Tag Archives: military affairs

The latest brainstorm: military sports centers to popularize a military career

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.

At one of the military summer camps

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.

September 10, 2017

Hungarian army recruitment: modern-day impressment?

An outcry followed an article that appeared in Kisalföld, a regional paper serving the county of Győr-Moson-Sopron in the northwestern corner of the country. The newspaper learned that people who are currently employed as public workers had received notices to appear at the Hungarian Army’s recruiting center in Győr. If they do not oblige, their names will be deleted from the list of those seeking employment.

Following up, a reporter for the paper got in touch with the recruiting office. He was told that at the recruiting center public workers will receive information about careers in the military and will be given the usual tests. If a person is fit to serve and refuses, he will lose his public work status and therefore his job. Well, that sounded very much like eighteenth-century British impressment. Moreover, within a few hours it became known that public workers in other counties as well will have to pay a visit to the recruiting office. It seems as if the ministry of defense is planning to involve the whole country, hoping to get new recruits this way.

The ministry of defense didn’t outright deny the story reported by Kisalföld. The ministry’s statement stressed only that “acceptance of service is not compulsory. It is merely an opportunity.” That’s fine and dandy, but since it is the ministry of interior that is in charge of the public works program, any retaliation would come from that ministry. After all, according to the rules and regulations, if a public worker declines a job offer, he loses his public works job. But today the ministry of interior assured the public that as long as the public worker shows up at the recruiting office, he will have fulfilled his obligation and will not have to worry about his job in the public works program.

kozmunkasok

We know that the Hungarian Army, according to some estimates, needs an additional 8,000 men and women, but this doesn’t strike me as the best way to beef up the numbers. Yes, at least in theory, military service could benefit those young men and women who lack the skills necessary to get steady, good-paying jobs. Ideally, the army could offer them an opportunity to learn useful skills. But the Hungarian army is not that kind of a place. Moreover, the pay is low.

It is hard to get exact figures on the pay of military personnel. In 2012 Csaba Hende, then minister of defense, in an answer to a socialist MP, said that enlisted men and women on average receive 137,425 forints a month, non-commissioned officers 191,157, and officers 389,522. The take-home pay is about half of these amounts, that is only $246 for an enlisted soldier. In 2011 a career advisory site outlined possibilities for youngsters if they chose a military career. According to information the site provided, 4,800 people visited the recruiting centers in 2011 but only 1,170, among them 80 women, got to the point of actually submitting an application, and only 837 were accepted. According to the career advisory site, a private first class’s basic pay was only 106,000 forints, a corporal made 119,000, a buck sergeant 130,000, and a sergeant 142,000 forints. No wonder that interest in signing up is minimal.

At the very end of 2014 the government at last announced a 30% hike in salaries, starting July 1, 2015, and it promised that by January 1, 2019 salaries will be 50% higher on average than now. The government loves to talk about what they call “életpálya,” which simply means “career,” usually used with an adjective like “katonai életpálya” (military career) “pedagógus életpálya” (teaching career). I came to the conclusion that having a career in their vocabulary means earning “a salary one can live on.” Even with all the wage hikes, the ordinary enlisted man will not have a military “career.”

Despite all the rhetoric, the Orbán government, instead of allocating more money to the military, systematically reduced its funding. For the latest wage hikes the ministry simply had no money. The added expenses were covered by the prime minister’s office.

Hungary is supposed to have a military force of 29,700 men and women. In June 2014 Csaba Hende talked about 5,921 unfilled jobs in the army. And, he said, past efforts at recruitment had yielded meager results. Since then another 2,000 or so have left the army. Thus, the size of the Hungarian army at the moment is only 22,000. Therefore, at the end of 2015 the decision was made to increase the intensity of recruitment in 2016. The army began advertising on the internet and decided to launch mobile recruiting centers, I assume in smaller towns and villages.

It is on the level of enlistees that shortages are acute. According to military analysts, the shortage of personnel could easily be remedied if the army would change the balance among officers, non-commissioned officers, enlisted men, and civil servants. As it stands now, the percentage of professional officers in the force is 30%. If their numbers were reduced to 10%, a great deal of money would be freed to pay the enlisted soldiers and the non-commissioned officers better. Apparently, a healthy mix would be 10% officers, 30% non-commissioned officers, 50% enlisted men and women, and 10% civilians. But such a move would meet stiff resistance from the officer corps, especially the “untouchable” general staff. As long as a more reasonable balance cannot be introduced, the recruitment effort will not be successful.

But let’s return to the deal between the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior. As it is, the public works program is used, especially in smaller places, as a political weapon. Most of those who take part in the program are at the mercy of the mayors, who decide who will and who will not be hired. In smaller places, although voting is secret, it is easy to figure out whether the fairly large public works crew voted for Fidesz. These small-town mayors behave like feudal lords during the reigns of weak kings, who carved out large regions where they acted like “kiskirályok” (little kings). In fact, people refer to these local tyrants as little kings.

The people who have no way to earn money outside of the public works program are in a subservient position economically and politically. I suspect that the ministries of defense and interior thought that some form of impressment was a capital idea, a policy that would fly under the radar. I do hope that the assurances coming from the ministry of the interior are for real because otherwise Hungarians are in bigger trouble than we think.

July 26, 2016

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part II

As I indicated yesterday, Eleni Kounalakis’s book on her stay in Budapest as ambassador of the United States is rich enough to spend more than one or even two short posts.

Before her departure to Hungary, the State Department explained to her that the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was one of President Obama’s top foreign policy priorities. At the time of our story, Hungary had 400 men and women serving in Afghanistan. Kounalakis’s task was to make sure that those troops, unlike some other international forces, don’t leave Afghanistan. That meant courting Csaba Hende.

Of the twenty-one chapters, four deal in one way or another with the Hungarian military. Her first chapter describes a boar hunt near the Ukrainian border to which she was invited by the Hungarian military brass after she told them that she knows how to handle a gun. It turned out that the military attaché of the embassy was very keen on her joining the guys because such an outing would strengthen the good relationship between the military establishments of the two countries. It was the same military attaché who urged her to take part in swimming across Lake Balaton, an affair also organized by the military. It seems that she was ready to do almost anything to ensure that the Hungarian troops would stay in Afghanistan.

Kounalakis describes Csaba Hende, the new minister of defense, as “a smart, affable man” who was rumored “to be out of his depth in the military realm.” (p. 119) Most people would be less charitable and would describe Hende as a bungling country bumpkin. In fact, in the chapters in which Hende figures there are many examples of his utter unsuitability to be a cabinet minister. In December 2010 the American ambassador was still outraged at one of Hende’s inappropriate remarks, yet in a relatively short period of time she described him as a close friend. That friendship is especially curious since it is clear from the text that Hende doesn’t speak a word of English and that their conversations were conducted through an interpreter.

Kounalakis misunderstood Hende’s role in the government. She assumed that he had some say about whether the Hungarian troops stay or leave Afghanistan. She believed that it was her excellent diplomatic skills and her friendship with Hende that resulted in the Hungarian government’s decision to remain part of the international force. We know, and I think Kounalakis should also have known, that no decision is made in Orbán’s Hungary, even about the smallest matter, without the prime minister’s personal approval. What Hende thought was, in the final analysis, irrelevant, so courting him was probably a waste of time.

At their very first meeting Hende indicated to Kounalakis that Camp Pannonia, where some of the Hungarians served, near the town of Pol-e Khumri, had become a very dangerous place. He was worried about his soldiers’ safety. “Something must be done.” (p. 121) The ambassador almost dropped her coffee cup because she was not expecting a change of policy on Afghanistan after the election. Kounalakis took Hende’s words at face value, but if you read her description of comments made later, the Orbán team most likely even before the election decided to threaten troop withdrawal in order to receive more financial help and military equipment.

A few days later the military attaché came with the surprising news that “Minister Hende had invited me to join him on a three-day trip to visit Hungarian troops in Sarajevo and Kosovo.” She decided to accept the invitation because such a trip “would give [her] the opportunity to advance another U.S. foreign policy objective,” this time in the Balkans. (pp. 122-123) During the flight back from Kosovo Hende brought up the topic of the Hungarian troops in Afghanistan again. This time, according to Kounalakis, he was more forceful. He told her that if someone is killed, “the blood will be on [his] hands,” a concern that Kounalakis understood since she felt “the gravity of the dilemma.” The U.S. military attaché in Budapest was less sympathetic. Yes, he told the ambassador, it is a dangerous place. It is a war zone, and it is important that the Hungarians remain there.

Eleni Kounalakis at a joint training seesion of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard, April 2011

Eleni Kounalakis at a  joint training session of Hungarian troops and the Ohio National Guard

A few months later Hende invited her to go with him to Afghanistan. Another opportunity for Hende to extract more money and equipment from the Americans. Kounalakis describes a rather uncomfortable encounter between General David Petraeus and Hende in which the Hungarian minister again explained his worries about his soldiers at Camp Pannonia. It is unsafe, and it prevents them from doing their assigned task, reconstruction work. During the discussion he repeated that “at a minimum, the Hungarians soldiers needed more equipment, especially more secure transport vehicles.” Hende was asked to make a list of equipment his troops needed, and he received a promise that the requests would be “seriously considered.” (pp. 134-135)

It was during this trip that Kounalakis herself was finally convinced that the Hungarian troops needed more equipment. Although earlier there were serious disagreements between Hende and the American ambassador, one morning after a nearby bombing by coalition forces,

It was clear that something had changed. The tension between Csaba and me had diffused, and everyone felt it. I think he finally understood that it would be hard for him to walk away from his country’s commitments, and I think he saw that I finally understood that his troops were exposed at Camp Pannonia and needed more equipment to protect themselves.

The corner that we turned was significant, not just for our countries’ cooperation in Afghanistan but for everything we would accomplish together for the next three years. Despite–or perhaps because of–our confrontation, mutual respect and understanding had been forged between us. Not more than a few weeks later, a large shipment of new transport vehicles was delivered to Camp Pannonia. Within a short period of time, the reconstruction team received all of the equipment they needed. (p. 141-142)

Considering that only a few days before the following conversation took place between Kounalakis and Hende, this change of heart was truly remarkable. Kounalakis kept talking about the importance of reconstruction work in a developing country when

[Hende] responded, very smugly, “You know, Madam Ambassador, we Hungarians have a saying for what your country is trying to do here: it’s like taking a fish stew and trying to turn it into an aquarium.”

It was the final straw. It was an outrageous, disrespectful thing to say about the United States and all of our troops and officers who were serving in this dangerous place. I looked him in the eye, and I raised my voice.

“The cost to my country, in lives and treasure, is enormous. Success or failure will impact the future of my country, our security and yours, and determine the future for our nations’ children, yours and mine included. You can be as critical as you want, but you cannot discount our effort out of hand that way, as if nothing is at stake!”

The minister’s young interpreter looked mortified, but Csaba himself had staked his ground and refused to back down. Not wanting to give further vent to my anger, I stood up and left the room. (p. 138)

Kounalakis visited Afghanistan once more, this time at the invitation of Admiral James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander of NATO. Once there she proposed to the admiral that “maybe we could persuade [the Hungarians] to take another rotation.” Stavridis was doubtful, but Kounalakis was pretty certain that they would agree, adding that “the only thing is, they probably won’t have the money to fund such an effort.” Once back in Budapest she approached Hende, and “the Hungarians responded with incredible speed and surprising flexibility.” (pp. 269-270) Indeed, why not? Kounalakis is certain that it was her excellent personal relationship with the Hungarian minister of defense that was responsible for this happy turn of events from the American point of view.

On May 10, 2013, John Kerry, secretary of state, wrote a letter to Kounalakis praising her for her exceptional service as ambassador of the United States to Hungary. The very first item on the list of her accomplishments was her “efforts [that] convinced the Hungarian government to maintain its Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan until its mission was completed.” (p. 185)