Romania’s proud Army can trace its roots back to the days of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877, yet its first documented establishment of an army General Staff was recorded in 1862.
Romanian battalions played a key role during the 1912-1913 Balkan War, and then came the days when the Romanian Army gained respect as a viable fighting machine in South Eastern Europe. Embracing a French-German military doctrine, the Romanian Army had the will and the manpower ability to deal with whatever threat, but as the industrial revolution picked up a momentum it found itself outclassed and lagging behind technologically next to most western powers. World War II saw Romania heavily involved in battles, yet the Army received a less than acceptable reward for its efforts. Nevertheless, today Romanian soldiers fight and die in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, as loyal members of a coalition force against tyranny and terrorism.
During the Ceausescu era, the dictator tried to distance himself from Moscow through, amongst other things, the local development of a new generation of military equipment to enable a self-sufficient defense force. The new domestic tanks and armored personnel carriers were at times less reliable and not quite as battle worthy when compared with their Russian relatives, but nevertheless Romania was recognized as having one of the largest and best armies in East-Central Europe.
Since 1990, several programs were launched to upgrade and modernize Romania’s sea, land and air military assets in an effort to meet criteria and the requirements of becoming a NATO member. Acceptance into the North Atlantic Alliance enhanced Romania’s role as a significant partner at the forefront of its South-Eastern European flank, yet the slow pace of modernization and revitalization continued to plague meaningful attempts at bringing its forces into the 21st century.
Today the country has, at the helm of its defense ministry and the general Staff, two of its most competent and astute leaders ever. Defense Minister Mihai Stanisoara and the Chief of the Armed Forces Admiral Gheorghe Marin struggle to keep moving forward against unsettling odds and painful challenges. Their colossal task is to bring to fruition a complex strategy of endowing the country with essential and much needed hardware. That means new airplanes, AFVs, warships, transport vehicles and almost every conceivable piece of equipment required by a modern Armed Force. That is indeed a tall order when budget constraints and a debilitating global financial crisis have forced Romania to put new and old military programs on hold. And yet the aging MiG-21 LANCER fighters are destined to become museum or scrap material as early as next year and talk about a GRIPEN, TYPHOON or F-16 replacement never turned into a government RFP. According to key MOD sources, the last call for revamping the Air Force was to receive surplus F-16s (Block 25 or 30) from the US government, to be upgraded and delivered on a scale of two squadrons. Two British-built frigates acquired in 2004 are waiting half-a-billion dollars worth of technology and modernization as the country desperately needs 7,000 trucks and transport vehicles, tanks and a new surface-to-air defense system such as SHORAD and VSHORAD.
The strongest argument within a volatile political arena is what to do about a sagging economy and the lack of funds to even pay salaries and pensions this fall. Mr. Aurel Cazaru, the former head of Romtehnica and a foremost expert in Romania weaponry, believes that the private sector must be heavily involved to draw investment and secure offset programs, a key measure to the rescue of defense modernization efforts. Those who oppose such ideas argue that Romania no longer has outer enemies and consequently nobody will attack the country. Why then struggle with defense modernization efforts all together? Retired four-star general Constantin Degeratu, current national security advisor to President Basescu, sees matters in a far darker light. He points to contemporary events in the Black Sea arena from Georgia to Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Transniester region. The Kremlin wants its former republics, including Moldova, to return firmly in its orbit of economic and military influence, and rumor has it that Premier Putin asked for the placement of two squadrons of MiG-29s and Su-27s near Tiraspol on airfields that are currently being upgraded. That could bring Russian fighters over Bucharest in less than 5 minutes. “Romanians have lost a primal and essential self-defense attribute – fear – and that may prove detrimental in their quest to secure their borders and sovereignty”, declared General Degeratu recently.
This argument opens wide the debate over the need for a defense force in Romania as well as in neighboring states. For now, logic and common sense prevails and the November EXPOL Show in Bucharest is about addressing military needs and bringing tangible solutions to troubling defense dilemmas. The United States and Old Europe can ill afford to lose faith and ground in this part of the world and may require (for selfish reasons) to come up with creative solutions to strengthen the defense of the South Eastern part of the continent, including the Balkan region. Indeed, nothing can be more dangerous and detrimental these days then a false sense of peace and security.