Tvrdik steals march on rivals as Czech cabinet approves army modernisation

Czech Army

The Czech cabinet approved a draft plan on Wednesday to transform the country's army into a fully professional force by 2007. The reform programme would end compulsory military service in the Czech Republic, and reduce the number of troops to around 35,000, to reflect current trends in European defence. Rob Cameron has more.

Defence Minister Jaroslav Trvdik said the motto of the reform was "the four 'm's"- the letters stand for the Czech words mala, mobilni, moderni and mlada - small, mobile, modern and young. Creating a small, professional armed forces is certainly an ambitious plan, but it's fully in keeping with trends in the West. Jiri Kominek is the Prague correspondent for the leading defence publication, Jane's Defence Weekly:

"It's an ambitious goal, but it would certainly be in keeping with Western standards. Britain has done it ages ago. Canada and the United States have done it ages ago. France is near completing it as we speak and Spain and Italy have announced that they are moving towards it as well. So it's obviously the trend. It's a logical trend as well; it's much more affordable and it's much more efficient."

At present there are 53,800 troops, just over half of whom are conscripts, and 22,000 civilians, and all Czech men must serve either one year in the army or 18 months of civilian service. Mr Tvrdik's new army will have around half of today's number: between 34,000 and 36,000 professional soldiers and 10,000 civilian employees. Jiri Kominek told me that big armies were no longer either practical or necessary.

"That's a realistic figure because in most of today's conflicts you don't really need massive divisions to be sent to a front line somewhere. You're talking about quick reaction forces to be sent to hotspots such as Macedonia today and Kosovo in the past. Bosnia and places like that; peacekeeping missions. Especially given today's technology and the advances that are being made, you don't need that all: it's a proven fact. It's also cheaper because it's much easier training someone - especially on high-tech equipment - you need a longer period of time to train a person. And 12 months just doesn't do it. It's a waste of time, there's no way that they could train someone to operate today's equipment in 12 months, especially if that person is there against his will."

The plan still needs to be approved by parliament, but the right-wing opposition gave Mr Tvrdik a clear 'thumbs up' on Wednesday. And with a general election just 10 months away, says Jiri Kominek, Mr Tvrdik clearly seems to have stolen a march on his political rivals.

"Petr Necas is the shadow Defence Minister for the Civic Democrats (ODS). This has been the thrust of his bid to become Defence Minister down the road, should the ODS win the election. This takes the wind right out of his sails. We had Vaclav Klaus, the chairman of parliament, who's also chairman of the ODS, visiting with Tvrdik a week or two ago. It seems to have everyone's blessing. It's common sense. Everyone knows it's the only logical way to go."