Hungary begins strong military development - NATO appreciates

English2019. szept 24.Péter Dunai

“Military procurements are influenced by political interests everywhere, and this is no different in Hungary,” said Zoltán Szenes, a retired colonel and president of the Hungarian Military Society. In an interview with Novekedes.hu, Szenes emphasized that relations between Hungary and NATO are good and that our efforts are appreciated. However, he believes that there is more to do in developing the domestic military industry.

How much funding does the Zrínyi-2026 program, launched in January 2017, provide for military development?

This program is estimated to cost 3,500 billion forints. The Ministry of Defence has completed development planning that fits NATO's ten-year outlook. The Zrínyi-2026 Defence and Military Force Development Program is the most comprehensive and complex plan of this kind in the last thirty years. According to the official statement, the government considers the development of the domestic defence industry, its possible widespread expansion, and its economic stimulus and job-creating effects, to all be key factors.

How does politics influence procurement and military development?

Politics is a significant influence, as is the case in virtually every other country in the world. By its very nature, decision making about arms procurement and deployment is a political process. The purchase of the recently announced military transport aircraft to replace the aging An-26 types is a good example. The press stated that Hungary would be the second European country after Portugal to buy the Brazilian Embraer KC-390. This was not unexpected if one recalls how the Hungarian Prime Minister was in Brazil recently at the inauguration of their new president.

The creation of a special post in Hungary reflects the national government’s strong political will.

Since July 2018, Gáspár Maróth has filled this post, which is responsible for working with the national defence industry to develop and coordinate military modernization.

Among the NATO countries, this mandate is known as the National Armament Director (NAD). This mandate is usually implemented by the Deputy Economic Secretaries of State in the Ministries of Defence, which is a position that is often filled by a military officer. This used to be the case in Hungary as well, but last year's decision removed this responsibility from the Ministry of Defence.

This is the first time since the fall of communism that a mandate traditionally belonging to the Ministry of Defence was turned over to a leader from another ministry. This may cause coordination and communication problems between the Ministry of Defence and the government. Specific details of the workings of this government commissioner's office are unspecified, so the links between military development and arms procurement are not known to the public.

How burdensome is the strong military development for Hungary?

Prior to 2016, the lease of JAS 39 Gripen fighters had consumed nearly the entire budget for development in the Department of Defence. The Gripen leasing agreement expires in 2026, so the government must decide whether to continue support for the JAS 39 Gripen aircraft or procure a replacement far in advance.

The long-term effects of today's armament procurement are unknown, as the contracts are not yet public. What is known, however, is that it takes much time and money to deploy the next generation of any weapons system. Such examples of big-scale military development may not be a heavy burden if national economic growth persists to fund the 10-year plan of the Ministry of Defence.

What is the relationship between Hungary and NATO leaders?

While Hungary's enjoys good relations with NATO, the security and defence policy relations between Hungary and the EU that structure their defence cooperation have only begun to develop since last year. Hungary has met the requirements of the so-called "three C's" (Costs, Capabilities, Contributions) in NATO.

What does this mean in detail?

Regarding the first C, cost, the government's commitments to defence spending this year will reach 2 percent of Hungary's annual GDP. This is the level recommended by NATO. Last year, Hungary spent 1.41 percent of its GDP on defence, which includes funding transferred from government reserves or border protection budgets. According to NATO statistics, national defence spending in 2018 amounted to only 1.15 percent of GDP, which excludes additional resources such as these.

Hungary also qualifies for the second C, capability, after purchases under the Zrínyi-2026 plan are accepted and evaluated by NATO circles. These purchases include transports and helicopters for the air forces, as well as anti-tank weapons, armoured vehicles and armoured self-propelled guns for the land forces.

As for the third C, contributions, the Hungarian peacekeeping contribution in NATO has never been questioned. For example, the current Hungarian involvement in policing Baltic Air Space (known as Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA) is appreciated. Hungary is also taking part in the creation and operation of NATO command structures. In mid-February of this year, the defence ministers of Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia announced a plan to establish a flexible Special Operational Component Command (R-SOCC), which can be activated by any of its participants. The Hungarian R-SOCC command will be set up in accordance with the standards of the NATO Special Operations Center in Mons, Belgium, and is expected to be based in Szolnok, Hungary.

What are the long-term ideas in the field of military development?

NATO's defence system plays a crucial role in Hungary military development. Political decisions are implemented by NATO. For example, in 2016 at the Warsaw Summit, NATO declared cyberspace as an operational area.  As a result, the Hungarian Army established a cyber defence academy in Szentendre, Hungary, this year. Additionally, back in 1998, Hungary followed the NATO approach at the time by promising to commit a light-weight brigade. In 2014, this unit later became a heavy brigade with tanks and self-propelled heavy guns, after NATO's approach towards this issue had changed.

Will the existing heavy-duty military equipment, such as the 44 Leopard 2A7+ armoured combat vehicle and the 24 PzH 2000 self-propelled guns with 155mm/52 calibre shells, be sufficient to support a heavy brigade?

Hungary needs to procure infantry vehicles that can replace the Russian-made BTRs  (armoured personnel carriers). This additional heavy military equipment must be purchased to properly equip the promised Hungarian heavy brigade that is to be established by 2028. Both Germany and Turkey can be considered as potential suppliers for this effort.

However, the rapid acquisition of the new military technology, particularly heavy vehicles such as these, is only the first step. Much progress must be made before Hungarian soldiers, weapons instructors and the maintenance support staffs all become thoroughly acquainted with these new, and in many ways unusual, weapons systems. Many recall how it took eight years to thoroughly know the Gripens and their systems.

The sensitive question: Russian relations

Hungary’s Russian-made helicopters have been refurbished by the Russians. After the events in eastern Ukraine in 2014, including the Russian annexation of Crimea, this fact was much less appreciated. The resulting desire to demonstrate a unified force against Moscow greatly bolstered the unity of NATO member states. The European Union responded by imposing economic sanctions. As far as the helicopter refurbishment is concerned, other options exist, even within the framework of the Visegrad  (Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary) cooperation.

Ninety percent of arms purchases to date are from European manufacturers. Given the United States is the backbone of NATO and the world's largest arms exporter, what is their opinion about this?

The plans of the Hungarian government are not yet clear. In the future, they may decide between the American C-130 Hercules and the Brazilian KC-390. Lockheed Martin's C-130 aircraft have been flying for decades and proven their worth in many military conflicts. The Embraer KC-390 multi-purpose aircraft has not yet been deployed in combat. Further, the C-130 Hercules has been deployed by two regional European neighbours, Poland and Romania.

Also, modern American fighter jets have been considered as possible replacements for the aging Gripens. Boeing, which has a good relationship with Embraer, has established a joint venture with the Brazilian company at the end of last year to develop and sell a fighter aircraft. Further, there are plans in the Defence Ministry to buy an anti-missile system with a significant US stake in their development.

What is the domestic military industry like at the moment?

One of the goals of a modernized Hungarian Armed Forces is the renewal of the Hungarian military industry. This is not an easy task. Although the government has repeatedly promised to support the military industry and let it engage in new arms purchases, Hungarian military manufacturing companies complain about missing out on many large-scale foreign purchases. So far, only military companies belonging to the Ministry have benefited from such promises. For example, HM Arsenal is a company owned by the Ministry of Defence and oversees the domestic production of handguns. This makes a significant contribution to the equipment used by the soldiers of the "one-man combat program". With the arrival of the production lines from the Czech Republic, pistols, assault rifles and submachine guns are now being produced in Kiskunfélegyháza, Hungary.

However, the Hungarian military industry responds to no single owner. It’s managed neither by the Ministry of Defence, nor the government commissioner's apparatus. The Ministry of Innovation and Technology should oversee, supervise and direct the military industry.

Professional interests often conflict with national government interests, and they will continue to do so after the Irinyi Plan expires in 2020. Although there is an inter-ministerial committee, there is no public forum and no concept to observe and critique. The last military exhibition was held in 2007.