A national obligation: Modern air and missile defence for Slovakia

ICE analyst Fred Hardmann Lea discusses the responsibility of a government to protect its citizens. The air defence needs to be considered as one of the main elements of a country defence in general.
Institute for Central Europe has conducted project “Air and missile Defence of Slovakia”, kindly supported by the Slovak Ministry of Defence. We have finished the summary analysis and provided it to the MoD as a part of public expert debate on this important and complex issue.

Any government, regardless of party or ideology, has the responsibility to protect its citizens. It is the oldest and most important responsibility that a government has. In the 21st century this means that governments must ensure that their national air space is controlled and protected from air-based threats to the greatest extent practically possible. One need only look to Slovakia’s immediate east to understand why. Cruise and ballistic missiles, rockets, drones, artillery shells, and bombs rain down across Ukraine, killing and maiming soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. Only where air defences intercept these attacks is there any safety or reprieve for Ukrainians. To witness this and not look to protect Slovak citizens from such an assault would be irresponsible at best.

Sitting, as Slovakia does, under the NATO umbrella, it can be tempting to think that the country is already protected against any type of assault. However, NATO is not a magic wand that makes security threats disappear. In the event of being attacked and triggering of Article 5 of the NATO charter, it would take at least two weeks for NATO ground forces, including air defences, to arrive in Slovakia. Slovakia must therefore be prepared to defend itself until assistance arrives. This further necessitates having a modern integrated air defence system (IADS), large numbers of interceptors (effectors), and enough skilled Slovak soldiers to operate all air defence equipment.

Unfortunately, current Slovak air defences are inadequate, and Slovakia does not operate an integrated air defence system. This makes Slovakia vulnerable at a time that the risk of air attack is increasing. Slovakia, through an act of generosity, removed the lynch pin of its legacy air defence system by transferring its long range S300PMU air defence systems to Ukraine. Now all that is left in its inventory are a few obsolete Kub missile batteries and fewer than 100 MANPADS (shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles). It is this poor equipment inventory that leaves Slovakia with the weakest surface-based air defence system it has possessed in its history. 

Fortunately, this situation is solvable, and Slovakia possesses several advantages that it can leverage in overhauling its air and missile defences. Slovak air defence officers and soldiers are well trained and highly skilled, building off a legacy inherited from Czechoslovakia of operating one of the most effective surface-based air defence networks in Europe. Additionally, some essential elements to create an effective IADS have already been acquired such as new radars from Israel, and soon, new multirole combat aircraft from the USA. What is needed now are new weapons and command and control systems. None of the old equipment is up to the task of defending Slovakia, so it should be scrapped, sold, or transferred. Then, a suite of modern short, medium, long-range, point defence, and counter-UAV (drone) air defence systems should be acquired, backed up by a command-and-control system that can coordinate air and missile defences. With these purchases Slovakia could defend itself far better, deter potential attackers, and mitigate the risk posed by air, missile, and drone attacks.  

This would, of course, be an expensive process, far too expensive to undertake through one budget cycle or even one government administration. Air and missile defence systems are some of the most expensive weapons in the world.  Additionally, more Slovak soldiers may be required to operate new equipment, and this could require new training and housing facilities. Thus, Slovakia will likely have to spread the air and missile defence modernization process over the course of ten years. To facilitate this, total buy-in from across the Slovak political spectrum must be achieved. Air and missile defence is too important to allow to become a political tool or weapon used to score cheap political points at the expense of national security.

Frederick Hardman Lea