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Reform realities

Chris Donnelly examines why military reform has proved so difficult in Central and Eastern Europe and prospects for future restructuring.

About turn: military reform has followed a remarkably similar pattern throughout Central and Eastern Europe ( Reuters - 128Kb)

Over the past ten years, the armed forces of every country in Central and Eastern Europe have undergone drastic transformation and downsizing. Brought about by the end of the Cold War and the changing nature of the threats to national security, this is an ongoing process. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe differ in terms of size, economic capability, geostrategic situation and the nature of their relationships with the European Union and NATO. However, notwithstanding the corresponding differences in size and composition of their armed forces, the path of military reform has followed a remarkably similar pattern everywhere.

The first stage was characterised by a loss of rationale and ideology, and by massive force reductions brought on by the change in geostrategic, economic and political circumstances. This was attended by a loss of Communist Party and governmental control mechanisms that were not replaced by any corresponding mechanisms for democratic control. New governments everywhere lacked military expertise and had no adequate civilian mechanisms either to make military policy or to direct the course of military affairs and the development of their armed forces. Where mechanisms existed, they were crude and amounted to little more than establishing ever-lower financial ceilings for defence expenditure. In many countries, internal power struggles resulted in authority over the armed forces either being split between many ministries and agencies, including some which would not normally have expected to have responsibility over troops, or being moved from one branch of the executive to another, such as from the government to the president, or vice versa. In some countries, politicians sought to use the military directly in power struggles. This further reduced the degree of real political control over the armed forces.

The second stage in the process saw the armed forces' leaderships rally to protect and preserve their military systems, striving to retain as much of the old force structure and infrastructure as possible. This was influenced by a combination of motives in which vested interests undoubtedly played a part. But sincere conviction, based on patriotism and a strong belief in the validity of the former system, reinforced by the lack of competence and expertise of new civilian governments, was the driving factor. This was exacerbated by the militaries' lack of exposure to alternative professional views and by the naturally cohesive qualities found in all effective military systems.

The effects were quickly felt. Trying to maintain a massive but obsolete structure at a time of rapid social change and economic decline proved disastrous. As Central and Eastern European countries moved painfully towards a real cash economy, resources for the military began to dry up. In most countries, this was not immediately obvious because the military establishment had traditionally been able to draw on resources in kind rather than in cash and had its own means of generating income and consumable resources. Exploiting these assets allowed the core of the military to survive, despite the lack of government funding.

After more than four, and in some cases seven, decades of a command economy, all Central and Eastern European countries lacked appropriately trained accountants and effective accounting procedures. Moreover, neither police nor judiciary were equipped to monitor and control financial irregularities. This was particularly the case in defence establishments, where the need for military secrecy further impeded transparency. As a result, the defence sector in Central and Eastern Europe was slow to set up proper budgetary systems and, as a result, corruption became endemic in some instances. The uncontrollable sale or distribution of military material, the lack of guidelines on officers using their positions and forces under their command for personal purposes, the hiring out of soldiers by officers, straightforward theft and other corrupt practices - all highly destructive of military discipline - proliferated. This led to a rapid decline in training standards and then in living standards, both for conscripts and for those officers and senior non-commissioned officers who lacked the rank or position to control marketable resources, or - the majority - who were simply honest.

In the third stage, the procurement system broke down. Defence industries, deprived of a tied domestic market, generally tried to avoid restructuring and reorientation, taking refuge in the fiction that arms sales abroad would save them. In the event, as a result of corruption, an unwillingness to reform and a lack of expertise in market-economic realities, Central and Eastern European defence industries missed what might have been a window of opportunity in the early 1990s to seize a share of the world market. With this export opening lost and with domestic demand collapsed, defence industries looked to governments to bail them out. Defence factories soaked up massive state subsidies but used the money to keep large numbers of idle workers on subsistence pay, rather than to restructure the industry. In the long term, no country can maintain the quality and cost benefits that make for attractive exports without the security of a good home market. The ability to draw on vast reserves of fundamental, scientific research as well as existing military research and development has enabled the industries to survive in their obsolete form and avoid painful reform. But these reserves are now running out and defence industries in Central and Eastern Europe that have not yet restructured face near-total collapse. Reform today will be far more difficult and painful than had it been undertaken ten years ago.

The impact of this myriad of problems was in almost all countries first felt among conscripts, whose training and living standards disintegrated. The failure of the military establishment in some countries to change with society meant that the young were no longer willing to serve and the breakdown of the established system meant that they could no longer be compelled to do so. The system of universal conscription decayed rapidly and, with it, any pre-service military training in schools and universities. Henceforth, only a fraction of the eligible age groups would serve in the military. Legal exemption, the ineffectiveness of the draft and bribery would ensure that the better-off and better-educated would never have to serve in the ranks.

With the disintegration of national service, the concept of a "socialist nation-in-arms" died. Moreover, it could not be restored because the social basis it sprang from and depended on had gone forever. In retrospect, this seems obvious. But, at the time, in the early to mid 1990s, it was not appreciated by decision-makers brought up in a very different system, so the decline continued. The fall in the number and quality of conscripts, the endemic problem of physical abuse of conscripts by senior soldiers and officers, the catastrophic decline in training and the consequent collapse of the armed forces' prestige next took its toll on the ranks of young officers, many of whom resigned. Meanwhile, standards of entry to officer training colleges dropped. Moreover, many cadets, having received a good technical education, decided not to enter the army and left on or just before graduation. This completed the self-destruction of the old system.

The armed forces of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, working to a common Soviet model, had relied on young officers to conduct all the junior command and training tasks at unit level that in most Western armies are carried out in depots or by regular professional long-service non-commissioned officers. The lack of young officers meant that the steady downward spiral of training accelerated. A vicious circle had become established. Training standards fell. Equipment broke down and was not replaced. Poor treatment of soldiers increased. The gap between the command and the soldier grew. Recruitment of young officers became more difficult. Morale fell and, with it, public respect. The result was declining competence, accompanied by a steady command and administrative drain, as officers left their posts at all levels and the force structure crumbled. When this process was also accompanied by military action, such as affected the Russian Army in the first Chechen War, the results of the decay were instantly visible.

As armies shrank, their officer corps became grossly top-heavy and this itself created an obstacle to reform. But attempts to reduce drastically the officer ranks were also harmful. The sight of the government discharging unwanted senior officers without thanks, without proper pensions or social security and with little chance of taking up a new career led those who were not qualified for other employment to do all in their power to stay in the armed forces. It also demoralised younger officers and put many young men off the idea of a military career.

Reforms are being spurred by the realisation that, were they to be postponed, the process would be even more difficult in the future

The deterioration of the armed forces did not take place at the same speed everywhere and the pace differed even within the armed forces of the same country. In general, problems have been worse in Russia and some new countries of the former Soviet Union than in most of Central Europe. But many experiences are common to most countries. Successive ministers and chiefs of defence attempted to rationalise their shrinking armies and succeeded to differing degrees. In units and formations with exceptional commanders, competence and combat capabilities were retained. By concentrating efforts and resources on a small number of units — regiments, squadrons or ships — some of these have been maintained at a reasonable standard of military readiness.

But, in the main, the decline was not halted. As a result, during the 1990s, none of the armed forces of countries in the former Soviet Union or its former Central and Eastern European allies managed to reconstruct an effective and sustainable military system on modern lines. Indeed, a point was reached in most Central and Eastern European countries where the situation got so dire that the armed forces became desperate. Their plight was obvious and the only way they could see to pursue reform was to seek more money from the state.

A thorough military reform programme is expensive. However, experience in Central and Eastern Europe has shown that, when money was made available to defence establishments in advance of reforms, it tended to be spent not on reform but on keeping the old system on life support. Cosmetic improvements were made, but the essential, fundamental reform was actually put off and the situation got worse. Indeed, reform became more difficult because the money stiffened resistance.

The "NATO factor" has played a role in the process in many Central and Eastern European countries. In some countries keen to get into NATO, the military command has on occasion proposed the procurement of unnecessary and often unaffordable equipment arguing that: "It will be needed to get us into NATO." At a time when the political leadership and their civilian staffs, as well as parliamentarians and journalists, did not know enough about military issues, this argument could sound persuasive. Moreover, Western arms manufacturers often peddled the same line. In other countries, governments sometimes used NATO "demands" as the excuse for pushing for defence reform because they lacked the self-confidence to tackle this issue on their own authority. Both approaches have damaged civil-military relationships and eroded public confidence.

In Russia, the "NATO factor" has been used differently. The maintenance of a perception of a military threat from NATO has been used to justify the preservation of much of the old military infrastructure. This has in turn distracted attention and siphoned off money from real defence reform.

The final element in the "NATO factor" has been the readiness of Central and Eastern European governments and militaries alike to look to the West for models of military organisation and reform. All NATO members have different military systems, while Central and Eastern European countries have widely differing requirements for defence reform or for building forces anew. Central and Eastern European countries have therefore found it exceptionally difficult to evaluate successful models, to work out which elements are relevant for their own development and to find reliable, unbiased advice. Governments and armies have gone from the one extreme of rejecting any Western influence to the other of rushing to embrace Western ideas, such as professionalisation, without any real understanding of what it involves — or costs.

Many efforts to reform from below failed. At one stage, advocates of reform hoped that young officers would be able to rejuvenate the system and bring in new ideas from the bottom up. Indeed, this approach did have some temporary successes. However, in the end, there were too few energetic, young officers to create sufficient momentum for reform. They failed, either because they could not overcome the inertia of the mid-level structures or because they were undermined by superiors who viewed them as a threat.

The story is similar with officers sent for training and education abroad, most frequently to Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. These individuals were expected to return home and infuse their military systems with new ideas. In practice, however, this proved a false hope as, all too often, the military establishment closed ranks to protect itself. In some Central European countries, even as late as 2000, every single officer who had been sent abroad on training courses was on return, either dismissed, demoted or sent to serve in a dead-end post in some military backwater. In another country, although all senior officers had received training abroad, their lead was ignored by the mass of colonels beneath them, who obstructed the implementation of the orders from on high. "Democratic control of the armed forces" is usually taken to mean that the generals will obey the politicians. But democratic control can also fail if colonels do not obey the generals.

A further common failing has been the inability of defence ministries in Central and Eastern Europe to implement an effective budgetary and planning system. This is extremely difficult because it requires converting the mentality of the military collective. Militaries have traditionally wished to retain the existing system, while modernising weapons and improving conditions for soldiers. As a result, they have pushed for the resources for such a vision, refusing to accept that economic realities make excessive defence spending unjustifiable and that social and economic changes necessitate reform. Western armies, by contrast, approach the issue of defence planning from the budget, working out what that pot of money will buy and prioritising on the basis of current threat assessments.

Linked to this common failing is the almost total absence of an honest and open system for evaluating the abilities and qualifications of officers. In the absence of such a system, it is almost impossible to develop a proper promotion and posting process. Without this, defence ministers will never be able to institutionalise reform because they will not be able to identify officers with the qualities needed to create a new kind of army, or put them into positions where they can transform words into action.

Much attention has been given in all Central and Eastern European countries to the issue of democratic control of armed forces. But a frequently neglected aspect of democratic control is the issue of whether the government is actually competent to decide on and implement a defence policy and direct the course of military reform. This is a common failing, with frequently disastrous results. The fact is that Central and Eastern European countries have not yet been able to develop the body of civilian expertise in defence issues, which is needed to ensure balance and to provide dispassionate advice. The rapid turnover of governments in Central and Eastern European compounded this lack of expertise. When governments are reliant on the military for advice on defence issues, it is the armed forces, and not the government, which effectively decide policy. This state of affairs still persists in some Central and Eastern European countries, despite the existence on paper - and in law - of what would otherwise be adequate mechanisms for democratic control.

In recent years, the situation in some Central and Eastern European countries has, nevertheless, begun to change. The decline has been halted and prospects for rebuilding a new kind of armed forces appear good. Countries that have faced up to the fundamental nature of their problems are now poised to take the plunge, do away with the remaining elements of the old system and rebuild anew. But, this is not true everywhere. In some countries, such as Russia, the fundamental problems are yet to be faced.

In those Central and Eastern European countries where reform has taken root and is now capable of flourishing, it has been a process led by a few senior officers of vision, courage, determination and technical knowledge. They have been able to inspire subordinates to follow them and to draw on external experts to help them. Moreover, they have also been fortunate to have strong political backing to protect and encourage them, and to organise public information campaigns so as to ensure popular support. The reform processes now underway in several Central and Eastern European countries will take a long time to see through. But they are being spurred on by the growing realisation that, were they to be postponed even further, reform would be even more difficult in the future.

Read more: history of NATO
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