Hungary's Military Deals With a Plethora of Changes

September 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Joining the Atlantic alliance was just the beginning for the former Warsaw Pact nation.

The post-Cold-War world holds both common and unique challenges for one of NATO’s newest members. As one of three nations admitted to NATO in 1999, Hungary is wrestling with national and military goals that must constantly adjust to changing requirements both internally and internationally.

Cultural change is paramount as the former Warsaw Pact nation abandons its old doctrines and architecture for a new model. Expensive new technologies must be incorporated for the country to serve the Atlantic alliance to its full potential. And, many of the country’s experiences may be repeated seven-fold if, as expected, NATO enlarges to add seven new members at the alliance’s Prague summit in November.

“Essentially everything in the Hungarian defense enterprise is in some form of change,” says Gen. Lajos Fodor, Hungarian Army, chief of the Hungarian Defense Staff.

“Many of our challenges are similar to those of the traditional member nations, but we have a bit more to do. However, some challenges are unique,” he warrants.

Hungary’s military must adapt to three concurrent changes. First, it still is managing its transition from a Warsaw Pact nation to a full member of NATO. Second, it must manage that transition as the alliance it belongs to is still changing to adjust to the post-Cold-War era. And third, it must meet these challenges while participating in the new war on terrorism.

The first large challenge Hungary faced was in its force structure. Gen. Fodor notes that the country’s military was established, sized and trained for a war that never took place. As with other European countries, Hungary was compelled to eliminate a considerable number of military units. This had a significant impact on its society, especially in local communities that supported the military, he relates.

However, the biggest challenge as a full member of the Atlantic alliance may turn out to be knowledge. The former Warsaw Pact nation essentially faced culture shock in learning to understand the Western framework of alliance operations. Gen. Fodor states that “there was—and is—a great deal of knowledge to acquire and comprehend.”

Hungary is shifting from what the general describes as “a large force having an active cadre and fightable with mobilization” to a considerably smaller, highly manned active force. This force currently is configured for general NATO operations rather than specialized activities such as peacekeeping or special operations.

For the army, Hungary is focusing on a balanced but small land force suitable for independent operations at the mechanized brigade level, the general explains. This includes three brigades and their combat support and combat service support organizations.

The air force is concentrating on national air sovereignty with brigade-level radar, missile and fighter organizations. Two helicopter units provide direct support to the land force.

A top priority is a modernized tactical unit doctrine. Hungary continues to engage in major changes in its unit training programs to be compatible with NATO unit operations capabilities. The country is employing wargame simulations for command groups at the battalion and brigade levels. The National Training Center at Varpolota is paying particular attention to force-on-force unit training, the general reports. He adds that this modernization activity “needs reinforcement over the next two years.”

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States have triggered a review of Hungary’s own vulnerabilities to such an attack, Gen. Fodor allows. In addition to taking new precautions, the country is examining how to improve its essential countermeasures as well as its supporting capabilities for related NATO counterterrorism operations. The greatest effect the war on terrorism will have on Hungary’s military capabilities will be long-term, the general predicts.

In addition to cultural issues are technological concerns. Both compatibility and interoperability standards are formidable tasks that occupy significant portions of Hungary’s transition activities. Gen. Fodor notes that communications and identification friend-or-foe (IFF) systems—both of which are complicated and expensive—depend on considerable financial resources, which are limited in Hungary. According to the general, “Technical modernization is probably the most stressing aspect of NATO membership.”

Command and control system modernization has been a priority since before NATO membership, the general states. Hungary has modernized an air force air operations center, and IFF equipment has been installed in aircraft and radar systems. The country has acquired some tactical radios and crypto equipment, but only in limited quantities for critical and deployed forces. “Overall, we have a start, but we are far from being finished,” Gen. Fodor observes.

Tenders for tactical radios are in the works, and the Ministry of Defense expects to have solutions by the end of this year. The goal is for major improvements over the next four years. Also this year, officials expect to make major decisions on national command and control system improvements.

Achieving communications interoperability depends largely on acquiring NATO-compatible devices and components, the general relates. Hungary has a minimal interoperability capability for a brigade headquarters and selected battalion units. Combining these limited capabilities with liaison teams and the use of public switched networks allows a “marginal bridge,” the general notes. “Reinforcements are on the way” for interoperability over the next few years, he adds.

This technical modernization is a challenge that will continue for many years. Hungarian defense officials know, just like their Western counterparts, that they cannot modernize their entire military infrastructure in a single step. Gen. Fodor allows that the country is seeking a blend of upgrading and replacement options with higher priorities in some areas. “We want ‘adequate’ capability across the force and ‘good’ capability in critical forces,” he explains.

Modernizing these forces while concurrently participating in NATO and United Nations missions is proving to be extremely stressful, the general continues. “As soon as NATO status was conferred, we had missions to perform,” he relates. Given the country’s limited manpower and finances, these operations have hindered its efforts to modernize.

Nonetheless, Hungary is expanding its support for NATO operations and is improving the technical and operational capability of its high-priority units, the general reports. “Modification of both officer and noncommissioned officer (NCO) education and training is ongoing,” Gen. Fodor states. “However, we do have a considerable way to go before the products of our institutions meet modern military leadership requirements.”

This challenge is complicated by the country’s goal of transitioning to an all-professional military. Abandoning conscription in favor of a volunteer force goes beyond the cost impact, the general says. Principles and framework are the dominant factors. “An all-professional force, versus a dominantly conscripted force, finds itself in the national labor market for ‘employees,’” Gen. Fodor notes. “At this juncture, our entire military enterprise must make a bold shift in everything from laws to daily unit routine.”

Hungary is reducing its amount of conscripted personnel and is increasing the number of recruits, even with its overall force reductions. The country has increased the salary of all of its soldiers, and it is establishing a “combat leader” NCO capability that largely was absent under its old force doctrine.

Gen. Fodor allows that the first few years of Hungary’s military transition were not as effective as they could have been. He blames this on the lack of a sound focus in the years immediately after 1990, adding that the results “were not favorable.” However, the past four years have been good for the military, and the key to that success was the focus on NATO.

Membership in the alliance has allowed both the national and the military environments to see a shared goal and to measure their efforts toward it. However, the goal of modernized and NATO-interoperable forces remains distant. Achieving this goal may depend both on Hungarian activities and the actions of other mature NATO members, he suggests.

Many of the issues that Hungary has dealt with—and is dealing with—can be applied to future members of NATO. The general observes that new and potential additional NATO members can benefit greatly from “prudent and mutually beneficial” bilateral relationships with these mature NATO nations. Calling for relationships that have both an intellectual and a material focus, he predicts that these relationships can greatly accelerate a new member’s “meaningful direct military contribution.”

He continues that both Hungary and NATO are “somewhat impatient” when international situations demand assistance. Other nations could provide material assistance in the form of direct funding or equipment.

For prospective NATO members, Gen. Fodor offers that the first requirement is the complete endorsement of this membership by the government and its citizens, particularly the legislature. Laws and even a national constitution may need changes that are fundamental to achieving and participating fully in NATO membership. However, the general cautions against making decisions that either cannot or will not be carried out.

Future members must prepare alternatives for each issue, and these alternatives must be examined carefully before any decision is made, he continues. “Poorly considered decisions cause more, and even more difficult, decisions. This results in a loss of stability and enthusiasm to achieve the goals established,” he warns.

Balancing national priorities is further complicated when the surrounding countries also are involved in “nation rebuilding,” the general continues. “Our economies, medical institutions, educational systems and national infrastructures, as well as the military, are in need of refurbishment, upgrade or replacement. For ‘young’ democracies trending to capitalistic economies, this is a lot of new work.

“Time is not your friend.”