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Czech military transformation

Jiří Šedivý analyses the successes and shortcomings of military reform in the Czech Republic.

Niche capability: In 2004, the Czech Republic was lead
nation for the development of an NBC protection
capability for the NATO Response Force (© NATO )

On 21 December 2004, Czech Defence Minister Karel Kühnl received a symbolic report on the last conscript to serve in the Czech Army. As of that moment, Prague could proudly announce that it was the second post-communist country after Hungary to have completed the switch to all-volunteer armed forces. But Czechs have more to be proud of in the defence field. In 2004 they were also entrusted with lead-nation status for the development of a nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protection capability for the NATO Response Force. Moreover, the Czech Republic has also cultivated other niches, such as passive radar systems, and signed up to the Alliance’s Ground Surveillance System.

Czech soldiers have also consistently performed well in international missions. Indeed, in the second half of 2002, the Czech Republic was able to sustain military deployments in three distant theatres of operation. This included about 500 peacekeepers in the NATO-led operations in the Balkans, a field hospital within the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and an NBC unit in Kuwait as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom. That made a total of close to 1,000 troops, which is quite impressive given the country’s size and resources.

These contributions are both appreciated and acknowledged by our NATO Allies. Indeed, the Czech Republic is often presented as a role model for other countries seeking to transform their own defence sector. Yet everything is not always as it seems. While it would be comforting to attribute the Czech Republic’s defence transformation to long-term strategic planning, there have actually been seven different defence reform programmes in the country’s 12-year history. In common with most transitional countries, Czech military reform has been reactive rather than proactive, characterised by missed opportunity and wasted expenditure, with elements of rationality and order forced on the sector by budgetary constraints and the aspiration to join NATO.

The problem can be viewed on three levels. At the top, the process has suffered from weak civilian control over the armed forces and unclear political guidance. This political and strategic deficit has helped create conceptual confusion at a second level where military reforms were drafted and implemented. And at a third level, doctrinal vagueness has opened the field of procurement to abuse.

Weak political leadership

Traditionally, civil-military relations have been about keeping the military out of politics. In the Czech Republic of the 1990s, however, the problem was the other way around: how to persuade politicians to take an interest in defence. There were three reasons for this. Firstly, in the wake of the country’s velvet divorce with Slovakia in 1993, other challenges were viewed as more pressing. Economic reform was the priority of the first independent Czech government between 1993 and 1997. Secondly, due to a lack of civilian expertise in defence matters, the military did not have knowledgeable and respected civilian interlocutors. And, thirdly, since the military was generally held in low esteem, the defence portfolio was not first choice for an ambitious politician.

In this way, the defence sector was largely neglected. Indeed, the post of defence minister changed more often than any other in the Czech government with the result that there have been eight different ministers since 1993. The consequence has been a stop-start process, characterised by perpetual improvisation.

Not one of the many national security strategies provided an unambiguous and clearly focused set of guidelines that could be then operationalised as military strategy and doctrine, and implemented in terms of force-structure development. Until 1998, the General Staff, which was not integrated into the Defence Ministry, took the lead in drafting the national strategic documents, with predictably little enthusiasm for reform.

Instead of a much-needed radical restructuring of the defence sector, downsizing and professionalisation of the military, reform was slow and cautious. In this way, in 1997 for instance, the Defence Ministry still employed more than 80,000 persons (24,000 of whom were civilians), that is 25,000 more than planned in the first reform concept approved in 1993. In addition, between 1996 and 1998, a number of measures implemented according to various lower-level doctrinal documents, army development concepts and acquisition plans were made in a conceptual vacuum. This was because older, high-level strategic documents were no longer valid and new reviews were only approved at the beginning of 1999.

Successful military reform is about moving beyond the traditional concept of national defence and viewing the issue from a wider and longer-term strategic perspective
The void caused by a lack of civilian strategic direction and supervision was filled by the military. As a result, traditional thinking remained entrenched. The military was, for example, reluctant to give up the idea of territorial defence against threats from all sides and insisted on maintaining a full spectrum of capabilities for that purpose.

Such thinking helps explain why the Czech Republic failed to participate in projects to build multinational units that began mushrooming in the region in the second half of the 1990s. Even the national security and military strategy reviews, that were approved just a few weeks before the Czech Republic joined NATO in March 1999, largely ignored the opportunity that NATO membership offered, such as identifying niches and focusing on developing specialised, higher-value-added capabilities for the Alliance’s multinational forces. Indeed, it was not until the 2002 Prague Summit that this changed.

In sum, it took almost six years from the country’s birth, before a basic conceptual, legal, institutional and procedural framework for civil-military relations and democratic control of the military was established. The prospect of NATO membership had been the main driving force for this. Military professionals were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about NATO membership, as they expected it to energise the transformation process. Moreover, their prestige in society had greatly improved as a result of their participation in international peace-support missions, as well as the role they played in disaster relief following flooding in 1997.

Reforming the “last” reform plan

In summer 2001, the government approved terms of reference for what was supposed to be the last major reform of the Czech Army. By the end of 2006, the army was to be professional, smaller with around 35,000 active soldiers and 10,000 civilian employees, young, mobile and efficient. Substantial cuts in personnel, headquarters and bases, as well as sales of redundant property and material were planned. The reform’s target force structure was based on a set of military-political ambitions that were derived from potential scenarios of future force deployment. For the first time, a reasonably balanced proportion between expeditionary and other capabilities was defined. The reform anticipated a deeper division of labour within NATO and proposed to focus on specialisation in selected capabilities, the delivery of which the Czech Republic pledged at the Prague Summit a year later. The project was skilfully presented and enjoyed a high degree of support both among the public and professional soldiers, relieved that the reform experimentation of the previous decade appeared over.

However, a sharp increase in the fiscal deficit coupled with the financial consequences of severe flooding in 2002 led to substantial revisions to the reform programme. The original reform plan was premised on a defence budget of 2.2 per cent of GDP, that the government pledged to maintain upon the country’s accession to NATO. Yet the budget was reduced to 2.02 per cent in 2004 and to 1.81 per cent in 2005. In this way, the Defence Ministry was obliged to revise its ambitions and to cancel or postpone many projects. According to the revised reform plan, the military should be further reduced to 23,000 soldiers and 7,000 civilians.

The acquisition black hole

The 2003 revision of the 2001 reform plan was far more radical than budget cuts alone would have necessitated because the original scheme had been unrealistic even within the anticipated budget. In short, too many people, too much military hardware and oversized command and control structures were still to be retained in that reform. Moreover, a decade of resource mismanagement and permanent budgetary strains left no possibility to generate reserves within the defence sector via resource reallocation.

A poor acquisition policy accounted for the lion’s share of the resource depletion. According to a 1997 official report, of more than 700 acquisitions contracted since 1993 only nine went through a public tendering process. In the process, tens of millions of US dollar equivalent were effectively wasted.

Three examples best illustrate the conceptual confusion of the Czech reform process: the project to give a face-lift to the T-72 battle tank; the project to procure L-159 domestic subsonic aircraft; and the project to procure supersonic fighters. All three lacked transparency; were justified on dubious economic – rather than sound strategic – grounds; and helped create budget imbalances, thereby slowing the overall modernisation of the Czech Army. Worse still, instead of supporting objectives set in various strategic and doctrinal concepts, the documents themselves were adapted to enable the realisation of the projects.

Despite the growing emphasis on force mobility and deployability, the government confirmed, in 1997, an earlier decision to retain over 500 T-72 battle tanks and to modernise more them 300 of them at an expected cost of 14 billion Czech koruna (about US$ 640 million). The Defence Ministry defended the project as critical to the country’s defence and, also, hoped that other post-communist armies would modernise their own tanks in the Czech Republic. A series of technical problems, suspect tenders and delivery delays followed. Under budget pressure, the Defence Ministry gradually downgraded its order to 140 tanks in 2000, ending up with just 30 today.

The L-159 story is similar, but more costly. According to a 1997 contract, 72 domestically developed and manufactured planes were to be delivered by 2002. According to Defence Ministry experts, the fighter would reinforce the national air-defence system, but could also be deployed in tactical support of ground operations, that is in anti-guerrilla and counter-terrorism warfare. Irrespective of the merits of the project itself, the army did not have enough airfield space to accommodate so many planes. Nevertheless, it was given the go-ahead to rescue an ailing domestic manufacturer.

As in the T-72 case, delivery delays, quality-control problems and cost overruns dogged the project. In 2001-2002, this single deal swallowed 90 per cent of the modernisation budget and nearly 20 per cent of the entire defence budget. The 24 aircraft delivered to date can only be used for training. Raising them to combat readiness would need additional investment that is beyond the current, and probably future capacity of the defence budget.

The most controversial project was that to acquire supersonic fighters. Initially, in a 1997 plan, about 50 used and modernised US F-16s were to be procured. The plan was shelved due to budget cuts and the government launched a tender for between 24 and 36 supersonic fighters in 2001. Eventually, in the framework of another tender launched in 2003, the Czech Republic decided to lease 14 JAS-39 Gripen fighters for ten years at a cost of 20 billion Czech koruna, encouraged in part by the prospect of offset contracts.

Instead of coordinating the transaction with our neighbouring NATO Allies within an integrated sub-regional system of air defence management – an option that was discussed with Poland as early as in 1996 – the Czech Republic decided to go it alone. Moreover, it did so at a time when NATO Europe was awash with fighters and other smaller Allies were either giving up supersonic aircraft or pooling the capability with others.

Reform results

The Czech reform example illustrates clearly that mature civil-military relations are about more than just a formal framework of parliamentary oversight over the defence sector and the separation of military from politics. Indeed, they are also about the quality and effectiveness of governance in the defence sector, its transparency and openness to the external voices coming from non-governmental experts as well as the wider international debate. Moreover, successful reform is about moving beyond the traditional, narrow concept of national defence and viewing the issue from a wider and longer-term strategic perspective.

In many ways, therefore, it is remarkable that – in spite of the many problems described above –a critical mass of positive reform has been implemented and the Czech Republic is able to contribute some excellent and high-value-added capabilities to the Alliance. This has been achieved in part by trial and error, in part as a result of external influences and in part thanks to the work of dedicated professionals at all levels who have worked selflessly to improve the Czech Army.

Jiří Šedivý is a professor at the Marshall Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The opinion expressed is personal and does not represent the official position of the Marshall Center.