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Since the Balkan Wars, or even the collapse of the Soviet Union, never has attention been so high on South-Eastern European countries.

Setting the Scene

This region is highly diverse and even defining its geographical boundaries is subject to endless debates, a topic not addressed in this article. Except for Greece – an old NATO member – what many of these countries have in common today is their NATO membership acquired at various stages in the last 20 years. Some today are older members, like Romania, which can also be seen as located in the south-eastern part of Central Europe…Others are new members, like North Macedonia.

Another common feature of these countries is the steady increase of their defence spending over the last decade, in response to the 2 per cent of GDP defence investment guideline defined in 2006 and reaffirmed at the Wales NATO Summit in 2014. Based on the latest NATO estimates, in 2021, Croatia ranked in the top three, contributing 2.79 per cent of its GDP. Romania was expected to reach 2.02 per cent. Nearing 1.5 per cent or beyond – but still under 2 per cent – were Albania, Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

For the same year, these nations also stand out regarding the target of 20 per cent expenditure on equipment as a share of defence expenditure. Albania was expected to reach 21.3 per cent, Bulgaria 24.8 per cent, Croatia 43.5 per cent, Montenegro 20.8 per cent, and North Macedonia 25.6 per cent. These figures were probably also influenced by major acquisitions contracted in 2021, such as the purchase of 12 RAFALE fighter jets by Croatia or the 54 STRYKER-type light armoured vehicles by North Macedonia.

Depending on the sources and the method of calculation, data on defence spending can vary but the upward trend in South-Eastern Europe remains a constant.

What Impact of the War in Ukraine?

One may ask if the conflict in Ukraine will trigger needs that are specific to the return of high-intensity conventional warfare in these countries’ immediate vicinity. This will probably depend on each country’s pre-existing capabilities as well as on their respective infrastructure, their civil resilience plans, but also on the level of exposure to the risk of actual conventional conflict on their territory. An additional layer, somewhat specific to the current conflict, is their existing preparedness to defend against CBRN threats – both in military and in civil protection scenarios.

However, the major defence acquisition programmes result from multiannual and annual programming underpinned by risk analysis where high-intensity conflict scenarios were probably considered, among others. The situation in Ukraine is unlikely to change these priorities but it is likely to accelerate the pace of acquisitions already planned and to render more salient specific requirements. In some cases, it is also likely to trigger an increase of current defence budgets and purchases in larger quantities.

Romania – Increase in Defence Budget

The Romanian president announced in March the intention to increase the country’s defence budget from 2.02 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP. A plan will be proposed by the end of 2022 detailing how this additional budget will be spent.

Romania’s high-level strategic priorities are formulated in the National Defence Strategy for 2020-2024. An additional Defence Strategic Analysis and a White Paper provide details on directions for capacity development in the 2040 horizon. The first stage is to complete the Armed Forces Modernisation Programme 2026, started in 2017 and estimated at more than €9.8Bn. The country has already several ongoing acquisition programmes, some considered a priority:

  • 227 PIRANHA V 8×8 armoured vehicles acquired from General Dynamics European Land Systems
  • the PATRIOT surface-to-air missiles acquired through US Foreign Military Sales (FMS)
  • the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMRAS) and Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS), also procured through FMS
  • an existing F-16 squadron (17 fighter jets) purchased from Portugal
  • an intention announced at the end of 2021 to acquire two more squadrons (32 fighter jets) from Norway.

The situation in Ukraine has rekindled an older debate on the need to procure amphibious armoured vehicles, since this feature was not included in the original contract for the PIRANHA V acquisition.

Modernisation of the Navy was supposed to be addressed notably through the competition won in 2019 by Naval Group in partnership with Santierul Naval Constanta to build four GOWIND naval corvettes and to renovate two existing T22R frigates. However, the signature of the contract worth €1.2Bn was delayed, first by a legal challenge from the competitor Damen, and currently by ongoing negotiations of contractual clauses.

Another recent high-visibility acquisition is that of UAS class II tactical-operational drone systems. The signing of the contract with Elbit Systems, which cooperates with Romania’s Avioane Craiova and Romaero, is expected in the first half of 2022. Next in line for the start of a competition process is most likely Phase 1 of Stage 1 for the acquisition of C4I systems with ISTAR integration capabilities. A Command Point – Brigade Type will be procured during Stage 1 according to the government decision published at the end of March 2022.

Bulgaria – Acceleration of Modernisation Procedures

In February, President Radev announced upcoming government measures to accelerate procedures for the modernisation of the armed forces and for maintenance of existing equipment. Proposed measures are to be submitted to Parliament for consideration this year.

Until 2020, capability development was guided by the Plan for Development of the Armed Forces 2020, based on the 2010 Defence White Paper. However, some intended programmes have been marked by delays, such as the acquisition of Multipurpose Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), finally awarded to German shipyard Lürssen in November 2020 for an estimated €503.1M. In 2019, the government agreed to invest US$1.2Bn in the acquisition of eight new F-16 Block 70 fighter jets via FMS. Expected delivery delays of two years were announced recently, explained by supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic. In the meantime, Spanish EUROFIGHTERs and Dutch F-35s will be used to protect the country’s airspace. Bulgarian special forces were recently equipped with armoured vehicles delivered by SAMARM, a joint venture between the UAE International Armored Group and the Bulgarian Samel-90.

A Programme for the Development of Defence Capabilities 2032 was endorsed by the National Assembly in February 2021. The new programme prioritises 38 minimum capability requirements. Among the priorities implied in the programme are:

  • new 3D radars
  • remote-controlled systems and drones (and protection against such systems)
  • situational awareness and electronic warfare capabilities or high-precision strike systems

A Programme for Development of Defence Capabilities 2032 was endorsed by the National Assembly in February 2021 and is planned for implementation in two stages: 2021 to 2026 and 2027 to 2032.

Bulgarian Minister of Defense Zakov’s declarations at a press conference held on 29 March, confirmed several modernisation projects that were envisaged in the medium-term Plan 2021 – 2026, focused on:

  • artillery support capabilities
  • three-coordinate radars
  • building air defence systems for site and zone coverage
  • UAVs (for all forces)
  • multi-purpose diesel electric submarines
  • basic combat equipment for the construction of battalion battle groups of the mechanised brigade

The acquisition of ammunition for the Navy, of coastal anti-missile complexes and of field communication equipment were also announced in the same context. Although these could be considered as sub-sets of the 2026 planning period, the Ukrainian experience has probably heightened their urgency.

Croatia – A New Long-Term Development Plan?

President Milanović’s declarations before the onset of the war in Ukraine – that Croatia would recall any troops from the country if the conflict escalated was followed by disagreements with the government, generated considerable political embarrassment, and which included an apology from the prime minister stating that no Croatian troops were deployed in Ukraine anyway. However, the recent crash of a Soviet-era drone on its territory, was a wake-up call regarding potential defence shortcomings. This may trigger, among others, more investment in the air defence system.

The Croatian Armed Forces Long−Term Development Plan 2015 – 2024 defines the acquisition priorities for the above-mentioned timeframe. In recent years, the highest visibility project was the acquisition of 12 French multipurpose RAFALE F3-R fighter jets for an estimated €999M. For the Army, the procurement of fighting vehicles was a priority, and it was recently confirmed that 89 second-hand BRADLEY M2A2 IFVs would be acquired for US$145.3M. Man Portable Short Range Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) and engineering equipment were also among the priorities contained in the 2015- 2024 plan. Offshore Patrol Vessels, Coastal Patrol Boats and Anti-Ship Missile Systems were priorities for the Navy. Currently, a new long-term planning document is expected, covering most probably the timeframe 2022 – 2033.

North Macedonia – Vast Modernisation Potential

The country joined NATO in 2020. With much of its equipment inherited from the former Yugoslavia, the modernisation potential is vast. The 2018 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and the Long-Term Defence Development Plan 2019-28 outline the priorities.

Precedence is to be given to those capabilities arising from the country’s commitments to NATO membership, namely:

  • one Light Infantry Battalion Group
  • two transport/utility helicopters Mi-8/17
  • one Ranger (light infantry) company
  • two Special Operations Force teams
  • one Engineer platoon
  • one de-mining team
  • one Military Police company
  • one Role 2 Basic Land Medical Treatment Facility

A recent high-visibility acquisition in 2021 was of 54 STRYKER light armoured vehicles and related equipment through FMS, worth about €176.3M. The principal contractor is General Dynamics Land Systems. Oshkosh Defense will also deliver Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTV) as part of a wider contract to supply several FMS customers.

Other priorities highlighted by the SDR are:

  • tactical communications systems
  • engineer equipment
  • cyber-defence capabilities
  • indirect fire capability
  • individual and collective CBRN and ballistic protection equipment
  • ISTAR capabilities
  • equipment for the integration of communication core network and services

Albania – Committed to Fulfil Defence Investment Targets

In the context of the crisis in Ukraine, the Albanian Minister of Defence reaffirmed the country’s commitment to fulfil defence investment targets by 2024. The Albanian MOD plans in 2022 to revise its Long-Term Development Plan 2016-2025 in view of a new version covering the 2022-2031 horizon.

Modernisation will be focused on the development of capabilities for the Light Infantry Battalion Group, the establishment of deployable and static communications, and for cyber defence. For the Air Force, the most important infrastructure project is the construction of the Kuçova Air Base, as a NATO tactical base. For the Navy, the modernisation of the integrated Maritime Space surveillance system is taking priority. The Support Command is also likely to be equipped for a range of operational needs, with maintenance and repair, as well as with CBRN monitoring capabilities.

Montenegro – Small but Key

Montenegro has one of the smallest armed forces in Europe, having joined NATO in 2017. Its Long-term defence development plan covers the 2019-2028 timeframe. According to the local media, around €215M is envisaged for the procurement of equipment by 2028. A contract worth about €3.26M was signed in 2020 with the Canadian Commercial Corporation for the acquisition of two Bell 505 JET RANGER X helicopters, manufactured by Bell Textron Canada. The country is also set to receive 67 JLTVs from Oshkosh Defense, 20 of which having already been delivered in 2020. Although a small country, Montenegro is key for stability in the Western Balkans. The government has initially delayed imposing sanctions on Russia due to internal political divisions.

Conclusion: Interoperability more Important than Ever

In addition to the high-visibility acquisition programmes, it must be stressed that many countries in the region are hosting multinational troops and/or infrastructure. This can involve investments either through multinational funding or directly by the host nation.
For example, Romania hosts the NATO Multinational Division South-East HQs, Croatia hosts a Multinational Special Air Force Training Centre and North Macedonia, the South-Eastern European Brigade.

The US Special Operations Command Europe recently announced that its forward-based headquarters will be located in Albania. NATO Force Integration Units are already based in Bulgaria and Romania. Following the 24 March NATO extraordinary Summit, four new NATO battlegroups were announced, two each in Bulgaria and Romania.

As efforts to strengthen the Eastern flank of NATO continue, reinforcing interoperability across the spectrum of military domains will certainly become more important than ever and will probably have practical implications on most procurement decisions. Given that many South-Eastern European countries have joined NATO relatively recently, investment in interoperability – including for communications – will likely continue to be a top priority in the years to come.