The Hungarian government has finally decided to kick-start military improvement. Following a number of optimistic announcements, the project is now gearing up. However, a project of such a large scale is prone to criticism.
At the end of 2016, then Minister of Defense István Simicskó announced the kickoff of the army’s military improvement project. Dubbed Zrínyi 2026, the project has three key focuses: a reservist system, equipment improvement and the foundation of defense sports associations. While many initially criticized it for lacking a plan and documentation, Orbán decided to replace Simicskó after the elections and government officials have continued to make a number of announcements regarding the program.
Experts agree that the Hungarian military needs a facelift. Aside from the Gripen fighter jets and the Mistral short-range missile system, the rest of the equipment is out-of-date. Also, the fence building projects on the Southern border and recent floods have reportedly surpassed staff capacity.
In addition, NATO requires member states to invest at least two percent of the GDP in the military—something Hungary is already struggling with. The project aims to gradually increase this figure to the required amount by 2026. In an interview with wire service MTI, Minister of Defense Tibor Benkő claimed this number grew to one point four percent last year, and went on to suggest that the two percent threshold would be reached by 2024, two years earlier than originally planned.
Benkő also claimed that the air force was on the brink of extinction due to its aging technical equipment, making it a priority.
A few old MI-8 and MI-24 attack helicopters manufactured by the Soviets were recently renovated in Russia. On top of this, another two helicopters are scheduled to be purchased later this year. Recently, in addition to the 20 Airbus H145M and 16 Airbus H225M helicopters, the Ministry of Defense (MH) also bought two Airbus A319 aircraft and a luxurious Assault Falcon 7X for transportation purposes. The purchase drew criticism as government delegations often use the planes despite insistence that the aircraft were acquired for the military.
In connection with air defense, Benkő said that a new missile complex system and related missiles are slated to be installed in the first half of the year.
Minister of Defense Tibor Benkő. Image by MTI/ Zsolt Szigetváry
Hungary also bought 44 new and 12 used Leopard 2A7 tanks and 24 PZH self-propelled guns from German manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW). Unlike with Airbus— that will set up a parts factory in Eastern Hungary by 2021- a compensation deal apparently has not been made with KMW.
Made in Hungary
Benkő claims that ground forces will not be neglected either. In 2019, Hungary will start manufacturing small arms for the infantry in a factory in Kiskunfélegyháza through Czech licenses. The factory’s activities will be extended, eventually supplying all the armed forces in Hungary.
Staff and wage increase
One of Zrínyi 2026’s main missions is to raise the number of recruits to 37500. However, the government has not disclosed any information on how it means to accomplish this. Benkő merely claimed that more people join than leave the Defense Forces.
An extension of the reservist system is also a priority. By 2026, the number of reservists should be 20,000, whereas, at the moment, there are only 8,000 according to Benkő.
Volunteer reservists take the oath of service in Pécs. Image by Gábor Kálmánfi/ honvedelem.hu
In order to increase staff, wages should be more competitive as well. Between 2002 and 2015, there were no major increases to the army, Benkő claimed. Apparently, between 2015 and 2019, soldiers’ salaries increased by an average of 50%. Other professionals (teachers, civilians) working for or within the army also saw wage hikes.
Increasing military education
Addressing younger generations is also important. Last year, MH organized 47 defense camps with 1500 participants. This year will see 72 camps with 2200 campers. Minister Tibor Benkő also revealed that an additional defense secondary school is to be built in Hódmezővásárhely.
In addition, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Defense Szilárd Németh announced that the government plans to raise the age limit of potential emergency recruits to 50 years. This is not particularly high in Europe as the age limit is 55 in Slovenia and Romania and 60 in Poland.