The Czech Republic Ministry of Defense unveiled plans on April 28 for the expansion of its armed forces from the current size of 16,600 personnel to upwards of a 27,000-strong military by 2025. Further, according to local daily Mladá fronta DNES, the Czech government may revisit the practice of conscription, which had officially been scrapped by Prague on December 31, 2004.
Like many former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe that served as Soviet-directed satellites during the Cold War, the Czech Republic has been alarmed by Russia’s aggressive posture along its western periphery. The Kremlin’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russia separatist elements in eastern Ukraine have prompted the Czech Republic to revisit its own security policies and defense approach.
Following the Czech Republic’s admission into NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004, successive Czech governments have given short shrift to defense, preferring to focus on other areas of governance. Despite having pledged to meet the NATO minimum requirement of having members devote 2 percent of annual GDP towards defense, Prague has repeatedly failed to meet that obligation since 2003, with the 2014 earmark totaling less than 1.08 percent of national wealth. Further, efforts to modernize the armed forces by retiring Warsaw Pact- and Soviet-legacy hardware and replace it with modern NATO-standard equipment proved uneven at best.
Now the tri-party governing coalition of Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka – prodded in part by Russia’s actions, as well as by pressure from NATO allies (namely the United States) – is attempting to stymie the downturn in defense capability and reverse the hollowing-out process plaguing the Czech military. A crucial first step came with the announcement of an agreement on September 2, 2014, committing the coalition to progressively increase annual defense earmarks through 2020, by which time the defense budget will equal 1.4 percent of GDP. This will entail boosting the defense budget up from its current CZK43.5 billion ($1.77 billion) figure by about CZK20-30 billion ($817 million-$1.22 billion) by the start of the next decade.
With the financial backing of the government in hand, the Defense Ministry is preparing to launch competitions for the purchase of new helicopters, armored vehicles, and radars.
While this is certainly a positive development for the armed forces of the Czech Republic, a word of caution is necessary. Too often, such government pledges in Europe last as long as that government or ruling coalition remains in power, or are scrapped when the first economic downturn arrives. Should this instance prove different, the Czech military will merely return to an adequate state of readiness, not become a mirror of a robust professional army, such as the Israel Defense Forces.
In the meantime, politics must come first. As such, decisions on whether to revive conscription and expand the military are expected as soon as June.