Gen. Šedivý: We need to finally start buying whole weapons systems, not just planes or tanks
"The current political representation is generally closer to the military and security than previous governments. ODS, which is the leader of the coalition, has never made any secret of this. And I perceive among its members a greater personal and political courage to implement large army projects," says former Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces Army Gen. Ing. Jiří Šedivý, who in the following interview discusses the conflict in Ukraine, army acquisitions and the election of a new Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces.
The conflict in Ukraine has awakened European politicians from their slumber and suddenly everyone has realised that massive investment in defence is needed. Is this one of the few positive effects of the conflict in Ukraine?
It is clear that the war in Ukraine has awakened not only Czech politicians from their slumber, but also most European politicians in democratic states. They have realised that war on such a large scale as is taking place in Ukraine is not just history, but reality. There is no longer any need for the eternal debate about whether the army needs to be modernised.
The modernisation of the Czech Army has been planned for many years through various concepts, reorganisations, white papers, etc., where, although the norms and financial limits within which the reform or concept of the army should be implemented were set relatively correctly, in the end almost no political representation implemented it on the planned scale. These were the discussions about whether we should allocate 2% of GDP to defence or only 1.4% of GDP. Even in certain years, the Czech Republic spent less than 1% of GDP on defence, which made it absolutely impossible to complete the army projects that were planned around 2006.
A good example of how this was done in the past is the rearmament of the Rapid Deployment Brigade with Pandur combat vehicles. To this day, the modernisation of this brigade is still not complete, whether in the 3rd Battalion itself or in the support components such as mortars, anti-aircraft systems, anti-tank systems built on Pandur vehicle chassis, etc. This not only reduces the combat capability of the army, but also increases costs due to inflation and price increases.
We have historically had considerable problems with large army contracts. But the situation seems to be changing. Do we have bolder politicians who are not afraid to make decisions, or is this just a result of the change in the security environment?
I believe it has always been primarily about the courage of the politicians concerned. Of course, large military contracts are largely political decisions made by the ruling establishment. But the Czech laws are so complicated that it is difficult to reach a final outcome. And then, of course, there are lobbying pressures and attempts by other actors to disrupt the whole process, to change the political decision or assignment. A typical example is the infantry fighting vehicles, the procurement of which was brought to a certain stage by former Defence Minister Metnar, but in the end he did not find the courage to bring the project to the final stage.
What has changed with the new government in this respect?
The current political representation is generally closer to the military and security than previous governments. ODS, which is the leader of the coalition, has never made any secret of this. And I perceive greater personal and political courage among its members to implement large military projects. We shall see how they manage to do this, because we are now only in the initial stages of the biggest projects, such as the purchase of infantry fighting vehicles or supersonic aircraft.
The most interesting in the media is the order for new supersonic aircraft and the duel between the Americans with the F-35 and the Swedes with the Gripen. The government has recently decided to negotiate directly with the US government for the purchase of F-35s. How do you assess this decision?
It must be said that these are two diametrically opposed systems. The Gripen system is old, classic and generally I think it's just "catching up" like other types of aircraft of the same generation. The new generation of supersonic aircraft, represented by the F-35 system, is not just the aircraft itself, but it is a platform that brings a range of capabilities and greatly increases the effectiveness of the use of its weapon systems. If we were deciding whether to go ahead with the Gripen or the F-35, in terms of the future and the increased effectiveness of the system, I am clearly in favour of the F-35. It is a new, modern system that is now preferred not only by the Czech Republic but also by most NATO countries.
Finance is undoubtedly a crucial issue. And it's not just about the purchase itself. From the experience of recent purchases in other countries, we can see that the F-35 aircraft are relatively cheap, even cheaper than the new Gripen E version. But given that this is a very large and expensive system, the subsequent operating costs are significantly higher. And we have a decision to make as to whether we want a system that is several times more efficient and capable of being fully integrated into the NATO system (but again, I note that I am talking about the whole system, not just the aircraft themselves), or whether we will have donated Gripens as the Swedish Government is proposing. These are already not only ageing but also generationally old. Alternatively, we will buy a few more E version, but we will still be in the same category as before in terms of quality and progressiveness of the system.
The government's decision to buy the F-35 was the right one. We will see how the Czech negotiating teams, which are not only military but also industrial, will manage to convince their partners from Lockheed Martin and other institutions to keep the price as low as possible. It would be a mistake, however, if the whole system were again reduced to a minimum and we had only excellent aircraft without the whole system that goes with it.
Do you think that the purchase of the fifth-generation aircraft will eventually be completed and we will see them in the Czech skies? Won't the economic crisis or a change in political representation eventually interfere with the purchase decision?
This is, of course, a big problem. We see how the economic situation in the Czech Republic is developing, we are being crushed by high inflation, which is making life more expensive for everyone, and there is talk of a wave of social resistance to the current situation, which could come this autumn. In that case, it will take great courage to push through such expensive military purchases.
On the other hand, everything comes at a cost, and I still believe that, despite these problems, we will maintain 2% of GDP for defence. It is also important to remember that when the delivery of these aircraft and everything related to them starts to be paid for, the budget of not only the Czech Army will be somewhere else. Let's hope so.
Could a special fund be created outside the Ministry of Defence budget, for example, along the lines of Germany? Would this be a solution for financing purchases in times of crisis?
Defence Minister Černochová has already talked about this, it is nothing new. By the way, in the history of Czechoslovakia this has already happened in the period before the Second World War. This is one of the possible solutions, but it requires a broader political consensus.
As a "tanker", how do you see the decision to acquire German Leopard tanks, including the compensation with older types for the equipment we sent to Ukraine?
Yes, I am originally a tanker and a former commander of a tank regiment that was equipped with T-72 tanks. So I know their strengths and weaknesses, and I have to say that since the early 1990s, after the experience of the 1991 Gulf War, I have been saying that we need to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I even believe that the current progress is slow. We once turned down an offer from the Spanish Government which was about to scrap – like the Germans – Leopard tanks. These tanks could have been modernised and would be in service in the army today. But at the time we turned up our noses at them.
The debate over whether to acquire Leopard, Abrams, Leclerc or other tanks is, in my opinion, almost pointless. The Leopard tank is conceptually probably the closest to our experience and capability to service and perhaps produce tanks at some point in the future. The chosen solution, that in the first phase we will acquire 14 older Leopard version 4 tanks, on which we will learn to operate them, and then buy modern A7 version, seems logical to me and I consider it correct.
But again, we need to remember that a tank is not just a pile of metal. A modern tank is complex, very expensive, with a multitude of electronics and other systems that greatly increase its effectiveness on the battlefield, while also being part of the higher systems of the battle lineup in which they are housed.
We saw this especially at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian commanders were unable to understand that tanks could not be used on the modern battlefield as they were in World War II. The Russians were learning as they went along and it cost them a huge amount of destroyed equipment and human lives.
In other words, a battle lineup in which tanks are such powerful weapons must be conceptualized as a complete system. And that will be very expensive.
And is the political representation aware that we have to invest in complex weapon systems?
I'm afraid not yet. There is a certain historical inertia at work here. Before 2002, the army and the all-military formations were built as combined services and structures that really had everything. Back then, the assumption was that divisions were reduced to the level of brigades and included all the necessary elements.
But the reform led by Deputy Defence Minister Škopek unfortunately did away with all that. From this point of view, the army has gone back to the 1950s, and to this day we have not recovered from this intervention in its structure. Our two brigades, whether it is the Rapid Deployment Brigade or the 7th Mechanised Brigade, have been cut down, they have only basic mechanised units, the 'seven' does have a tank battalion, but they lack other support system elements. For example, air defense, howitzers, anti-tank guided missiles to create anti-tank reserves, etc. The rapid deployment brigade then has no gunfire systems at all.
And all this should be recreated and put back. It's just wrong when, for example, a certain battalion of the 7th Mechanized Brigade gets artillery from the Jince and only then starts to align with it. Even when they do exercises together, it's still a deficit that was identified by American commanders in the Persian Gulf back in 1991. And we still haven't understood it to this day. I hope that we will revisit the idea of brigades being made up of combined formations.
But that doesn't resonate very well in the public and professional arena...
If you have limited experience, it's quite difficult to understand. If someone tells you, here is the 7th Mechanised Brigade and it has an artillery section in Jince and they sometimes train together, many people find it OK. That's a big mistake. It is necessary to create a unified culture of a given organisation so that their commanders understand each other, so that they know how they behave, make decisions, what is important to them... Just as commanders need to know the details of the use of weapon systems and the preparation of the units they work with. It's not just a matter of putting together a combat formation and using it to accomplish a combat mission. It is about the experience that comes from the early 1990s, when the modern way of war was taking shape.
General Karel Řehka became the new Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army, which was somewhat surprising. What did you say about the selection itself?
I have to say that the selection of the new Chief of the General Staff was damaged by the media coverage that some politicians, but above all the media itself, resorted to. Unfortunately, the basic norm of decency was not respected here. The selection of the Chief of the General Staff used to have a steady process. I know how I was selected as Chief of the General Staff and what the process was for selecting my successor. There have always been multiple candidates, that's fine. But the end effect of the selection is that the Minister of Defence should form a team with the Chief of the General Staff that gets along.
In the past, relations between some defence ministers and the Chiefs of the General Staff of the Armed Forces have been strained, especially after changes of ministers. But the intention should be that the Minister of Defence will be here for four years and the Chief of the General Staff for four years. They should be so close that they will be able to solve problems and conflicts with a cool head and understanding of each other's views. Unfortunately, this has not happened now. There has been a debate in the public space about who will or will not be the new chief, that the Minister has one candidate and the President another. Such media coverage ended up damaging not only the generals who were originally considered for the post, but even the new chief, General Karel Řehka. But he is not a person who is unknown to the military community; his election is a legitimate solution.
What are General Řehka's main tasks at the head of the army?
General Řehka takes over the army as the war in Ukraine rages on. Now it is essential, and I talk about this over and over again, to create working teams to analyse everything that is happening in Ukraine and then use this to develop our army for the future. General Řehka is also taking over an army that is still marked by the so-called Afghanisation. The Rapid Reaction Brigade, which we have already discussed, is a prime example of this, as is the underestimation of the modernisation of the 7th Mechanised Brigade with heavy weapons. It is in this area that I believe General Řehka will use his experience as a special forces officer, which is part of the all-army component of the army, as well as his general education and experience from his post at the headquarters of the all-army Multinational Division North-East in Elblag, Poland.
But is it not the case that we are again preparing for what is happening now, when future conflicts may be diametrically opposed?
But the problem is, after all, that from a well-equipped and well-trained all-military army that has the capability to wage intense combat of a modern nature, you can always single out only certain segments, as was done in the second half of the 1990s and the beginning of the millennium, and use them for missions, for example.
But it depends on how the military itself feels about it. National security is not just a question of the army. It is a whole complex of measures. Of course, in the Czech Republic, we usually see only the army. But the army means nothing if you are not able to mobilise it, replenish it, provide it with material and so on. It is the whole economy of the country. Ensuring the security of the state consists of a whole range of tasks that are not only dealt with by the Ministry of Defence, but must be dealt with at the level of the entire state, headed by a responsible government. Let us see how the whole thing will be evaluated in the future.
In the context of the conflict in Ukraine, there is a lot of talk at the moment about the problems with grain exports, about cyber-attacks that are regularly conducted. I think we will be surprised what the Russians will do and organise just to disrupt the unity of the EU and NATO.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for over eight months now. In recent weeks, however, the situation does not seem to be changing much. What to expect in the coming months?
It must be remembered that every war is fought in individual operations. And Russian troops have now completed one operation, even though the beginning was tragic. And it is preparing to conduct another operation. The question now is to what extent they will be able to increase the number of combat-ready battalions and replenish them with weapons. I expect that sooner or later they will try again to carry out more massive operations, in particular to take control of the Donetsk Republic. The Ukrainians still have a very hard and long fight ahead of them, which will be extremely exhausting.
I would like to draw attention to one thing which, for the time being, is resonating just below the surface of the imaginary table where the diplomatic negotiations are taking place. In any war, one side and the other must calculate whether it is still worth fighting. I am afraid that the ambitions that are being presented by Ukrainian President Zelensky are not entirely realistic, or at least not at this time. On the Ukrainian side, a shortage of experienced soldiers is beginning to show, although in terms of numbers they are probably still able to replenish their forces, resulting in a higher number of deaths and a higher loss of weapons. And recently we have seen that President Zelensky is beginning to have a problem with his associates, even from his inner circle, and there have been a number of personnel changes. This shows that there is, to put it mildly, a certain nervousness in the leadership of the Ukrainian state. A number of people, particularly in business, are asking what good a completely destroyed Ukraine will do us. And this is a thing to be reckoned with. This, by the way, appears in many analytical comments by American and British experts, that the chance when the war could have been ended has not been taken.
I would like to remind you that in 2014 Vladimir Zhirinovsky (died 6 April 2022), then Deputy Speaker of the State Duma, sent a letter to the Poles proposing to divide Ukraine so that Russia would take the territory from Kharkiv through the Donbas and Zaporozhye, the Odessa region to Transnistria. The Poles would be left with the western part of Ukraine, the Romanians and Hungarians with the territory where they have minorities, and Ukraine itself would consist only of the area around Kiev and Lvov. The extremist Zhirinovsky obviously did not suck it up at the time, and Russia is really trying to get these areas. And I'm afraid that's the minimum that Vladimir Putin will want to get in the end.
Is war fatigue also beginning to set in on the part of Ukraine's allies and their public?
I think it is quite natural. The problems we see in the economic sphere, not only in our country but also in the US, are simply distracting attention from the conflict in Ukraine. But I would like to stress that, despite the above, I believe that we must do everything we can to support Ukraine in stopping the Russians' advance. Sometimes my colleagues disagree with me, but I am trying to look at this conflict through realistic eyes.