Prospects for deeper Visegrád defence collaboration

Prospects for deeper Visegrád defence collaboration

Opinion piece (CEPA)
Tomas Valasek
01 August 2012

The May NATO Summit in Chicago ended with a call on member states to spend their money on the right priorities, to seek economies of scale in collaboration and to start specializing instead of duplicating each other's efforts. The Alliance calls this three-pronged approach "smart defence," but it is really common sense: with some exceptions, like the United States, the United Kingdom (UK) or France, NATO countries have long lost the will to finance the broad-spectrum militaries they inherited from the Cold War. Before the economic crisis, many allies had simply hollowed out the parts of their forces that they had ceased to properly fund, but were too skittish to abolish. The crisis is now forcing governments to face the music at last: the Dutch and the Czechs have largely eliminated their tank forces, for which they see little use in the future. And such proud militaries as those of the UK and France have agreed to form a partnership; their governments have even signed a 50-year treaty on collaboration.

The four Visegrád countries (V4) did not need much convincing of the virtues of smart defence — even before Chicago, the Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovak governments vowed in a joint declaration to deepen military cooperation. Their motivation was two-fold: first, to demonstrate that they are reliable allies — as frontier states they know that their reputation can be the decisive variable if and when they need military help. Second, three of the four Visegrád states have cut their defence budgets dramatically. Since the economic crisis began in 2008, Hungary has decreased military spending by 29 per cent, and Slovakia and the Czech Republic by 22 and 16 per cent, respectively (NATO figures). They need collaboration to partly offset this steep financial cut. Without it, they risk becoming much diminished forces.

But will they succeed? Many countries have tried to pool and share parts of their militaries, but most have failed to save money or produce useful units. The Germans and the French built a joint brigade but never deployed it, so great are the differences in their attitudes to the use of force. While some common acquisitions worked well — NATO‘s fleet of AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft comes to mind — many others were howlers, such as the U.S.-Italian-German MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defence System) program, which is eleven years behind schedule and 50 per cent over budget. Collaboration as such is no panacea; if not approached properly, it can become an expensive failure.

Visegrád cooperation has the right prerequisites to succeed, with a few caveats. First, the positives: the V4 countries have wisely chosen to collaborate within a relatively small group of states. Experience shows that the more partners are involved in collaboration, the greater the probability that differences among them will cause delays and cost overruns. The V4 countries also have broadly similar strategic cultures: all four intervened in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan; none took part in the Libya war. The Visegrád states are therefore less likely than other clusters of countries to disagree on when and how to use their shared forces, if and when they build them. And though some take more risks in operations than others, the gap between them is narrowing: even the usually skittish Slovakia sent Special Forces to Afghanistan. The V4 countries also have rather similar equipment (much of it still Soviet in origin) and therefore overlapping replacement needs and timelines. And some have a history of working together closely — most notably the Czechs and Slovaks, who had a joint military in the days of Czechoslovakia, still essentially share a language, and whose officer corps are classmates from the same military schools.

Now to the possible risks, and there are a few. First, relations between Slovakia and Hungary, though presently fine, have at times been bad. Their publics and parliaments will be wary of collaborating too closely. Second, Poland is simply much bigger than the others — it has twice as many troops as the rest of Visegrád put together — and Warsaw sometimes looks down on its Central European brethren, preferring to hobnob with Germany and France. While Poland has invested considerably in its armed forces, the Czechs and Hungarians have modernized less and the Slovaks the least, so the differences in the quality of their equipment are growing, which is reducing the opportunities for joint procurement. Worryingly, while governments are committed to cooperation in principle, defence as such is simply not a priority for them (except for Poland). It is not evident that the ministers will take the time and political risk to make the case for closer defence ties to possibly skeptical parliaments, armed forces and publics. Lastly, money is so tight that some collaborative projects may never materialize. Joint programs usually cost money upfront before yielding savings later. A Visegrád defence university, for example, would be far cheaper than four national ones, but to build it governments would need to move personnel and lay off some people, which carries one-off costs.

In this context, over the past year, a group of 12 defence experts from Visegrád countries (including this author) studied the obstacles to V4 cooperation and concluded that given the right tactics they are surmountable.1 Their final report recommends that the V4 start cautiously — that they begin by partnering on capabilities such as training and education, which raise fewer sensitivities than cooperation in combat. Eventually, however, they should seek to convert the trust that smaller projects generate into a determination to pursue more ambitious integration, where the real economies of scale lie. The V4 should also accept that not all Visegrád states will want to cooperate to the same depth and on the same projects — Poland may be more reluctant than others, while the Czechs and Slovaks are keen to deepen their bilateral cooperation. Thus individual governments should be free not to join every single initiative and allow a smaller group of Visegrád states to proceed. The experts also point out that truly deep defence collaboration requires a change of mindset: the countries need to start thinking of their armed forces as something they build on a regional basis, rather than on a purely national one. To this end, the V4 governments should start taking a number of measures to align their thinking and strategic cultures, for example by forming joint defence colleges or posting defence planners at each other's ministries.

The keystone in Visegrád defence collaboration will be the joint EU Battle Group, which the four governments agreed to build by 2016. It is meant to be on rotation for six months, after which like most Battle Groups it will disband. The group of experts recommends that the V4 governments do things differently: they should turn the Battle Group into a semi-permanent asset, to be on rotation on a predictable basis (for example every four years), and in a V4+ format (with outside partners such as Ukraine). This approach would allow the V4 to preserve the relationships and the habit of cooperation that will be fostered in the process of building the joint unit. The emphasis on the Battle Group — an EU concept — is however not meant to suggest that the V4 prioritize the EU over NATO. When it comes to capabilities, what is good for the EU is also good for NATO: both institutions will benefit if the V4 use collaboration to preserve high-intensity, quick-response readiness capabilities, which would otherwise fall victim to budget cuts.

Further, within the V4, smaller scale projects are emerging: the Czechs and Poles recently agreed to cooperate on military research, among other things, and Prague and Bratislava signed a broad agreement that includes provisions to jointly store ammunition, intensify academic exchanges and buy spare parts together. Critics dismiss these "low-hanging fruit" projects as too modest; they certainly generate too few efficiencies to significantly offset recent budget cuts. But if they allow the V4 countries to make a habit out of collaboration and gradually deepen their partnership, NATO and the EU will benefit, and the V4 will have boosted their reputation and military power.

1 "Towards a smarter V4: How to improve defence collaboration among the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia," Slovak Atlantic Commission, May 2012.