wales, where President Andrej Kiska represented Slovakia and agreed with the partners at the summit that the countries need to strengthen their collective defence.
Since then Slovakia's defence spending has been increasing, although marginally. That is why analysts are largely skeptical about the 1.6 percent of GDP goal as well, given the fact that in 2016 defence spending was somewhere around 1.16 percent GDP.
The Defence Ministry’s budget was increased in 2017 by over €100 million, the ministry told The Slovak Spectator, and defence spending for this year represents 1.19 percent GDP.
“The government pledged the further gradual increase in line with the commitments from the Wales summit in its programme statement and this intention has also been confirmed by the Defence Ministry in the updated White Book on Defence,” the ministry’s spokesperson Danka Capáková told The Slovak Spectator in early May.
Modernisation project costs could count
Čižik believes that the the gradual increasing of the defence budget that Slovakia has been applying so far does not make it possible to reach the 1.6 percent threshold, but the planned modernisation expenses of up to €1.2 billion make the 1.6-percent goal reasonable. Such modernisation projects, however, cannot be considered as direct “defence spending”, according to the analyst.
“In my opinion, the Defence Ministry is planning to use the proposed modernisation expenses into our overall defence spending, so in 2020 we will reach the 1.6 percent of GDP threshold as planned,” Čižik said.
When asked whether the budget will be increased for the purposes of modernisation, the ministry responded that the plan that was approved by the cabinet only counts on procuring the vehicles between 2017-2029. Capáková stressed that this is only a framework sum.
Soldiers need more than technology
Yet experts point out that improving the state of the Slovak armed forces and their capability to defend the country and fulfill its commitments to NATO is not just about money and devices. The armed forces need a long-term strategy, that the ministry says it is preparing, and citizens need greater motivation to join the ranks of the army and treat it as a job of preference.
General Milan Maxim s peaking on the late-night talk show on the public-service RTVS, Večera s Havranom, on January 31, 2017, said that the initial salary of a newly recruited soldier is some €600, which discourages rather than attracts young people interested in military jobs. Not only is this well below the national average that in 2016 exceeded €900, but it also fails to cover the expenses that a soldier with a family may have when he or she receives an order to relocate to another part of the country.
There are currently 12,000 soldiers employed by the armed forces, plus another 4,000 persons as non-military personnel.
One of the challenges facing the Slovak Armed Forces, therefore, is making military jobs more attractive among the public, said the general.
Long-term plan to come soon
The Defence Ministry is currently preparing the Long-term Plan of Development and Building of the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic. Capáková said that the drafting of the plan is in its final stages and after it is done, it will be presented to the cabinet and to the parliament.
Security analyst Jaroslav Naď said on January 31 during an RTVS debate that if the currently-drafted long-term plan will be linked to the planned defence spending at 1.6 percent, it will be unfulfillable, because 1.6 percent is a political promise but in reality, the spending is well below that.
Čižik also stated that the strategy should be executable and therefore the goals in it should be prepared very reasonably. Also, it should be developed in accordance with the new National Security Strategy, which should be finished in the coming months.
The strategy should set out a reasonable plan that should include the development of an effective modernisation plan to improve operability of the military hardware and interoperability of the Slovak Armed Forces partners and to replace outdated military hardware; identify sources of finances to secure gradual increase of defence spending to 2 percent GDP in 2024; and identify security threats, Čižik listed for The Slovak Spectator when asked what the strategy should be like.
The main task of the defence sector is to secure the defence of the territory of the state, but in the current situation, the capabilities of the Slovak Armed Forces are very limited, due to the outdated technology and lack of investments into defence. But aside from that, Slovakia also needs to take into consideration the information warfare, the "soft-power" rather than "hard-power", Čižik noted.
“We should also improve our abilities to protect our citizens and develop their inner resilience towards disinformation campaigns,” Čižik said.