No. 6 - Nov. 1996
Vol. 44 - pp. 20-23

Defence transformation in the new democracies

Chris Donnelly
NATO's Special Adviser for Central and East European Affairs

Chris Donnelly
(NATO Photo 13Kb)
In this article, the author argues that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe need to find a balance between armed forces which are effective but which do not impose an undue burden on the national economy. Downsizing forces structured according to the needs of the Cold War creates considerable difficulties, above all for Russia. All these countries are faced with the problem of reassessing their national security interests while simultaneously reducing and reorganizing their armed forces in response to economic and social necessity. Opting for quality rather than quantity is certainly the best solution but this requires significant investment in pensions and retraining courses. Western contacts with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have tended to skate over these difficult issues but the author believes that it is now time to exchange ideas more frankly. In the following January 1997 edition of NATO Review, Chris Donnelly will consider in greater detail the complex task of creating effective armed forces within a democracy and market economy, and will put forward some ideas for tackling the problem.

Every country is entitled to have armed forces as an element of national security. But experience shows that national security cannot be ensured by military might alone. Indeed, excessive investment in military power can lead to economic disaster. We know today that the basis of national security is a sound economy, and an army should be as small a drain on that economy as is consistent with national security.

Thus it is in everyone's interest today to reduce tension and to reduce the perceived need for a nation to spend money on military might. That is what NATO membership has done for its member states and is why its members want to keep the Alliance in existence. The principle of national armed forces and defence industries under national command and reflecting national customs and traditions is an element of sovereignty which nations want to keep. By combining efforts in NATO they can maintain their sovereignty and military systems, but at a low level of strength, and assure their national security at lower cost.

But the key to this formula is that the national forces must remain effective forces. There is no point in a country maintaining a military structure which is not combat-capable when needed.

Countries which aspire to build effective economies and open societies must develop armed forces of a strength relative to their national size and wealth. Any attempt in peacetime to maintain permanent forces which take a disproportionate share of national wealth can only result in one of the following outcomes - either that country will fall behind its economic competitors, to the great disadvantage of its population, or it must revert to a command economy which, in the long-term, also results in impoverishment, as history has shown. All nations can adopt command economic systems in wartime, but these, with their high levels of defence spending, can only be maintained for a few years if the nation is not to suffer irreparable harm.

So if the nations of Central and Eastern Europe are intent on developing a market economic system that can compete with current Western countries, allowing them to be integrated into the West's economic systems, then they will have to limit defence spending. Equally, if these same countries wish to assert their own national sovereignty, whether or not they wish as sovereign nations to join a defence and security alliance, they will have to develop effective armed forces. This demands that these nations maintain a basic minimum of defence spending.

The different strength and efficiency of national economies, and different geostrategic situations of various countries means that there is some flexibility in these maximum and minimum figures, but for most NATO members they amount to between 2-5 per cent of GDP. There are some global exceptions to this figure, but these are usually attended by exceptional social, economic or geostrategic conditions (e.g., Switzerland, Israel).

Getting value for money

The next consideration is how this money made available for defence is spent. That is, how much military power can it purchase? Here, national factors play a significant role. The fact is that some nations are more economical, or spend their money more efficiently, than others. This is where each nation has to make its own decisions on what is socially important. It is, however, interesting to note that as Western defence establishments have been put under increasing financial pressure over the past six years, the differences in cost-effectiveness of different national forces have diminished. 'Fat' armed forces have become leaner, costs have evened out.

The major cost difference is seen when a country decides what to design its forces for. The basic choice is somewhere between two extremes. Model 1 is a force which is designed only for home defence, with a tiny professional cadre and mass mobilization (e.g., Switzerland). Such forces, while relatively cheap, are also inflexible since they can only be used for a basic task because of the relatively low level of training and readiness. However, within those parameters, they can be very effective, as the Swiss model shows. At the opposite end of the scale is Model 2 where the army is based on a permanent volunteer force, trained and equipped to accomplish a wide variety of tasks, from high intensity combat to peacekeeping and internal security tasks around the globe. The US and UK pursue this model, albeit on a different scale. The yardstick by which quality is measured therefore can be different. Western countries have adopted variations of these models and evolved them over the last fifty years or so to suit local conditions and national traditions.

In the last five years, this evolution has entered a new phase. As the likelihood of general, high-intensity war in Europe receded (Yugoslavia notwithstanding), NATO members began a downsizing programme so that, despite reductions in defence spending, they could maintain the quality of their forces, and thereby maintain their flexibility and usefulness in security situations other than general war. Belgian troops in Africa demonstrate this philosophy well. These defence reforms are very painful to the armies and societies concerned but they are made less painful the more nations have the wealth or economic health to compensate redundant soldiers with pensions or alternative employment.

It is with some considerable degree of understanding and sympathy, then, that we in the West dealing with this issue must regard the current situation in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Russia. Here, the magnitude of the problem is so great that it is surprising that defence transformation has not resulted in greater social upheaval.

An illogical situation

All the Central and East European countries, including Russia, have, as part of their socio-economic revolutions, been faced with the problem of reassessing their national security interests and simultaneously reducing and reorganizing their armed forces drastically and rapidly in response to economic and social necessity.

A moment's thought will suffice to show the illogicality of this situation. What Central and East European countries really needed was a long period of readjustment; time to think out their new national security situation; time and money to plan at a measured pace downsizing and restructuring; time to work out new training systems and procurement policies. But in the real world, everything has had to be done at once, with no clear vision of the future, and with strictly limited money.

It is little wonder, therefore, that many Central and East European countries, sure of their national reorientation, but without a clear idea of how to achieve it, first looked on NATO as an organization which would come and solve all their problems.

Little wonder too, that Russia, the main heir of the Soviet military system, felt so vulnerable with the collapse of that system and cannot shake off the image of NATO as an enemy. It is easy to see in such circumstances why, with a mental framework moulded in an era of confrontation, NATO expansion might be seen as threatening, and why NATO's interests and motives might be misconstrued.

In fact, those of us who follow this situation do have an understanding of the pain and distress that defence transformation has caused in Central and Eastern Europe, in particular in Russia. And we do sympathize with the immense difficulties now being faced, both by Russia and Central and East European nations as they seek to complete their defence transformation. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out here that it is clearly not in NATO's interest to see the Russian military system disintegrate and Russian military power collapse. Such an event could have a profoundly negative effect on the security of Russia's immediate neighbours and could completely upset the global balance of power, to say nothing of the human tragedy that could result in Russia itself. It is in our interests to see Russia develop competent and effective armed forces - but of course as an element of a democratic and prosperous society.

We would clearly not want to see current political uncertainty in Russia develop into some form of aggressive militaristic system. It cannot be denied that the fear that this might happen is one of the reasons why some of Russia's near neighbours strive to join the Alliance. What they see in Chechnya does not reassure them in this regard, nor does Russia's attitude to NATO, which looks to them very much like an attempt to keep them within a Russian sphere of influence.

Russia certainly has the biggest problem of defence transformation. The geostrategy of Russia presents the need for military forces spread over a large geographical area with long land frontiers, and a very low population density. At the same time, the Russian economy is going through such a fundamental change, and the Russian governmental system has had such little time to develop a state revenue system, that Russia's defence budget, even as a very large percentage of measurable GDP, is relatively small and likely to remain so for some time to come. Not everyone in Moscow has understood the enormous implications of this. But Mr. Lebed, the former Secretary of the Security Council, and Defence Minister Rodionov have certainly done so and have publicly stated the necessity for Russia to reduce its armed forces to a small, high-quality and versatile force capable of meeting the new security demands that will face Russia in the foreseeable future, and with a newly-defined role and function in society. It would be marvellous indeed if Russia approached this task in the spirit of partnership with NATO, sharing the experience and ideas of member nations. Both sides would learn a great deal.

Shared problems

But although Russia has quantitatively the biggest problem of defence (and defence industrial) transformation, these problems are shared in greater or lesser measure by every Central and East European country. All must now face the dilemma of reassessing national security requirements and creating structures to manage them; of ensuring an adequate defence budget to build a sovereign army; of deciding how to go quickly from the mass Soviet-style army to one which reflects truly national requirements; and of explaining to their populations the changed nature of this new military animal and its relationship with society.

It seems to me as an involved, but I hope objective, observer, that the biggest dangers Central and East European countries face are that they will continue to try to maintain a force structure based on their pre-1989 military system, and which is therefore too large. General Rodionov's decision to go for quality rather than quantity is, I think, the best way for all Central and East European countries to go. But this demands a most difficult and painful political decision, and no small degree of investment in pensions and retraining courses. But I would like to reiterate a point made earlier. It is no use having armed forces if they are not effective. A country without effective armed forces cannot either assure its sovereignty or make the necessary contribution to an alliance.

Let us look at a specific example. Many Central and East European air forces today are giving their pilots less than 20 hours' flying per year. This serves no useful purpose. Yet those same countries are seeking to buy expensive Western fighters. Not only will this place impossible financial burdens on these countries, thus destroying the economic basis of security, but the countries will never, at this rate, be able to use these aircraft effectively. How much more sensible it would appear to reduce the numbers of pilots to one-fifth, and give them 100 hours flying per year. This would maintain a core of expertise until such time as more modern equipment could be provided. Similarly, with ground forces. The number of competent ground forces that Central and East European countries can field in UN operations or in joint exercises with NATO troops is far too small compared to the percentage of GDP spent on defence. If a country spends 1.6 per cent of its GDP on defence, and can only field two battalions of competent troops, then doubling the percentage of GDP spent will not be seen as a credible solution.

To date, Western contacts with Central and East European countries have usually skated over painful and difficult issues such as these. Furthermore, it is not for us to tell any country how it should organize its own defence. Also, we have of course felt it important to give due praise to the enormous progress made in democratization and downsizing. This has to be acknowledged.

But I believe it is now time to move on to a new stage in our relationship. There is no longer any fear, in either East or West, of a general high-intensity war. We all need to recognize that we have been viewing the world with a hefty residue of Cold War mentality, about Russia, about NATO, and so on. Now is the time to turn the corner and build security in Europe on a brand new basis.

This needs plain speaking, a willingness to exchange ideas frankly, care to suppress excessive national sensitivities, and a mature decision not to play dangerous games by using national prejudices for domestic political purposes.

It is a challenge, to be sure, but we can no longer avoid this issue.

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