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Interview with Lieutenant General Josef Bečvář

“It may seem that we are safely located in the heart of Europe, but that is a misleading notion.”

Josef Bečvář is the current Chief of the General Staff – the highest position in the Czech Army. He has been so since May 2015. What are his goals for the management of more than 28 thousand soldiers? “Traditionally, we are known for our skills in the defense against weapons of mass destruction, passive systems, and military medical services,” he says. On the other hand, what does the Czech Army need to improve, and is there any danger that we could become a NATO “free-loader”?

What exactly is the responsibility of the Chief of the General Staff?

Simply put, I am commanding the General Staff which commands the activities of the army. My position makes me a partner of the Minister of Defense, and my task, according to the political assignment, is to direct the army and define the ways of meeting the tasks given to us. The General Staff plays a key role in preparing military-professional evaluations for reaching political decisions.

At a first glance, the structure of the General Staff is very complicated. What is the key for proper understanding of the individual divisions and headquarters?

It really is complicated only at the first glance, because we are guided by simple solutions, and that is also the principle of armies. The core of the General Staff is therefore comprised by two key divisions, accompanied by some smaller units.

Which are?

The first is the Division of Capabilities Development and Planning. It is responsible for setting the mobilization agenda, army reserves, planning, the conceptual and technical development of our army, and for military offices like regional military headquarters and military districts. The second unit, the Division of Support, comprises individual agencies focusing on military support, i.e. logistics, communications and information systems, and military medical services. Furthermore, there is a Joint Operations Center, which supervises the troops that are active in domestic and overseas operations. Then there is the Personnel Agency of the Czech Army, and let´s also mention the Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare Branch. Directly subordinate to the General Staff are the two component headquarters which manage daily life for our troops – The Headquarters of Land Forces and Air Forces. On the same level there is also the Special Forces Directorate and Training Command – Military Academy.

What are your goals as the army´s “head commander”?

The army is a continuously functioning organism. I came into it with a series of projects underway, and four years hence I will pass it to my successor in a similar way. So, my first task is to continue the steps undertaken by general Pavel, or possibly even his predecessors. Speaking of priorities, I definitely see those in the completion and implementation of the key document “The Strategy of the Czech Army Development”, recruiting the personnel needed, and the continuation of the process of re-armament and equipment modernization. Regarding re-armament, we see the necessity for the modification of radar equipment, purchasing multipurpose choppers, and considering the possible development of our Air Force transport capacity. Regarding our Land Forces, the re-armament of the 7th Mechanized Brigade is especially necessary, including the modernization of artillery, and we must follow the trends in modern fully automated systems. 

What is the annual defense budget of the Czech Republic?

This year, the resort of the Ministry of Defense was given a budget of CZK 43.79 billion. During the approval process, this represented 1.04% of GDP. The positive thing is, it was possible to reach a political agreement and reverse the negative trend of previous years, when the budget was being dramatically cut. Through 2020, in accordance with the accepted declaration, the defense budget of the Czech Republic should gradually grow to 1.4% of GDP. We are now expecting the corresponding steps within the proposal of the 2016 annual budget. Even so, we will still not fall within the alliance commitment of 2% of GDP. Unfortunately, we are also carrying a big debt in the form of our technical equipment, infrastructure, and insufficient personnel, which will require a longer time to settle. On the other hand, we must admit that even a budget hike would not solve the issue,  because first a lot of important modernization projects will have to be carefully prepared.

What is your main argument for those who claim that it is not necessary to increase the defense budget?

Considering this issue, the position of the army is a bit complicated. However, it is more important to publicly discuss the need for defense and investments in this area. Compared for example to health care, education, transport, the interior and culture, where the citizens can see the investment through everyday experience, investments in defense are not visible in our everyday life; therefore there might be people who recklessly consider them useless. However, this is true only until a crisis comes. But at that moment, it is usually too late to invest in defense. The army is an insurance policy for one of the essential functions of the state – i.e. securing public safety. We simply cannot resign from that function in today´s world.

What do you currently see as our biggest threat?

Undoubtedly, the biggest threat in today´s world is radicalism and unpredictable instability. We are talking about a phenomenon of a so-called Islamic State, the crisis in Ukraine, a changing attitude of Russia, a crisis of natural sources, and escalating problems of refugees and migration waves. All of this is occurring not only in the palpable context, but in the virtual space too. It may seem we are safely located in the heart of Europe, but that is just a misleading notion which may swiftly change if we don´t actively participate in the solution of these problems, and we don´t try to prevent them as much as possible.

What features of the Czech Army are at the highest level?

Our people – our soldiers who are very experienced and flexible. They prove their qualities every day while fulfilling demanding tasks, not only in operations abroad but at home, within the Czech Republic. Traditionally, we are known for our skills in the defense against weapons of mass destruction, passive systems, and military medical services.

Where, on the other hand, are we falling behind “the world”?

It would be naïve to think that we may be equal in all areas to such armies as the US Forces, for example. Here, we are limited, and logically always will be, by the sources available. However, I don´t see this as a problem because of our alliance in NATO. The issue we have to resolve is the already mentioned modernization and optimization of personnel; this means obtaining the corresponding financing, so that we do not become a free-loader of the Alliance. Simply said, in the past few years we have fallen behind in investments to our defense. Another longtime problem is the acquisition process, where the Ministry of Defense was not able to fulfill for example the basic needs of the soldiers. I am speaking about the very basic areas of military gear and personal equipment. For this we must find a solution, so that our soldiers may appropriately fulfill their tasks during training as well as operations.

How many countries are Czech soldiers currently present in?

I suppose you mean the deployment of our soldiers in foreign operations and observation missions within the alliance effort of NATO, EU operations, and UN missions. Currently, we have soldiers in Afghanistan, Mali, the Sinai Peninsula, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Congo, and Central African Republic. To make the list complete, I must also add the EU-NAVFOR operation on the Somali coast, where our soldiers work at the headquarters in Great Britain. Of course, our soldiers may also be found at the headquarters and other organizations of NATO.

What do you think about the transit of allied forces through the Czech Republic in March?

The transit of an American convoy, returning from alliance training in the Baltic and Poland, has raised an unusual wave of interest among the Czech public. The problem is the perception between “we and allies”. And we have been a NATO member for more than 15 years. Therefore, I am personally very happy that after the initial negative campaign, most of the public clearly and absolutely comprehensibly expressed their attitude and support to our commitment.

A much discussed topic is the issue of drafting. Recently, the government accepted an amendment of “military law”. What is it about? Do you think it is a good way to increase the number of troops?

By suspending the draft during peace time following the professionalization of the Czech Army in 2005, we saw the number of registered obligatory reserves decrease, not to mention the number of trained reserves. So, if we don´t renew the military draft we will gradually see a loss in the number of qualified men and women, especially those willing to participate actively in the armed defense of the country. Regarding the current security situation in the world, this would definitely not be a good step forward. At the same time, drafts will enable us to offer the public voluntary military training, to address the young generation and introduce them to the armed forces, and show them why defense is important to the whole country.

The government also discussed the decision for soldiers to be called on more flexibly for natural disaster relief. Why are they not “flexible” now?

The draft of the law No. 219 on military forces, which was discussed by the government, speaks rather about internal provisions, which in response to organization changes within the Czech Army will help us to become more flexible in deploying the forces and equipment from different units. The soldiers are and always will be ready to help, nothing is changing here. However, it is necessary to realize that the issue of natural disasters primarily falls under the Integrated Rescue System and the army within is supporting units, i.e. Fire Department, Czech Police, and Emergency Medical Services. The Fire Department has undergone a substantial increase of its abilities since the catastrophic floods in Moravia in 1997 – some of these abilities were adopted directly from the army. That´s why you do not see soldiers at the front line as often as before; it is the firemen with their sophisticated equipment who have become involved there. The role of the army, with the exception of certain specialized issues like e.g. air rescue services, is mainly the second front, when it is necessary to use other personnel and equipment.

You studied at French military schools. What is the biggest difference compared to the Czech schools?

It has been many years since I studied, so it would not be quite objective to compare Czech and French military schools in detail, or education systems in general. Although I will be happy to say what I personally consider the biggest benefit of studying abroad - the fact that I was able to work in the international environment and make contacts. It was also interesting to learn from the French experience with deploying forces abroad, especially in the areas of France’s former global influence. That was and surely will always be the advantage of bigger armies and big countries.

Which countries could we see as our role models for having a “flawless” army?

The question is whether there actually is something like a perfect army, because military forces all over the world are developing all the time. They reflect emerging threats and specific conditions of the concrete country. What works in one country does not necessarily always work for another one. Personally, I am not a fan of uncritical acceptance of foreign models, but I am definitely not one who is unwilling to seek and accept experience either. But we always need to accept “our” part. An important source of inspiration and learning may be the military forces of our key alliance partners, i.e. the USA, Great Britain, France, and Germany, however we must not close ourselves off from the experiences of similar-sized countries of NATO and neutral countries. Some inspiration may even come from findings in other cultural and social conditions.

What are the biggest differences we may see in the armies of “the old” continent?

Nowadays, a big part of Europe is connected by alliance bonds, be it within NATO, the EU, or other partnership programs. This bonding leads to unification and the elimination of previous differences. We cooperate in training and operations management, and harmonize our standards and operational procedures.

Formally, your direct commanding officer is the President of the Czech Republic. Is he following current developments in the army?

Yes, he is and very much so. When travelling around the country, the President regularly includes his visits to military units, and he also visited our soldiers in Afghanistan. He expresses support for our soldiers and presents his opinions on safety issues in public.

What is the biggest myth about the army that you have noticed?

Claiming that our army is good for nothing because it would be able to defend just one town. The public actually often does not realize the difference between a professional army at times of peace, and the army in the state of war or conflict. People don´t perceive the fact that our defense is secured within the Alliance. 

Has your work in the army fulfilled all expectations?

When I was starting at the Military Secondary School in Moravská Třebová in 1973, I definitely did not imagine I would become a Chief of General Staff 40 years later. Like all soldiers, I was forming my ideas of what the army is and how it functions. I was also very lucky to have great superiors and colleagues. When I look back, I can see my career has been really colorful so far. Starting with artillery, then military police, diplomatic services, and finally General Staff, I always have had interesting positions and I am immensely grateful for all these years in uniform. Otherwise, I don´t think I would have gained that much experience at all. A big thank-you goes to my family too, because without their support and understanding all of this would have been unimaginable.



By: Jaroslav Kramer
Photo: General Staff of the Czech Army in cooperation with Czech Leaders Magazine  

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