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”We Are Not Ordinary Employees”

Szöveg: Ádám Draveczki & Renáta Révész |  2009. június 2. 6:40

Every serviceman must realize what it means to wear a uniform – says the Chief of Staff of the Hungarian Defence Forces. In addition to the importance of changing military culture, with General (Eng.) László Tömböl we have also discussed the Afghanistan mission, the consequences of the economic crisis concerning the military, and the current issues of recruitment.

Although the investigation is still underway, we must mention what happened in Afghanistan last weekend. How would you sum up the events?

While our patrols carried out a site reconnaissance task for a possible CIMIC project in an armoured vehicle used on similar roads, they were attacked in Baghlan’s Jadid district. The attackers were firing at them with small arms, and they returned fire. The reactions of the troops and the commander of the patrol were absolutely proper in this situation: in the gunfight that lasted for some 25 minutes they repelled the insurgents then left the scene. There were no casualties on the Hungarian side, everybody returned to the base safe and sound, and the vehicles stayed in deployable condition.

Do we know anything about casualties on the other side?

No, but I do not even want to deal with this, for it would be guessing about unconfirmed news. This is not our job, the local security services are investigating the case. At the same time this attack on the whole reflects that resistance is becoming more intense and organized in Afghanistan.


Is this what your personal experiences, gained a few weeks ago in the country, have proven?

I listened to the briefing at the ISAF Command, the report of our troops, and the reports of the security forces, and the situation is, unfortunately, that resistance has become more organized. Of course it is possible that the summer period also contributes to the increased activity of the insurgents, we cannot know it for certain, but there is no use deluding or cheating ourselves. It is still better to acknowledge that there is something wrong and prepare for it then mislead ourselves by saying that there isn’t any problem.

In addition to this, what were your most important experiences in Afghanistan?

The visit was important because I have been to two of our military organizations that have recently been deployed to the country. One is the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team, the OMLT, whom I visited in a central training base near Kabul. Here I also talked with the commander of the Afghan battalion, who is extremely satisfied with our troops. There is a reason for it: they are professionals, they do what they are supposed to do, and could cooperate with the training officers of the US National Guard. They are prepared for carrying out the tasks. What is a problem on the other hand is that the base of the Afghan battalion was only partly completed by the given time and in order to provide proper accommodation for the personnel, we had to use temporary solutions as well. I also had the chance to meet the other group on their premises: the local American commander also spoke absolutely appreciatively about the Hungarian troops. There were and are some questions that keep returning and have to be dealt with, but the reason behind all of them is that we have to adapt to the new circumstances continuously.

How would you sum up our activity at the Kabul International Airport?

We had scheduled the visit from the beginning to coincide with the event that on 1 April we transferred the role of leading nation to Poland. The operation of the Kabul International Airport was an absolutely new task that had never been done before by Hungarian troops on mission. The Hungarian commander was responsible for the undisturbed operation of a busy international airport that is of key importance as regards the work of ISAF, and for the safety of more than 900 employees: Hungarian troops made up roughly a tenth of this contingent, but from air traffic control to airport security – including the security of the passengers – and moral and welfare aspects everything belonged to the scope of responsibility of the Hungarians. As a part of the large-scale modernization works on the airport, the preparations for the relocation of the military terminal had also arrived to the final stage, and it were also the Hungarians who supervised these works. Our troops have coped with this and gained plenty valuable experiences. Should we have to return, we would solve the situation without any issues again.

Another current issue: recently you have been to Brussels…

I have attended the military chief of defence staff-level meetings of the European Union on the one hand, and that of NATO on the other hand. On the EU side, the ALTHEA operation will be transformed: the majority of EU member states believe that the time has come in Bosnia and Herzegovina for us to transform the current ‘deterrent’ presence into a presence that supports/trains the local security forces. But first it is necessary to transform the mission politically. As regards us, we are committed to stability in the region, and we are ready to take share in the transformed mission as well. The mission to Chad, that is coming to an end, was also discussed: the last two Hungarian troops working for the corps will come home at the end of May. The European Union has successfully completed this task as well. There were negotiations about the activity of pirates off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, against which the EU has launched operation Atalanta. There are some results in this field but total success would require an extremely large presence of the navy on an area exceeding one million square miles. Afghanistan was a key point on the agenda of NATO’s Military Committee. 2009 is especially important because of the presidential elections: it has to be guaranteed that the elections are not disturbed and, in order to strengthen the new strategy, military presence has to be increased in the country. The other main pillar is the involvement of Afghan security forces in the task to the highest possible extent. We have also analyzed the demand for decreasing the number of personnel in the case of KFOR, but here the deterrent nature would remain in the focus. There is no common position; Hungary, among others, thinks that although the situation is relatively stable but fragile now, there may be conflicts of various size. Therefore we believe in a careful and well thought-out decrease in the number of personnel, until the situation is ready for a major transformation. We have also discussed the future of the NATO Response Force. The necessary modification of the organizational and deployment principles, and the issue of joint financing, supported by Hungary as well, were given special emphasis.


Let us switch to domestic issues! Soon the fact and the consequences of the economic crisis will be a commonplace. In your opinion, what areas of the military are the most affected by the crisis directly and how these impacts can be mitigated?

It makes the situation even more complex that we do not really see in advance how accurately the impacts of the crisis can be predicted. Nevertheless, it is obvious that in the current circumstances, certain purchases have to be postponed or reassessed, bearing in mind, naturally, that we must be able to fully accomplish our commitments both at home and in international missions. On the other hand, the full replenishment of the stocks required for future tasks cannot be realized because we have to make compromises with ourselves and stay on the ground of reality. Moreover, as we have announced it, certain events will be cancelled, such as the Kecskemét Air Show, and we will not support or will only provide limited support to similar other programs in Hungary. At the same time we cannot become invisible to the society: we do have to be present at important events, for example national holidays. Tasks of this nature will be carried out entirely. Similarly, the training tasks required for the development and strengthening of basic skills cannot suffer any damage, even if their duration and form were to be modified. Of these I would mention maneuvers Deployment Direction 2009 in the first place, to be conducted in the autumn, with a closing event in Ercsi, according to plans. However, there will not be a Mistral anti-aircraft rocket exercise this year, it has been postponed to next year.

The cancelled events play a key role in the defence forces’ liaison with society. How can they be made up for? Or there is no need for it since because of the crisis, there is already a growing interest in the military?

Like I said, we have to stay visible. There is a need for that, what is more, I find that there is a growing demand and a growing number of requests. Among them there are some we can fulfil and there are some we cannot or only to a limited extent. I consider strengthening the relations between the military and society one of my important duties. This is a part of the program outlined by the Minister concerning the need for defence studies and education. We have to make the issue of national defence ‘socialized‘, so to say: everyone has to find their own place in the large system of national defence, from the ordinary people in the street through the entrepreneurs and state-owned companies. The more people we tell about the cause of national defence the easier our job is in this respect.


You have mentioned that the current system of recruitment needs improvement. In what directions can it be imagined?

We have to be present in the scenes of social life with greater intensity and to a greater extent: at events, in schools, festivals, even more job fairs, and so on. It is not enough to wait for those who are interested to turn up in the recruitment centres, offices, it is not enough to engage in an active recruitment work only in case of the flying training but we have to contact everyone who may find this career attractive. And obviously the individual military organizations themselves have to be given the possibility to have recruitment capabilities in an organized form. Our current capacity is small therefore so-called front offices are being created and recruitment posts are introduced in certain organizations. To give a specific example of the situation: there are far more people who know that there is an infantry brigade in Debrecen than those who have heard of the existence of the local recruitment office. They are enquiring in the barracks first, from where they are sent to another office, while it is much simpler to talk to those who are interested right there. And it is even more realistic this way. Of course, I do not want to hurt the work of the professional organizations with this, for there was and there is no problem with the number of the recruited personnel, it is keeping them that is rather problematic. But it is obvious that as a result of the economic crisis and increasing unemployment people seek security and a stable situation, and the defence forces can be this place for them. An excellent example of this is that in the past 3-3.5 months we had as many enquiries in the recruitment offices as last year in total. We have to take advantage of this. We help because we guarantee stable and reliable employment: we do not send the people away but on the contrary, we invite them since we would like to fill our vacant positions. We have doubled the capacity of the fitness testing institute by a simple infrastructural extension, which now allows us to examine 200 applicants at the same time and the waiting time has become significantly shorter. In addition to this, under the supervision of the Joint Forces Command we have created a basic training course at the base of the Tata infantry brigade, where we have begun the preparation of more than a hundred new recruits. I have seen their training and I was very satisfied with what I saw, including the motivation and commitment of the new recruits. However, among the growing number of applicants the ratio of those who are not fit for military service due to their health and physical condition is also higher for in the current situation not only young, but also more and more older people apply. On the other hand it must be understood that the Hungarian Defence Forces are a military organization, their most important duty is the armed defence of the Republic of Hungary, therefore there must be special security requirements in case of the contractual personnel as well.

Does it matter in the new fitness test if someone was unfit when he was enlisted?

No, not at all, everyone starts with a ‘clean record’. The situation has changed a lot in this respect: just a few years ago, in the physical fitness tests we set the highest requirements for the new recruits entering the gate of the barracks. I think this is a wrong approach for the troops must get to this point by the end of the sixth month of their training. If he can complete the expected level, he can stay, if he cannot, we will part company, this is how it works. I am convinced that it was due to this wrong approach that in recent years we have lost many applicants who definitely could have prepared in 3-4-5 months to meet the requirements.

You have mentioned that the question of the retaining power is a problematic area. How can the situation be improved?

We can talk about this for hours beating about the bush, but here the most important aspect is the question of financials. But we also have to understand that the current economic situation does not allow major institutional development this year, but I believe neither will it in 2010. Therefore we have to look for solutions which lead to increased power to retain the personnel without a significant increase in costs. The predictability and transparence of the military career is such a power by all means. The young people joining the service as contractual soldiers have the right to know what kind of military career they can build in a certain period of time, how they can change personnel category, how they can turn from contracted to professional troops, what benefits are they entitled to after a certain period of service, and so on. A similarly important aspect – and maybe it is strange that I’m mentioning it in the context of recruitment – is reconversion. There could be more willingness, and the contractual soldier who knows how he will be able to find employment when he does not want to serve in the defence forces any more, is also more reassured as regards his own future. In other words he has to see that we want to and can give him marketable preparation and trade and he can enter the labour market with a valuable knowledge. I would also emphasize the family support system, for the defence forces make every effort to care not only for the troops but their families as well when the soldier happens to be away. There are some regulations in this field that have to be reviewed. We would like to develop the system further. For example a very good initiation was started in Debrecen in the form of a human service information office where the troops can inquire about the course of their service or other issues. But this also includes the family members and I do not only mean information assistance but also assistance in a broader sense. For instance this office, in cooperation with employment centres, can even find the courses that offer the necessary qualifications for the employment of family members.


So can we say that even though a newly contracted soldier is not leading in the wage contest, if we also take the other benefits into consideration the defence forces offer attractive circumstances?

I think they do. And in addition to that, we must also mention the system of training, preparation, education, health care, service provision, and accomodation. Though the present circumstances are not perfect these factors still matter a lot.

Talking about the conceptional aspects of national defence, the question of the reservist system, which has been and still is the subject of many debates today, cannot be avoided. How do you see it, comparing to the number of personnel in the defence forces, how many reservists would be necessary?

Based on analyses, it has been defined in four thousand – we will see if it is too much or too little. But I also have to tell that no matter how high the number we define is, we will not achieve our aim if we do not create the proper conditions, and first of all the proper legal background. It is not a coincidence that the current system operates like this… But this is not the only thing the situation depends on. I can mention the example of the United States where the overwhelming majority of the citizens feels it is an honour and a duty to contribute to the defence of their country either with their own power, either by making their employees available as reservists, or by providing access to their own plot of land. Where the society does not realize this, where the issue of national defence is not evident and natural, there are problems. Guarantees have to be provided for both the employer and the employee side and at the moment these conditions are not given. This is where we have to make changes first, and afterwards we have to clarify the system of tasks of voluntary reservists in its entirety, be it national defence, mobilization, disaster prevention, or peace operations.

You have mentioned the importance of a change in the military culture several times.

This is also a simple formula: we have to learn what a voluntary, and what a professional military means, for the two are not the same, neither in knowledge nor in experience, capabilities, or preparedness. Following the move to a voluntary army, the Hungarian Defence Forces have started off the road to becoming a professional army, but there are still a few things left to do, for commanders and subordinates alike. In this system everyone has his own place and role. We had to reinterpret the role of non-commissioned officers and servicemen: for example we had to make the non-commissioned officers accept that they have become commanders with a responsibility, and make the officers understand the changes in the role and status of non-commissioned officers and servicemen. Within his own scope of responsibility, everybody should do his duty thinking in a proactive way and not lag behind the events, and make the right decisions – both at home and on a mission. If he fails to do so, the water will sweep away the dyke, he will have casualties in combat, or simply misses a moment he could have benefited from. All this is a part of culture change. Every soldier must understand that he is an integral part of society, and has to realize that wearing a uniform means more: we are not ordinary employees but people who serve their country, this is what we devoted our life to, if you like.