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Minister Vondra: Defence cuts may not go on forever

Tuesday, July 13, 2010: on the day he assumed the office of the Minister of Defence of the Czech Republic, Alexandr Vondra gave an interview to www.army.cz

Minister, you were reared in the 1960s and 1970s. Did you notice at that time there was the army in existence? What was your perspective on it? Do you have any relatives who served in the Armed Forces?

  • Alexandr Vondra

    During my university studies at the beginning of 1980s, I attended the military training at Prague Motol and at Velka Hledsebe close to Marianske Lazne, but I did not have a classic conscript experience. I am admitting openly I did not want to serve in communist military forces and I made use of the opportunity to obtain the blue book (certificate exempting from the obligation to serve conscription) for medical reasons. Some of my relatives, however, served in the military very long time ago, in important posts. Before he became a painter, my grandfather Vladimir Pleiner had been a member of the Czechoslovak Legions in Russia from 1917. He firstly served with the 5th Rifle Regiment and then as a captain with a transportation company that is said to have transported Admiral Kolchak’s gold. He came back home via Vladivostok in 1920. His brother, Colonel Alois Pleiner-Petrovický, was a hero of the Battle of Zborov, where he sustained a serious injury. After 1948, he was demoted and dismissed from the military. His nephew Bohumil Dolejsi was then as a Czechoslovak People’s Army officer demoted after 1968… So, it is no wonder that I as a man with long hair regarded our military in the era of normalisation as a tool the Soviet bolshevism used to advance its superpower ambitions and suppress freedom.

You are known to be a keen reader. Do you find military history attractive? What is most engaging part of history for you?

  • I value the legacy of our Legionnaires, the airmen involved in the battle of England and resistance fighters such as General Frantisek Moravec. But I do not regard myself being erudite in military history. I look for wisdom in books by Michael Howard, Fritz Stern and Henry Kissinger. A great publishing effort is also displayed by the Institute of Military History led by Ales Knizek. Just to have more time to read all those books.

Let us proceed to modern history. Which developments in the Armed Forces over the past twenty years were the key ones?

  • There have been three milestones in my view: progressive downsizing of the excessively large armed forces, joining NATO including deployments for key international operations and transitioning to an all-volunteer force. These three steps were essential and correct. But unfortunately not all the reforms were performed with a clear vision. Some decisions were voluntaristic and rather close to improvising, with us repaying the arising dues till nowadays. In a way, we are still lacking a clear answer to the key question: what do we have the military for and what for we will be using it over the next fifteen to twenty years. We still owe the answer and we must offer it both to soldiers inside and the public outside, because we will not do without their support.

What will be the first steps you are going to take at the Ministry of Defence?

  • In the weeks ahead, we will be preparing the budget for the next year. We have undertaken in the coalition agreement to save CZK 2.1 billion. My objective will be to identify possible savings in all types of expenses so that the cuts would not fall only on non-commissioned officers and soldiers although it would be the easiest solution for some high-ranking people. In nutshell – if we are to cut, it must be fat, not muscle. In addition to that, I would like to call on the defence community to set up a group comprising civilian and military experts both from inside and outside the MoD Department, who will be tasked to develop the White Book on defence, a key policy for the future of the Armed Forces.

Media report cases of soldiers fearing their remuneration schemes and considering leaving the military. Do you have any message to address the defence personnel?

  • I would like them to realise that it is the status of public finance and the overall economic situation that force us to achieve savings. Everybody in Europe does so at this time. Germany, for instance, has to cut about EUR 1 billion a year. Some personnel costs will therefore be reduced. First and foremost, cuts have to be targeted, not applied in general. I will seek to shape all the restrictions so as not to affect those thinking seriously of the Armed Forces and are committed to national service. Those people must contrarily enjoy an excellent quality of life support and they need a clear career system.

How will you resist the pressure of your coalition partners wanting to obtain necessary funding by curtailing defence appropriations?

  • The crisis forces us to seek savings in the long run. But the crisis is also an opportunity. Defence cuts may not go on forever; we should stabilise them instead. The practice of everyone in need of quick funds grabbing for the Ministry of Defence’s budget must simply be brought to an end. Armed Forces development planning period may not be limited just to twelve months, and change the amount of funding every year. We also have commitments to our NATO Allies to deliver on. We must meet them and not to hamper on our credit as a reliable Ally with ill-considered fiscal planning.

What concept should the Armed Forces have – all-service or specialised?

  • Today we are somewhere between all-service and specialised armed forces. While niche specialisation is logical in today’s security environment, the armed forces must not lose its core capability – the protection of our national territory. We are neither cancelling fighters nor tanks. Before we decide to pursue the path of specialisation, there must be a clear vision why we do so and what price tag will there be for us in the future to pay. At the same time, we must have assurances that our Allies will help us, including in instances when we will not have certain units ourselves.

Can defence business be managed technocratically or is military specialisation needed? The press often points out that you have the so-called blue book; nonetheless, those having served their conscription duty in 1980s would probably not recognise today’s armed forces. Do not you think it is rather an advantage that you did not serve the conscription?

  • Last time we had a uniformed minister of defence was in dictatorship and those times are, hopefully, definitely over. The last uniformed minister departed shortly after the Revolution. The Armed Forces today are completely different. As a diplomat, I was largely involved in our country’s integration to NATO. Thus we gained the best security guarantees ever in our history. So I do believe I have been through some working experience in this domain. Now I am a politician and, as a politician, I must primarily be a capable manager with the General Staff at hand and a strong group of defence experts to rely on. Moreover, the Ministry of Defence’s purview does not cover military matters only.

If you were a soldier, what specialisation would you choose?

  • I will not be a soldier anymore; there is an age limit and physical readiness factor. It is about those in professional service. We have to build on our strengths and traditions, ranging from NBC defence, to medical service, pilots to special forces.

With conscription abolished, people lost a chance to see what is going on behind the gates of military bases. One of the ways to demonstrate for them how the Armed Forces look like are traditional events such as Bahna Army Day and the Tank Day, which enjoy a high popularity. Do you think the Armed Forces should organise more outreach events like these?

  • Absolutely. Without the support of our public, we cannot expect to secure necessary funding for the armed forces. Such outreach events bring the military and citizens closer together. I remember from the U.S. how the local bases opened up for the communities and we must pursue the same path. The public should know that the missions our soldiers perform are not only flood response operations or deployments in Afghanistan.


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