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Magyar Honvédség – Hungarian Armed Forces

The Replacement of Soviet-Era Equipment in the Eastern Flank

16 April 2021

Several nations of Central and Eastern Europe used to be part of the Warsaw Pact (1955-1991) and acquired a large military arsenal of Soviet origin during the Cold War. Today, they represent strategic partners and allies of the European Union and NATO that share the same visions and values (NATO, 2021). Despite the economic crisis of the past decade, the difficulties that the Covid-19 pandemic brought and all the political, financial, and logistical issues that the procurement of new military equipment implies, these countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria), are aiming at replacing their Soviet-era equipment by acquiring up-to-date military assets to comply with NATO standards (IISS, 2020: 73) and increase the capabilities of their land forces.

The reasons are due to the perception of Russia as an imminent threat (Tian et al., 2018: 6), especially after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the subsequent destabilisation and territorial disintegration of eastern Ukraine, which has produced an armed conflict between the two nations (Horobets, 2020). This crisis prompted the initiative of the Bucharest Nine (B9), a group founded by Romania and Poland in 2015, and includes Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Lithuania (Gerasymchuk, 2019: 5). This annual meeting aims to debate security policies and coordinate common positions within NATO to promote deeper cooperation and strengthen the joint defensive capacity of the ‘Eastern Flank’ (Lithuania MoD, 2020; IISS, 2020: 78), amid Russia’s “increasingly provocative narrative about relations with the West, and alarming developments in its force posture at or near” (Terlikowski et al., 2018: 1) EU borders.

Secondly, the Ukrainian experience in the Donbass War against Russia has proven the obsolescence that the military equipment inherited from the Soviet Union represents for national defence in modern conflicts amid all the technological advances and new tools developed for warfare (IISS, 2020; Horobets, 2020). Finally, as a consequence of the above and following the joint declaration of the 2014 NATO Summit in Newport, Wales (Techau, 2015: 3), the commitment with their allies to increase the defence spending to 2% of GDP was agreed for 2024.

Therefore, it is not surprising that these nations have reported a substantial increase in military spending in recent years. An interesting example is the fact that in 2017, the military investment in these countries increased by 12%, a big jump compared to the 1.7% of Western European allies (Tian et al., 2018: 6). And although the monetary amount of Western Europe’s military investment remains far above, this shows the commitment of the Central-Eastern European nations to their own security and that of their allies. It is important to note that some of them have already reached the goal of 2%, long before the expected date (NATO, 2020: 3).

The progressive replacement of the ageing Soviet-era military equipment is the focus of the modernisation projects in Central and Eastern Europe (IISS, 2020: 73). Baltic nations already completed the major transformation of their land forces by acquiring high-tech military equipment produced by NATO allies (IISS, 2020). And although so far it has been a limited process in the rest of B9 countries, important steps forward have been taken:

Slovakia has begun efforts to acquire a modern and reliable infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) to replace its Soviet-era BVP-1, BVP-2 and BVP-M vehicles, as part of the latest modernisation project announced in 2017, Long-Term Defence Development Plan. “Tracked armoured fighting vehicles should be at the core of our future Heavy Infantry Brigade, the raising of which represents one of our fundamental commitments towards NATO Allies in the field of introducing high-quality improvements in our Armed Forces,”stated Slovak Minister of Defence Jaroslav Naď.  He indicated as well that the main criteria for acquisition are the technical and operational requirements of the Slovak Land Forces, transparency, the possibility of involving the domestic defence industry manufacturers, and the best value for money to protect Slovak taxpayers (Slovak MoD, 2021).

To replace the Soviet T-72, which was in service since 1978, Hungary opted for the German Leopard 2A7+ tank (Balogh, 2019: 67) and has ordered a total of 218 Rheinmetall’s Lynx Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) (Army Technology, 2020), after establishing a joint venture to produce them in Hungarian territory. It is also notable that Hungary has invested considerably to boost the national arms industry. Another important example is the acquisition of Hirtenberger Defense Systems, an artillery equipment and ammunition development firm (Visegrad Group, 2019), and the agreement with the company Česká Zbrojovka (CZ) to produce in Hungary the weapons that will replace the AK-63 (Hungarian version of the Soviet AKM) (Army Recognition, 2018).

As part of the Romanian Land Forces modernisation programme, a joint venture was established between the national company Uzina Automecanica Moreni and Rheinmetall to produce the armoured vehicle that will succeed the Romanian version of the Soviet BTR-70 (Horobets, 2020). Similarly, Poland will replace the BWP-1 IFV with a nationally produced tracked armoured vehicle, named Borsuk amphibious armoured vehicle and is expected to enter in service by 2023 (Army Recognition, 2020). Moreover, from 2022, Poland is set to join Romania in the club of allies with their own medium range air and missile defence (AMD) by acquiring the U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) (Kelly, 2018; Marinas, 2020). Finally, Czech Republic, among other material, will replace its old Soviet-era SAM batteries with the powerful Israeli-produced Spyder air defence system (Army Technology, 2020) and Bulgaria is also aiming at progressively replace some equipment in the next years (IISS, 2020: 91; Horobets, 2020).

This does not represent an exhaustive list of all procurements and replacements taking place at all levels of the Armed Forces and, more specifically, in the land forces. However, it all shows how Central- and Eastern European nations have taken greater responsibility for their security, strengthening interoperability and coming to the forefront with the rest of their allies to participate actively in joint operations with up-to-date military equipment. The transformation of the ‘Eastern Flank’ armies is expected to continue advancing in the coming years, and cooperation and interoperability between European Union partners and NATO allies will continue to be the way forward.

It is also worth noting that Hungary holds the Presidency of Finabel’s Executive Committee since April 2021.

Written by Miguel GONZALEZ BUITRAGO, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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