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For years there were no military-political relations at the highest level between Prague and Vienna. In 2008, the Austrian defence attachés in Prague, Budapest, Lubljana, Bratislava, Bucharest, Sofia and Athens respectively were withdrawn and replaced by so-called “roving attachés”. However, there are about 40 individual joint initiatives at the troop level, some of which are now even supported by the new European Defence Fund. Overall, a meeting of the two ministers was overdue when Czech Defence Minister Lubomir Metnar visited his Austrian counterpart Mario Kunasek on 19 March 2019. ESD listened to what both ministers had to say.

Metnar and Kunasek spoke about Czech-Austrian defence cooperation and other military-related issues. (Photo: Georg Mader)

ESD: I suppose that after such a long time without contacts at the highest level there was much to discuss between you and your colleague from Prague. What were the key topics in your exchange?
M. Kunasek: First of all, I am glad that we can finally exchange personal experiences on this level, and I am sure this will not be the last time. There was also an invitation from my colleague Minister Metnar, which I am sure I will follow. In addition to a general exchange of information on the European security situation, we discussed the use of training facilities.
L. Metnar: It was a very pleasant and friendly welcome, and we would like to thank Minister Kunasek. We have had good bilateral cooperation at the troop level or within the framework of structured European cooperation PESCO, with a total of 40 projects in the field of military technical or general training.

ESD: Minister Metnar, the Czech Republic has been a NATO member for over 10 years, while Austria has been neutral since 1955. What could you do together?
L. Metnar: While today we clearly have different strategic approaches and parameters, our relationship with Austria during the Cold War – perhaps because of older historical roots – was different from that of other NATO countries. And today we are good neighbours and partners in Europe, which is why I regard our cooperation as very important. It is at a high level. I would like to mention here the Austro-led project on NBC detection.

ESD: In fact, it was the aforementioned Austrian invitation to the Czech Republic to participate in the project now funded by the EU Defence Fund on air or network-based protection of deployed troops against NBC agents [Unmanned sensor network for ABC protection / defense (CBRN / Surveillance as a service, SaaS)]. Could you imagine that?
L. Metnar: I can well imagine that because the project did not just start yesterday. When we also talked about PESCO, the topics of NBC defence and detection technology soon came up. For a long time, the Czech Army has been working to protect itself against delivery systems of such weapons of mass destruction, both in cyberspace and with sophisticated domestic passive positioning systems. We have agreed to focus on this, and Austria is interested in our capabilities. Presently, we only have observer status for this project, but on the basis of the EDA and the EU Defence Fund, various projects are constantly being developed and evaluated and effective platforms for closer cooperation are being maintained.
M. Kunasek: Indeed, the Czech Republic currently has observer status in this CRBN project but given the very high competence and know-how of the Czech Army, I have reiterated our invitation to them to participate actively in the project.

On 19 March 2019, Czech Defence Minister Lubomir Metnar visited Austrian Defence Minister Mario Kunasek in Vienna. (Photo: Georg Mader)

ESD: Passive detection systems such as VERA-NG from ERA in Pardubice are world market leaders. How did your Austrian colleague react to passive detection technology? In view of the undeniable Czech expertise, would you like to work more closely together in EW?
L. Metnar: We did also talk explicitly about passive airspace surveillance and the parameters of systems like our VERA-NG. Yet, that was just an exchange of information without any specific cooperation agreements. Austria has a more theoretical approach to combat in cyberspace and wants to include intergovernmental components of internal security. This must be taken into account when testing cooperation.

ESD: In 2015, border protection was an important issue for both countries. During the Austrian EU Presidency in 2018, Minister Kunasek proposed using the military for this task, as was and is the case for army assistance on the national eastern and southern borders until 2011 and again from 2015. The idea was that regular soldiers would support the border police along or at ‘hotspots’ along the EU’s external borders. What is your take on that?
L. Metnar: In my previous position as Czech Minister of the Interior, I discussed this issue with my Austrian colleagues, and we more or less agreed. Improving the protection of the EU’s external borders, especially the southern ones, must be a central issue for all of us, especially with regard to illegal migration. During the difficult period of the migration crisis in 2015, we have also deployed police officers and soldiers to the border. Today, however, we no longer have a migration crisis, and the number of illegal immigrants fell sharply last year. This does not mean, however, that we should relax in this respect. We must constantly work on new concepts and measures that work effectively to this end. The Czech Republic is very much involved in this process and actively supports the development of all necessary measures.

ESD: What measures do have in mind?
L. Metnar: I would like to mention, for ex-ample, the joint defence projects under PESCO and COOPSEC [Cooperative Security], such as the CEDC countries’ October exercise [Central European Defence Cooperation since 2010, with Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Poland (as observers)]. At Allensteig Proving Grounds in Austria in 2017 and with Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia as observers, we delivered training on effective crowd management techniques, logistical support for police, and border surveillance. While we participated with 80 soldiers, but Austria had 2.200 soldiers there! Another COOPSEC exercise is planned for autumn 2019, this time in Hungary. The rapid transfer to the EU external border using military mobility should also be any area where training is needed. We are also planning to integrate the interior ministries, FRONTEX and the partner countries of South-Eastern Europe.

Austria’s jet SAAB-105 are 49 years old; they will only fly for two or three more years. (Photo: MoD Austria)

ESD: If such a crisis situation were to occur again, would Czech soldiers be deployed at their internal borders?
L. Metnar: This is not an issue at the moment, but definitely yes. The law also provides for close cooperation between the police and the army in such threat scenarios.

ESD: And how about supporting FRONTEX missions with Czech troops?
L. Metnar: The above-mentioned model, of course, only applies to our national borders. Of course, we are ready for international missions, such as the support of FRONTEX. Nowadays, foreign deployments are a constant reality for our army.

ESD: Regarding future airspace surveillance over Austria: Last year, AERO-Vodochody from the Czech Republic made an offer for new L-39NG jet trainers. Since the replacement of the old SAAB 105 has become an urgent matter, what should we do with the EUROFIGHTER, not to mention an exchange?
M. Kunasesk: We are very grateful for the offer made and renewed by my Czech colleague. We are pleased to receive all the figures, data and facts that will help us to make a decision. The Austrian public is focusing on the EUROFIGHTER, yet in reality, as you said, it is much more urgent to replace the daily aerial surveillance part currently covered by the SAAB-105. They will only fly for two or three more years. Everyone knows that we are in a decision-making process at a government level until the summer and do not want to rush things. In any case, there is an interest in having an intergovernmental agreement.

ESD: Minister Metnar, do you understand that Austria needs time to make a decision, and how quickly could such aircraft be delivered by the Czech company?
L. Metnar: I have reiterated our offer for 2018. We understand that such an acquisition is a substantial, lasting, sovereign and national decision. We, therefore, fully understand that Austria wants to make sound choices. If it then finds interest in our offer – the purchase of the L-39NG training aircraft – we will have to discuss the timeframe and everything else related to it. Perhaps, you know that this newest model only flew last Christmas. Fortunately, we have spoken openly and clearly about it, and as long as no decision has been made, I consider predictions about delivery cycles to be speculative and misleading.

ESD: Minister Kunasek, how do you see this offer in terms of time pressure or value for money? Would this latest version of the ALBATROS jet meet Austrian requirements?
M. Kunasek: Let me repeat at this point that this issue has been important to me from the outset. And we must find a solution quickly. Ass you know, our Chancellor Sebastian Kurzhas said before Christmas that we will not take this sensitive and highly political decision on the future composition of our airspace surveillance before the middle of the year, because we have to wait for the results of the [third] parliamentary [Eurofighter] investigation. Of course, I take note of the offer and we will use the time to explore everything. In the end, a lot of taxpayers’ money is at stake and it is, therefore, necessary to strike a balance between growing necessity and a ‘steady hand’. That is why I will not comment on individual offers here, nor do I know them personally in detail.

ESD: Minister Metnar, can you give details about the offer of the AERO company? How many planes, at what price, and with what delivery schedules, since it takes about two years?
L. Metnar: I do not want to go into that now. It will be a decision of a sovereign state that has not yet even defined its demands and parameters. That is when it will be time to talk about numbers, timelines and numbers. We both have experiences with such large acquisitions to modernize the armies, I think.
M. Kunasek: I would like to add here that although we have not talked about possible supply cycles, I believe that these are or will be properly assessed at an expert level.

The Czech Republic has offered its AERO L-39NG jet trainers to Austria. (Photo: AERO)

ESD: In 2017 or 2018, Austria had asked the air forces of several countries whether they could provide training quotas or training sessions for Austrian AF personnel if the fleet of “105” aircraft suddenly were to die prematurely.
L. Metnar: Yes, it is part of the project we offered in 2018. Of course, there should be a bilateral agreement. It is possible to train Austrian pilots and ground personnel in modern facilities in our country, such as in LOM-Prague or LOM-Pardubice. [Author’s note: Even before this visit, it was agreed that in spring 2019, pilots of the Austrian AF would visit or use the modern simulation centre LOM Pardubice].

ESD: The Austrian side has once again stressed that it prefers a procurement agreement between its Government and that of the manufacturer country. Do you see any particular advantages in this?
L. Metnar: The advantage of doing business at intergovernmental level is that it is simpler or more effective. In other words, when a state buys from another state, it receives a government guarantee, as opposed to a traditional offer or deal between a company and a government. We have discussed this model and it might be the right one for us if Austria has made up its mind.

ESD: Let us talk about something else: The Czech Republic is a troop contributor in Afghanistan. The US under Donald Trump now wants to withdraw troops there or possibly withdraw altogether, even though the region is far from being pacified. How will the Czech Republic react?
L. Metnar: Yes, President Donald Trump said he wanted to withdraw his troops from Syria and later from Afghanistan. Political negotiations are underway between the US and Afghanistan. We will see what the outcome of these talks will be – everything else will depend on it. If the US withdraws, the Czech Government will, of course, react, and we cannot rule out that we will do the same. It is a very complex issue and it is a very long-term effort that has lasted 17 years. The military steps were followed by political and diplomatic talks aimed at political stability in the country. Their outcome will depend on what happens there and also on the assessment of our local engagement. I personally think that when it comes to the withdrawal of the US forces, we will also be looking into the withdrawal of our troops too.

The Cooperative Security Agreement (COOPSEC) includes the countries of the Central European Defence Cooperation (CEDC) –Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Poland. (Graphic: COOPSEC)

ESD: Minister Kunasek, mentioned that you have also spoken about stability in the Western Balkans. Do you agree about what could be done there?
L. Metnar: Yes, we have actually been talking about this for a while. We have analysed the current situation and talked about perspectives. Both Austria and the Czech Republic are involved in this part of Europe and share the interest in actively promoting the various processes that have been under way for years. We are still willing to deploy soldiers and to do everything in our power to promote the integration of these nations and peoples into European structures and into the structures of the Security Alliance. However, this is also a very complex matter and a challenge that does not allow for rapid solutions.

ESD: So, it can be said that both sides have renewed their weakened relations in this renewed encounter?
Kunasek: It was a very friendly and cooperative visit in the best sense of good neighbourly relations and also from a military point of view. In any case, I am looking forward to working on the tasks discussed together.
L. Metnar: I thank my host for his sincere words and a good climate between us and our armed forces. I felt very welcome in Vienna.

The interview was conducted by Georg Mader.