Romania’s antique army

armyWhen I saw Romania’s army marching through Bucharest last week it struck me how out of date Romania’s military is. The brass band music and gendarme uniforms are from nineteenth century France, the authoritarian voice-over and elderly commanders are from Soviet Russia, and the 50 ton tanks are WW2.  None of it is useful against modern day threats.

An out of date army is designed to resist territorial invasion whereas a modern army is a flexible unit which can respond immediately to unknown threats.  Unfortunately Romania is not alone in this predicament and most armies are out of date and unable to cope with unexpected threats.  Bombay is the most recent example:  India’s biggest city was attacked by terrorists who had studied their plan for over a year, who knew every detail of the hotels they were attacking, and who have managed to ignite a media war between India and Pakistan. A top British general admitted to the Sunday Telegraph that “we couldn’t have coped” if the same attack had happened in London.

There are scores of other examples that make is overwhelmingly clear that old fashioned armies are worse than useless.  Small or weak countries are unable to stop powerful armies from invading them and the presence of a pompous army, with brass bands and tanks, can create the illusion of security.  But look what happened to Lebanon’s army whenever confronted with the Israeli behemoth, or Iraq in the face of the Americans, or Georgia before the Russian bear.

Perhaps the smartest country of all is Costa Rica, a small central American nation that very sensibly decided many years ago that they didn’t need an army.  If any of its bigger neighbours decided to invade the only possible defence would be to appeal to the Americans.  And this is true in general, alliance or diplomacy is the only defence against the big guys.  In this sense Romania is in a good position, whereas Georgia, by falling into Russia’s trap and attacking first, has blown its chance of ever joining NATO.

Think how much money the Costa Ricans saved by not spending money on tanks (first designed for trench warfare in 1915) or fighter planes that are so expensive to maintain that a small country simply can’t afford to run them.  Military equipment can be hugely expensive – an American warplane costs several billion dollars – and it is clear that the only real beneficiaries of these transactions are those with vested interests in the sale. What possible use does Romania have for fighter planes?

Tanks and planes are not only obscenely expensive to buy and maintain, but they are more or less useless in a real war – unless you happen to be one of the top armies which have the resources to keep these monsters fed.  Just look at what happened in the first Iraq war, Desert Storm: the Iraqi army was said to be one of the best in the world, with new Russian equipment and 10 years of experience fighting the Iranians.  Pundits said it would be a long war, but it lasted just a few days.  American technology cut through the Iraqi tank divisions in a matter of hours.  It was a slaughter.

An army needs to learn from each and every conflict.  One of the most interesting things that happened in recent years was the 2007 cyber attack on Estonia, in which the Estonians main internet sites (banks and public institutions) were crippled.  Although the conflict (which was blamed on the Russians) took place online, it was the first time a cyber attack of this nature had happened and NATO rushed its IT experts to the Baltic State to assist.  One can assume that NATO has learned from this experience has subsequently trained up a new generation of cyber warriors.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the wars of the former Yugoslavia.  One of the most interesting examples was the battle for Vukovar, located in the north eastern corner of Croatia.  In Vukovar the defending Croats, using only tank-busting rocket launchers and the city’s sewage system in which to hide, managed to hold off the attacking Serb army, which had hundreds of modern Russian tanks, for weeks.  If tanks can be disabled by a man in the sewer with a disposable rocket launcher, worth a few hundred dollars, isn’t it a better use of public money to invest in the man with the rocket launcher rather than the tank?

Becoming a “learning organisation” is a lot harder than it sounds.  Many private companies strive to “learn from their experiences” and fail to do so. But the key is to invest in people and ensure that everyone who joins the army has the training, education, resources and support to really develop their potential.  Soldiers should be given the resources to play sports continually, to study, to travel, to live in their own accommodation, and be treated with more respect.  Obviously this would be expensive but it is the only way to create a modern army.

An old fashioned soldier would be expected to live in a trench and shoot across a field, but the modern armies of NATO don’t need cannon fodder.  They need people who can operate and fix the complex equipment that the big NATO armies have, they need reformed computer hackers, linguists, drivers, engineers, people who know about observation, analysis and intelligence, communication, survival.  They need the kind of people who currently would get a well paid job and wouldn’t dream of joining the army.  So the Romanian army needs to change the way it operates and work out how to attract these sorts of people, because if they are serious about defending their homeland this is the only way to organise it.

Rupert Wolfe Murray is the author of two books about NATO in Bosnia, both of which are available on

A Romanian version of this article was published in Dilema Veche.

5 Responses to Romania’s antique army

  1. Mimi says:

    But without the brass and outdated uniforms, how could have been the Romanian illusions of grandeur be satisfied? There would have been no more NATO alliance. ‘Cause you know – we’re so hawt, everybody
    wants us.

  2. Tudor says:

    The best answer to this is that Fukuyama has already explained in detail which are the available solutions for 19th century societies like the Romanian one, in his quite old book (1991) }The End of History”.

  3. Cornel says:

    What I can say is that this intelectually challenging topic is yet another subtle product of soviet propaganda, or this distinguished gentleman is already been living in Nirvana. It is regretable that the author seems to have a particular reading of the current regional security environment where the Russian bear is lightly depicted in positive tones and we should submerge to its whimstical approach. With all due respect, this man is preaching to forget the common transformational commitments within the NATO framework, and at national level, to adapt ourselves to the unfolding security dynamics. He intoxicate the readesrs with the cost figure by fighter jets in order to dicourage us to modernize our forces meaning that his masters, paying for the article, would like undermine all efforts aiming at generating a NATO interoperable force that should defend our security interests. Nice try. Another wild guess that I have is that he suggesting us to ask the Russians to defend us since the Americans are far away from RO in comparison with Costa Rica.

  4. Cristina 19.12 2008 says:

    But still…Romanians keep queing and jostling each other on parade days in order to give a chance to the sense of patriotism manifest itself, as it is more and more difficult to find the appropriate chance for a collective union in this respect. Parades became a metaphor for poverty and old fashion, as well as love for our country and devotion.

  5. Stephanie WM says:

    Slightly absurd that your correspondent thinks you are in the pay of the Russians. I guess your article is somewhat naive but worth getting a discussion going. For me, the best point was ‘why have an army at all?’
    M xxx

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