Deterioration of the European security system in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis and worsening of relations between Russia and the West led the four Visegrad Group countries to renew their partially abandoned defence cooperation in order to enhance current and adopt new regional security measures.
On July 1, 2019 several thousand soldiers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia will start to serve as the so called Visegrad Battlegroup, which will be formed as part of the European Union’s quick reaction force. For six months they are expected to be ready to perform a wide range of operational tasks, if ordered and resulting from a potential deterioration of the security situation in Europe, while maintaining their combat effectiveness through a series of multinational, locally organised staff and combat exercises and drills.
Poland, as the biggest contributor of troops, will act as the framework nation of the battlegroup, and as such will be responsible for coordination of works related to the establishment of an effective command chain as well as the distribution of duties and supervision of tasks and orders delegated to dedicated units assigned to the battlegroup, while they remain stationed in their home countries.
The command centre of the V4 battlegroup will be located in Krakow, the hometown of the 6th Airborne Brigade, which will act as one of the leading units in this multinational task force, delegating its officers to particular levels of the organisational structure. Additionally, soldiers from the 18th Airborne Battalion in Bielsko-Biala, which is subordinate to the 6th AB, will lead the combat component of the battlegroup. Furthermore, soldiers from V4 countries will be supported by a Croatian contingent, which will join the battlegroup according to an agreement made by ministers of defence during a meeting in Brussels on 20 November 2018.
The exact number of troops assigned to the battlegroup by the contributing nations is still to be announced, as well as the distribution of tasks and responsibilities. However, it is expected that according to the EU’s military rapid reaction capacity requirement, the force will be capable of reaching operational readiness within 15 days and arrive in the theatre of operation within ten days.
V4 battlegroup’s soldiers might be sent to conduct a variety of tactical operations within a range of 6000 km from Brussels, stationing in distant regions such as Africa or the Middle East. Acting as EU’s quick reaction force, such contingent will have to be capable of operating stand-alone for 30-120 days.
The V4 armies have prepared to operate as the EU’s QRF component for the past two years, conducting multinational workshops, seminars, consultations, trainings and field exercises. Each contributing nation was individually responsible for the assignment of soldiers and officers for their national contingents, as well as organising and conducting certification processes at national levels.
The Polish contingent will comprise soldiers from the aforementioned Krakow-based 6th Airborne Brigade complemented by tactical level elements from several other units, such as the 12th Mechanised Brigade in Szczecin, and was certified late last year during the Puma-18 exercise held from 13 to 19
November at the Wedrzyn training grounds. The event was the culmination of a year-long training programme for Polish soldiers, many of whom experienced serving in the scope of multinational stabilisation and peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan or Iraq in the past.
However, with the conclusion of training programmes at national levels, certification of the whole battlegroup is required in order to confirm the interoperability and readiness of particular contingents to fulfil their tasks and meet the challenge of cooperating with other Visegrad Group partners within the rapid reaction force structure.
The complex certification of the V4 battlegroup will be carried out this May during the Common Challenge-19 exercise organised at the Nowa Deba training grounds in Poland, during which particular national contingents will perform various tasks, acting independently or as a joint task force.
V4 Security Priorities
The upcoming rotation of the V4 EU battlegroup will be the latest in a series of multinational initiatives devoted to improving and enhancing cooperation between the Visegrad Group’s member states. Its main goal is to integrate and coordinate the policies of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in the face of a changing post-cold war security system in Europe, which is the result of the crisis in Ukraine, among others, and deterioration of relations between Russia and the West to an extent not experienced since the Cold War.
Throughout their involvement in the EU’s rapid reaction force initiative the V4 partner states aim to achieve several goals related to their defence policy priorities at the European level, including the ability to reach longstanding agreements on mutually debated matters and provide coordinated reactions to regional political and military developments which could have far-reaching implications on the V4 Group’s security.
Visegrad Group nations also strive to remain involved in main political initiatives within the EU, which might affect the European security system in the future, as well as to maintain their position as strong and reliable partners in the discussion about the vision of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), enhancing defence cooperation between V4 members and contributing to various initiatives devoted to the preservation of a peaceful political and military environment within the EU and in its neighbourhood.
For the same reason the V4 member states formed their initial battlegroup within the EU QRF, which remained on stand-by from 1 January to 30 June 2016. At that time the group was composed of more than 3,900 soldiers, with Poland serving as the framework nation, contributing around 1,870 soldiers. Other V4 countries delegated smaller contingents varying from 728 (Czech Republic) to 466 (Slovakia) specialists. Additionally, a small contingent of Ukrainian soldiers served along in an auxiliary capacity.
During the initial assignment, countries forming the V4 battlegroup shared their responsibilities depending on their capabilities and dedicated skills of troops forming the quick reaction force. Accordingly, Poland was tasked with forming the battlegroup’s command structure, a manoeuvring battalion (formed by the 12th Mechanized Brigade), a reconnaissance component and an air component, The Czech Republic provided logistic support.
The Hungarian contingent was composed of special forces and engineering teams, as well as specialists responsible for civilian-military cooperation (CIMIC) and psychological operations (PsyOps). Slovakia, on the other hand, delegated a contingent of NBC protection specialists and Ukraine, cooperating with its Polish counterparts, was tasked with providing air transport support with one Il-76 airlifter.
Although, the V4 battlegroup was not ordered to deploy during its initial six months, delegated troops took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen their cooperation capabilities throughout a series of regionally organised trainings and exercises, which helped the soldiers to remain on standby and in full readiness to engage in any form of military operations under the EU quick reaction force mandate, if so required.
Furthermore, the formation of the first V4 EU battlegroup started a new chapter in security-related cooperation of the Visegrad Group’s member states, which until lately seemed to forget about and undermined the role which this political body played in their ambition of joining the EU and NATO since the end of the Cold War. After achieving these goals each state started to devote most of its political and economic resources to improve individual partnerships with selected Western states instead of continuing mutually agreed and regionally focused initiatives within the Western political and military blocs.
However, in the face of the global financial crisis which hindered military modernisation efforts of V4 countries nearly a decade ago, forcing them to postpone major investments in their self-defence capabilities, as well as the deterioration of security system in Europe, the Visegrad Group’s members decided to rebuild their security cooperation capabilities, especially in accordance with guidelines set by NATO’s Smart Defence and the EU’s Pooling and Sharing initiatives.
Therefore, forming of the first V4 EU battlegroup served as an example of how a group of relatively small European countries with limited defence capabilities and facing challenges with regard to military modernisation in a period of limited investment budgets can share their individual capabilities in order to form a joint task force ready to engage in different combat or peacekeeping activities in the region.
Positive outcomes of forming the first V4 battlegroup in 2016 helped to set new goals for regional security cooperation, which will see the reinstitution of the regional QRF not only in 2019 but also in the years to come. Lately, officials from Visegrad Group member states have repeatedly confirmed that negotiations are underway to form the third V4-concentrated battlegroup in 2023, which again might involve third country support elements, enhancing the multinational character of the whole structure.
Transatlantic Defence Cooperation
Moreover, V4 cooperation in the field of defence and security goes beyond the EU’ CSDP policy, involving the group’s members in other multinational military initiatives, such as NATO’s build-up on its eastern flank under the enhanced forward presence (eFP) action plan, implemented in the aftermath of the 2016 Warsaw Summit. Since the beginning of eFP initiative, some members of the V4 Group devoted their resources in order to comply with the planned increase of NATO forces in the Baltic States and Poland, contributing troops to multinational task forces deployed near Russian borders.
Each V4 country deployed its contingents to selected Baltic States and Poland on a rotational basis, enhancing the pan-Alliance cooperation and ability to jointly enforce peace and security along NATO’s eastern border. As of February 2019 three out of four Visegrad Group members have been actively involved in the eFP initiative, with most of the troops stationing in Latvia under the Canadian command stationed in Adazi.
As the biggest contributor of all V4 countries, Poland deployed to Latvia a contingent of 200 troops, including a tank company comprising 14 PT-91 TWARDY MBTs, as well as providing a national contribution to the battlegroup’s HQ and other support elements. The Polish component is supplemented by a Slovak contingent of 152 troops formed by a mechanised infantry company, HQ staff and support elements as well as 60 Czech soldiers forming a mortar platoon. Simultaneously, the Government in Prague deployed 230 soldiers, including a mechanised infantry company, to Lithuania, where Czech troops serve under the German command in Rukla.
Furthermore, the V4 countries will form a crucial part of next year’s NATO spearhead force as part of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), with Poland acting as the framework nation of the land component. Visegrad Group nations will prepare contingents to immediately react to military and non-military threats to the Alliance, prepared to deploy to their theatres of operation within days. Poland will provide a contingent of around 3,500 soldiers, mostly assigned to the 21st Podhale Rifles Brigade.
Failed Industry Integration
As much as the cooperation of V4 countries for improvement of the regional security system thrives, it corresponds with minimal to none effect of year-long attempts to set boundaries for the integration of each country’s defence industry, which could utilise mutual modernisation needs of the Visegrad Group’s national armies. Most joint investment projects, which usually did not extend beyond political declarations of regional leaders, already failed at launch due to the inability of the V4 partners to reach final agreements on technical requirements, share of production work and decide on industrial contractors.
First attempts to set up a defence industrial cooperation within the V4 Group date back to early 1990’, when member states decided to modernise their Soviet-era equipment. Due to the fact that most of the V4 partners operated the same type of weapon systems including tanks, armoured vehicles, combat and utility helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the Visegrad members saw a number of benefits resulting from joint procurement and modernisation efforts, including scaling down the total investment costs and preserving their national defence industries in the face of inevitable market competition with superior Western business counterparts.
The planned modernisation of a fleet of Mi-24 attack helicopters, which in the late 1990s and early 2000s were operated by the armies of every Visegrad Group member state, was one of the major early date attempts to set up a joint defence programme among the V4 countries and at the same time a good example of how failure to overcome political differences and disagreements, inability to put aside particular interests in order to achieve a mutually understood goal, as well as third actor’s involvement and lobbying, can hinder joint efforts to increase the level of regional security and enhance the interoperability of the armed forces of close neighbours.
In 2002 V4 political leaders signed an agreement upon which around 100 Mi-24 combat helicopters were to be modernised to comply with NATO standards with the help of a preferred Western industrial partner. Work and costs were to be distributed evenly among all four partners, with Poland acting as the coordinator of the joint programme, making use of its relatively advanced military helicopter industry.
The V4 members perceived the planned modernisation of the Mi-24 fleet as a chance to integrate regional defence industry and a big step towards the long-awaited access to Western defence blocks such as NATO. At the same time the Visegrad partners anticipated promising export opportunities, as at that time a number of countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe continued to operate soviet-era military equipment, including a large number of Mi-24s, which needed to be overhauled or modernised.
Nearly a year after signing the initial agreement on the Mi-24 modernisation, the whole programme was cancelled, when the Czech Republic and Hungary decided to withdraw their support due to budgetary problems, change of modernisation and procurement priorities and slow progress of preparational efforts, for which Poland, as the project’s main coordinator, was blamed for.
Moreover, ever since its launch in 2002, the Mi-24 joint modernisation programme was intensively criticised by the Russian Federation, which perceived it as a potential threat to its own defence industry. According to media articles dating back to that time, Moscow tried to lobby among V4 nations against the project, convincing them to make an individual attempt to maintain and modernise its combat helicopter fleet, especially in cooperation with the original manufacturer, the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant.
Missed Cooperation Opportunities
To this day, despite effective cooperation within European and transatlantic political and security institutions, the V4 countries lack the will and ability to launch and complete mutually agreed defence procurement and modernisation programmes; instead, the preference is on acting independently or in partnership with higher developed Western European and American industry partners.
In 2015 the Slovak Army was in the midst of its ambitious modernisation programme, which included, among other projects, the procurement of several dozen modern, wheeled armoured vehicles in several configurations. After a rigorous selection process the Polish company Rosomak, now a subsidiary of the state owned PGZ (Polish Armaments Group), turned out as the preferred bidder and was invited for further negotiations. The company offered its renowned and combat proven Rosomak 8×8 platform, modified according to Slovak requirements, which included adaptation of the locally developed TURRA remote weapon station.
The Polish company was chosen mostly due to the fact that its Rosomak 8×8 platform shows a very high degree of commonality with the Finnish Patria’s AMV 8×8 vehicle, on the basis of which it was developed. Additionally, Rosomak guaranteed lower production and maintenance costs in comparison to Western partners, which seemed to be a crucial argument for the Slovak MoD.
Despite initial optimism and will of cooperation shown by the Polish and Slovak partners, a final agreement has never been reached and Bratislava eventually decided to withdraw from the project. Although the reason for the negative outcome of a prospective partnership was never officially revealed, local media sources indicated in the past that lack of political goodwill and prolonged negotiations at industrial level brought the Slovak MoD to the point at which it preferred to award the contract for the new armoured vehicle to the original manufacturer of the AMV, Patria Land Systems Oy.
Other major joint defence programmes of the V4 Group, which often were cancelled even before launched officially, included the modernisation of a fleet of T-72 MBTs, the development and procurement of tracked IFVs, and 3D mobile airdefence radar systems. Most projects were abandoned due to a V4 inability to reach a mutual agreement on technical requirements or procurement procedures under the terms of which the planned investment was to be executed, as well as the preferred acquisition timeframe, especially when decision making processes in some of the countries were taking too long due to various internal factors, which led other partners to pursue the acquisition separately.
Since its formation in 1991, the Visegrad Group has suffered several setbacks, resulting from differences and inconsistency of security and defence priorities of its members. Despite temporary layoff in V4 cooperation after the Group achieved its main goal of access to the EU and NATO, V4 seemed to finally catch new winds in its sails in the past decade, as the security system in Europe and its surroundings deteriorated, especially in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis.
The V4 countries, which once again feel endangered by the worsening of relations between Russia and the West, feel committed to enhancing and strengthening their political and military cooperation. As a result of the visible shift in security policy priorities, the Visegrad countries agreed to mutually conduct a series of large scale exercises and create joint V4-oriented defence structures, such as the EU’s battlegroups or NATO’s quick reaction forces.
However, despite generally positive reactions to the deterioration of the European security system, the V4 countries seem to omit the long lasting problem of inability to set up cooperation principles for the modernisation of their armed forces under joint development or acquisition programmes, which might lead not only to improvement of their respectful defence industries, especially in the face of growing competition on regional and global markets from Western and American business partners, but also scaling down procurement and maintenance costs for years to come.
Michal Jarocki is is an independent, Warsaw-based defence expert who has reported on security issues and developments from a qualified “insider” position for many years.