Czech defense minister to US: Maintain ties with Europe

Following a roughly 25 percent reduction in his nation's defense budget and surrounded by a Europe that is more concerned with saving the Euro than investing in its militaries, Czech Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra was in Washington yesterday lobbying Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to maintain tight ties with his nation.

Europe is in the midst of "a costly operation to save the currency and it consumes 95 percent of the time of all politicians and around [Europe]" while U.S. politicians are nearly equally preoccupied with fiscal concerns, Vondra told Foreign Policy on Tuesday morning. At the same time, the Pentagon is preparing to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan -- likely meaning that the contingent of Czech troops serving there will leave with them -- and is switching its strategic focus to Asia.

"I've had to cut the [defense] budget by 25 percent in the last two, three years, at the same time we have increased our participation in Afghanistan as the only European ally still there working with you without any caveats," said Vondra.

He added: "We did not decrease, but rather increased the level of deployability of our forces. For example, we have just 14 fighter [jets]; and out of those 14, four are now deployed to the Baltic states to guard their airspace" under NATO's Baltic air policing mission, which provides air defense to alliance members that don't have modern fighter jets. Another four jets are on alert inside the Czech Republic at any given time.

Given the drawdown of U.S. forces from their peacetime bases in Europe and their combat deployments in Afghanistan, where U.S. and Czech troops have frequent opportunities to train together, Vondra called for the U.S. to maintain at least a rotational troop presence in Europe.

"You have decided to reduce your permanent bases in Europe. I'm not happy about that, but I'm a realist. But we should know more about what the rotations [of U.S. troops] will look like" as the Defense Department's shift to Asia gets into full swing, said Vondra. He then urged U.S. leaders to keep "some reasonable U.S. presence in Europe, either on a permanent or rotational basis; but if it's a rotational basis, there must be some concrete plans, real plans on how to secure" a long-term commitment to that presence.

Meanwhile, with the republic standing up a NATO helicopter training center at home while also providing training and mechanical support to the nascent Afghan air force's helicopter fleet, the Czechs "would appreciate more direct cooperation from the U.S." in supporting these expensive efforts, Vondra said.

He also urged the U.S. to maintain its commitment to NATO's European ballistic missile defense system despite declining U.S. defense budgets and the new focus on Asia.

"Some are afraid that in the future, you will only concentrate on your domestic national [missile] defense system, but there must be the NATO system," said Vondra.

The U.S. should also show more leadership in coordinating defense planning and the purchase of common weapons by NATO members  (moves designed to make joint operations between alliance members easier), according to Vondra.

"There are a lot of talks about common defense acquisitions, but if there isn't elementary harmonization in our defense planning, that is very difficult to achieve," said the minister. "Here, I would expect more American activity." The United States has not been aggressive enough in supporting East and Central European modernization efforts, he said.

"The U.S. crisis of 2008 immediately impacted Europe, and the crisis in Europe will impact here," said Vondra. "Of course your relationship with China is important, but I think Europe should remain on your radar screen, you have invested a lot there in the past."

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