Sale of Zuzana 2 howitzers to Ukraine
It's been almost four months since Ukraine has fiercely resisted continued Russian aggression. Modern weapons systems from Western countries, which are being supplied to Ukraine, play an important role in Ukraine's defence. Most recently, modern Zuzana 2 self-propelled wheeled howitzers will be delivered to Ukraine, as their manufacturer, the Slovak state-owned joint stock company KONSTRUKTA - Defence, a.s., signed a contract for the sale of Zuzana 2 howitzers to Ukraine on 1 June, and as the Slovak Ministry of Defence stated in the first half of June, the completion of production of the first Zuzana 2 units for Ukraine is estimated to be within weeks. This is interesting information as the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic (AF SR) have not yet received all 25 Zuzana 2 howitzers.
Slovakia is one of the countries that are significantly helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression. According to information from the Ministry of Defence, Slovakia has already supported Ukraine with military aid worth approximately EUR 154 million. On 2 June, the Slovak Ministry of Defence reported that the state-owned joint stock company KONSTRUKTA - Defence concluded on Wednesday 1 June a contract for the commercial sale of eight Zuzana 2 self-propelled wheeled howitzers to Ukraine. Ukraine's interest in the Zuzana 2 howitzers has been discussed for some time and the sale was officially confirmed just a few dozen hours after Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová pledged to deliver the howitzers during her visit to Ukraine. The first units of the Zuzana 2 howitzers for Ukraine are expected to be completed within weeks.
In connection with the sale of Zuzana 2 self-propelled wheeled howitzers to Ukraine, Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď said that the sale of the howitzers was preceded by several weeks of intensive negotiations and is a significant order for the Slovak defence industry. In addition, Naď informed that the first order of eight Zuzana 2 guns will help Ukraine at key moments. The Slovak Ministry of Defence said that the delivery date for the remaining Zuzana 2 howitzers to the Slovak Armed Forces is unknown and priority will be given to any further orders for howitzers from Ukraine. It can therefore be assumed that Ukraine could purchase additional Slovak howitzers in the future, which may not be the best news for the Slovak Armed Forces.
Problems with supplies to the Slovak Armed Forces
The contract for 25 Zuzana 2 self-propelled wheeled howitzers worth €175 million for the Slovak Armed Forces was signed back in 2018 by former Defence Minister Petr Gajdoš. The Zuzana 2 howitzers are to replace the ShKH m. 2000 Zuzana in the armament of the Slovak Armed Forces. From the very beginning, the purchase of the new howitzers was accompanied by controversies, especially in connection with their price and also problems with the delivery time of the howitzers. The price for 25 pieces of the new howitzers was criticised by the Minister of Defence Jaroslav Naď, who compared the purchase of Zuzana 2 howitzers for the Slovak Armed Forces with the purchase of CAESAR howitzers by Denmark in 2017. In the end, the purchase of Zuzana 2 was not cancelled and continues, which is crucial for the development of artillery within the Slovak army.
On the other hand, the supply of Zuzana 2 howitzers to the Slovak Armed Forces is accompanied by another problem. The contract, which was signed in 2018, envisaged that all 25 howitzers for the Slovak Armed Forces would be manufactured and delivered by 2022. However, the schedule for the delivery of the howitzers has changed several times. The first pieces of the new Zuzana 2 howitzers were supposed to be received by the military in 2020, specifically on 30 June. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the original plans had to be changed as the supply of components from subcontractors was disrupted. The new deadline was to be 15 December 2020, when the first 5 howitzers were to be delivered to the Slovak Armed Forces. Further units were to be delivered during 2022 and the last nine units were to be delivered by 15 December 2022. However, the deteriorating pandemic situation has again pushed back the delivery date. The first howitzers were not received by the military until July 2021. The next 8 were delivered by the end of 2021. The last 9 howitzers should have been delivered by the end of this year, but the priority sale of Zuzana 2 howitzers to Ukraine has put this deadline in jeopardy.
Is giving priority to Ukraine the right move?
In addition to the new Zuzana 2 howitzers, Slovakia also has sixteen M. 2000 Zuzana howitzers. When former Defence Minister Peter Gajdoš signed a contract for 25 new Zuzana 2 howitzers, some military experts criticised the number of units ordered, especially because the purchase of 8 new howitzers was sufficient to completely arm three artillery batteries. However, the purchase of only eight new howitzers would not be such a significant qualitative advance, and the purchase of additional Zuzana 2 howitzers would have to take place sooner or later anyway, because, as the material of the Ministry of Defence on the Zuzana 2 project notes, the production of Zuzana 2 howitzers cannot be realised by modernising the ShKH m. 2000 Zuzana. Therefore, despite the doubts surrounding the purchase of Zuzana 2 howitzers, it is possible to say that the number of 25 pieces (3 batteries of 8 howitzers + one for training) is logical and aims to improve the capabilities of the Slovak artillery. We must not forget that the artillery is an integral part of the heavy mechanised brigade that Slovakia has committed to build by 2026. As noted in the material on the purchase of the Zuzana 2 howitzers, the M. 2000 Zuzana howitzers that were delivered to the Slovak Armed Forces in 1998-2000 were not up to the standard of their time and the time has come for their replacement.
Since the Zuzana 2 systems are to replace the M. 2000 howitzers, the question arises as to why Slovakia did not insist on selling these older howitzers. Already in April this year, Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď said that Ukraine was interested in at least one battery of Zuzana howitzers and that it would be a form of purchase of the howitzers. In case Slovakia opted for the sale of the Model 2000 howitzers, it could have delivered two artillery batteries to Ukraine directly, with the proviso that the remaining howitzers could be delivered to the Slovak Armed Forces without any problems, thus achieving the required status under the Capability Objectives formulated in 2017. Although the M. 2000 howitzers have been in the Slovak Armed Forces' armament for over 20 years, they are systems that have a high level of interoperability with the North Atlantic Alliance armaments. In addition, the Czech Republic has also delivered the vz. 77 DANA howitzers to Ukraine, and it is from this model that the M. 2000 howitzer is based, but unlike the m. 77 DANA it uses a Western calibre gun, i.e. 155 mm with a barrel length of 52 calibres.
The conflict in Ukraine is of immediate concern to Slovakia, and Slovakia, as a reliable partner of Ukraine, has taken its side and is assisting it. However, it should be borne in mind that Slovakia is a relatively small country compared to Ukraine, and despite its efforts to support Ukraine as much as possible, it has its limits. Even within these limits, of course, much can be done to help Ukraine, but there is at least some speculation as to whether the sale of the Zuzana 2 howitzers to Ukraine is not rather a kind of over-promotion of aid to Ukraine. No one disputes the need to help Ukraine, and it should be made clear that the conflict in Ukraine concerns the whole of Europe, and it should therefore be in Europe's interest to support Ukraine. However, this support must not become a kind of race to see who can offer or supply what to Ukraine at the expense of its own security. The very fact that Slovakia was able to offer Ukraine sixteen Model 2000 howitzers, even for a lower sum, raises questions as to whether aid to Ukraine has not degenerated from genuinely sincere and targeted aid into a kind of marketing tool. As the Slovak Ministry of Defence has stated, if Ukraine is interested in more Zuzana 2 howitzers, these orders will be prioritised over deliveries to the Slovak Armed Forces, which on the one hand is good news for the domestic defence industry, but at the same time it may mean that Slovak soldiers will not see the remaining Zuzana 2 howitzers for a year, two years or even five years. If there is then a possible confrontation between NATO and the Russian Federation at some point in the future, this could cause considerable problems for Slovakia.