Just last month Russian paratroopers conducted a series of live-fire military exercises in Pskov, some twenty miles from Estonia’s border. The exercises fit into a pattern of saber-rattling along Europe’s northeastern flank: IHS Jane’s 360 reported, for instance, that NATO fighters intercepted a record number of Russian combat aircraft over the Baltic last month, and the high tempo of airspace and maritime incursions have been matched by high-temperature revisionist rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin. But while policymakers in the Baltic states and Poland have been ringing alarm bells about Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture, other post-communist countries have adopted a much more blasé attitude—not just toward Russia but toward their own security as well.
Military spending in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, for instance, doesn’t come anywhere near NATO’s aspirational goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Whereas their numbers were close to that target around the time of their accession, they have been in free-fall since then and currently hover at about 1 percent. Not even Poland is meeting the goal—though the current government, in office until an election this fall, plans to gradually increase spending on defense to 2 percent over the coming years.
Absolute levels of spending matter. After all, militaries are expensive and invariably involve waste. The fact that many military projects are beset by cost overruns or performance issues is a reason countries should be spending more, not less, in order to remain secure.
The composition of the spending matters too, of course. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, spending on personnel—as opposed to capital investment—has been on the rise. Slovakia now spends almost 70 percent of its budget on military personnel. Part of this is due to the fact that the Central European militaries have become professionalized, pushing the cost of salaries and benefits up. However, as spending shifts from equipment to personnel, Central Europe’s militaries run the risk of becoming collections of bureaucrats in uniform rather than effective fighting forces.
When Central Europe’s militaries do spend money on equipment, it is often done in a haphazard way, without deeper thinking about how the new purchases will fit within NATO’s overall military infrastructure. This is a critical oversight; the countries of Central Europe aren’t large enough to field significant militaries on their own. They rely on matching spending to an explicit strategy to make their armies effective complements to the military forces of larger NATO states.
Poland appears to be an exception to many of these problems. In absolute and relative terms, its defense spending has grown over the years, and the country is also pursuing an ambitious program of military modernization that began in 2013 and is to continue through 2022. As Andrew Michta wrote in an AEI paper about Poland’s modernization plans, the new purchases include “ships, helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers, additional aircraft, and most importantly, new air missile defenses.”
Poland also appears to be the only country in the region whose strategic thinking was informed by an understanding of Russia’s resurgence as a threat even before the Ukrainian crisis. This understanding guided Poland’s investments into conventional defense forces capable of deterring local conflicts—most significantly ones focused around the militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Because its details tend to be hidden from public scrutiny, military procurement in Central Europe breeds corruption. In 2009, the Czech government approved the purchase of 107 Pandur armored personnel carriers for the Czech armed forces in a deal worth about $577 million. The purchasing price per carrier was more than three times higher than in Portugal, where the government bought, at around the same time, a different batch of Pandurs with superior features and equipment from the same company. It also came to light that the Austrian company Steyr, the manufacturer of the Pandur, secretly contracted with the Czech lobbyist Jan Vlček to mediate informal talks between the company and Czech politicians, who allegedly diverted some of the profits of the sale to their own political parties.
In 2014, Slovakia bought two military transport aircraft (C-27J Spartans) for €99 million from the Italian manufacturer Alenia Aeromacchi. Rival manufacturers EADS-CASA and Lockheed Martin were both excluded from the tender, leaving Alenia as the sole remaining supplier. While the full details of the contract are classified, the costs of the purchase far exceed the catalog price for no apparent reason. Nor are these corruption problems restricted to big ticket purchases. Even small-scale procurement of items like protective glasses and solar panels tends to be vastly overpriced relative to the list prices available online.
Not even Poland is immune to these problems. In 2011, revelations about irregularities in procurement at Poland’s Ministry of Defense resulted in charges against 22 individuals over contracts totaling $5.5 million. One of the scandals involved several purchases by Poland’s elite commando unit, GROM, including 58 off-road vehicles that are unsuitable for military use. Other violations of the law have also been uncovered elsewhere in the military services.
Corruption aside, defense capabilities across the region are fragmented, with a low degree of interoperability. Since 2011, the governments of the four Visegrad countries have been planning the creation of a permanent “Visegrad 4 EU Battlegroup”, which should bring some 2,500 soldiers online in the first half of 2016.
The arrival of the Battlegroup could represent a major step toward the creation of a force that could make a difference in Russia’s and NATO’s strategic calculus. But much more needs to be done to fill the gaps in military cooperation between the four countries.
Air defense of the Visegrad countries could be organized jointly, instead of through four national independent air forces. In the Baltic states, other NATO members conduct air policing on a rotational basis. Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks, in turn, have the capacity to secure their airspace, but they would benefit from pooling their resources. Military education and training could be brought to a regional level, as is the Baltic states, where the joint Baltic Defense College was created in 1999. Military procurement in the region could also be coordinated and run jointly.
Attempts at deeper coordination would face serious bureaucratic hurdles. The four countries, for instance, each follow different procedures for military procurement, and the interoperability between the four military systems is limited. The solution to these problems lies in a political leadership that understands that the strategic interests of the four Visegrad countries are closely aligned, notwithstanding the differences in the rhetoric emanating from their capitals. Leadership is also needed to overcome the long-standing complacency paralyzing the region. In areas such as cybersecurity Central Europe remains behind the curve. Slovakia, for example, still lacks a dedicated bureau to tackle cybersecurity issues.
For better and for worse, such political leadership depends on the popular will expressed in elections. Unfortunately, for most voters in the region, security and defense rate at the very bottom of their priority lists.