The other day I came across a Hungarian-language article about a speech delivered by Antoni Macierewicz, the Polish minister of defense. The article claimed that the minister talked at length about the necessity of having an army that would be strong enough to defend Poland’s independence without outside help. His assessment of Poland’s military strength, both now and in the future, sounded far too optimistic to me, so I visited the Polish site where the information came from. There I learned that, according to Macierewicz, if there is national unity and a national government, there is also a strong army. “We hear voices that the Territorial Defense Force is not needed, but it is the Polish army that binds the nation together.” A unitary Polish nation means an invincible army.
The current Hungarian government has been thinking along the same lines. The debate over the military has been going on for years. It has become evident that the kind of professional army the United States and some other countries have doesn’t satisfy Fidesz politicians’ somewhat old-fashioned military ideas. While in 2003 the socialist-liberal government was envisaging “an army for the 21st century,” the present leadership in many ways would like to build a much more traditional defense force. Viktor Orbán and his comrades know that returning to conscription is out of the question because a few days after such an announcement the Orbán government would be a thing of the past. So they have been trying to expand the numbers of recruits. Given the low pay and prestige of the military in Hungary, this project never got off the ground. Then came the idea of building up a force of reservists who, somewhat like the National Guard in the United States, would serve as part-time soldiers. Interest in the program was meager. Even the training of the so-called “border hunters” was intended to serve as a kind of introduction to army life. Just yesterday, however, the Hungarian media reported that a whole class of a police academy was ordered to the border because the number of “border hunters” was insufficient.
In the last year or so the ministry of defense has been looking for ways to make military service more attractive to young men and women. First, we heard that shooting galleries would be attached to schools, and several school principals reported receiving inquiries from KLIK, the center in charge of all state schools. But a few days later the ministry of human resources, which deals with matters related to education, issued a denial. Although there will be more emphasis on “patriotic” education, the talk about the “militarization” of Hungarian schools was nothing but an unfounded rumor. If there was, at one point, some thought of using schools as sources of future military personnel, this idea had been scrapped.
Meanwhile, the ministry of defense was working on a new idea. On February 11 the ministry announced the formation of the National Defense Sports Association (Honvédelmi Sportszövetség/HS) under its auspices. HS’s president is István Kun Szabó, a major general and assistant undersecretary in the ministry of defense. According to the initial announcement, “the task of HS is to renew the relationship between society and the Hungarian Army and at the same time to promote the establishment of a voluntary reserve system on new foundations through leisure sports.” As I suspected, this new military sports association is a backdoor way to try to enlarge the Hungarian Army. There will be plenty of enticements. In the sports centers that will be built, people can learn to shoot, fence, engage in martial arts and strength athletics, even joust. In addition, they can learn to drive and apply basic first aid. The Sports Association will also organize military summer camps. “Ultimately, the goal is to attract as many young people as possible who want to play a role in defending the country by applying for either reserve or professional service.”
The news came on September 6 that the government had set aside 17.5 billion forints (57.1 million euros) to build 40 sports centers. In a second round, another 67 such centers will be established. They will be constructed on land owned by the Hungarian state, and the structures will also be state-owned. The amount of money to be spent on the first 40 centers is considered by commentators to be extravagant. But these centers must be relatively large to accommodate all the different sports offered. In addition, each of the facilities must have a staff. All in all, operating these centers will not be cheap. Moreover, there is no guarantee that those who benefited from the sports facilities will actually enter the armed services. This will most likely be a mighty expensive way of recruiting military personnel.
Criticism of the plan to establish more than 100 shooting galleries was immediate. Apparently, 98 shooting galleries exist in Hungary now, and all of them are in terrible shape. Some people argue that the renovation of the existing galleries should be the first priority, not building new ones.
There are objections about the overall course of the Hungarian Army from military experts as well. Gyula Kovács, a retired lieutenant colonel and expert of the Magyar Hadtudományi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Military Science), wrote an opinion peace in Népszava on August 18, 2017 in which he described the Orbán government’s military plans under the title “On the road to the 20th century.” Kovács doesn’t believe that István Simicskó, minister of defense, is the right person to lead the Hungarian military. After years of funding shortages, now at last the ministry is getting a sizable infusion of money, which should be spent on reform. The Hungarian Army is still organized according to the old Soviet structure, which by now even the Russian Army has abandoned. When at the moment there are only 38.6 billion forints for development, spending 17.5 billion on sports centers seems a terrible waste of money. Kovács points out that “the main goal of the program is the formation of a territorial defense force of 20,000.” But he doubts that 20,000 young people will be ready to join the army any time soon. Moreover, one wouldn’t need a larger force if the leadership got rid of the bloated bureaucracy (about 20,000-21,000 men and women) when only 6,000-7,000 people are actively engaged in the military. If the army’s structure were at last changed, 12,000-14,000 men and women could produce, given modern equipment, a division of American quality. In short, the whole project is a waste of money. A modern army cannot be built by recruiting youngsters who like to shoot and enjoy martial arts, he claims.
I can only concur. I simply cannot believe that this trick will produce a large number of recruits. And Gyula Kovács is most likely also right in saying that Hungary doesn’t need such a large force. A smaller and more modern one would suffice, but that would require serious changes, which the big brass would undoubtedly be loath to implement.