Czech defence minister battles to make best use of boosted budget

Karla Šlechtová, photo: ČTK

The Czech Republic’s new defence minister has hit the ground running. And Karla Šlechtová is clearly not worried about ruffling feathers at the ministry with questions about ongoing tenders, overall strategy and the place of the army in wider society.

Karla Šlechtová,  photo: ČTK
Karla Šlechtová is known as a fairly abrasive and direct personality in dealings with both allies and opponents. Her approach is direct to say the least.

And she appears to have brought a large dose of directness to bear on her new job heading the defence ministry and attempting to increase spending on the Czech army and boost its perceived contribution to NATO.

After years of penny pinching, Czech defence spending slipped to one of the lowest in the alliance, around half of the 2.0 percent of GDP target which NATO partners agreed in principle on but many failed to honour. The Czech government has now pledged to meet that target by 2024 and there is a current campaign to find 2,000 new recruits for the army every year and remedy shortcoming in equipment.

But Šlechtová does not want to see the increased spending frittered away in hastily and perhaps poorly prepared projects. This is how she described the current situation in a wide-ranging speech about her plans:

ʺI would like to stress the fact that I would like to tackle a degree of chaos and lack of transparency that is now on the table concerning former acquisition proceedings.ʺ

Šlechtová has put on hold a number of massive contracts, including that for a multipurpose helicopter. Both United States and Italian helicopter producers and governments have been sounded out about that contract and Šlechtová has warned of the serious diplomatic consequences if the purchase does not appear to be above board.

And she’s also highlighted problems with ongoing tenders for self-propelled guns and mobile radars prepared under her predecessor, fellow ANO nominee and now foreign minister Martin Stropnický, when he was in office.

And the new minister has also stressed that the army has to get some of basics right, such as supplying soldiers regularly with boots and not forcing them to buy their own pairs in army surplus shops as is sometimes the case now.

Karla Šlechtová,  prime minister Andrej Babiš and chief commander of General Staff Josef Bečvář,  photo: ČTK
Šlechtová has also won some media attention for her plans to reintroduce a form of defence education in both primary and secondary schools. It would allow children to deal with emergency situations, such as a gunman on the premises, industrial accident, or situation where first aid is required. But the classes, whose precise format still has to be thrashed out with the education ministry, would also have a wider remit according to the minister.

ʺCertainly you’ve heard, perhaps from the media or myself in person, that I would like to reintroduce defence education to schools. That is not just secondary but also primary schools. I think that such an education is the key for raising a future generation which could be appreciated by the army.ʺ

Officials stress this education would be a far cry from the nuclear and chemical warfare exercises and preparations carried out by the former communist regime during the Cold War which were eventually discontinued in 1991.