Most Eastern European countries are focusing their efforts to maintain and strengthen their armoured vehicle inventories. This is being undertaken in accordance with geopolitical ambitions and the availability of funds in defence budgets.
‘What we see there are some ambitious efforts, deemed to be components from long-term re-armament and upgrade programmes of Soviet-era weapons systems. In general, these actions are beefing up the defence potential at the NATO eastern flank,’ Angel Naydenov, former Bulgarian defence minister, who is currently the head of Sofia-based TsIOS independent defence think-tank commented to Shephard.
Poland for instance is investing heavily in the recapitalisation of its sizeable MBT inventory. In late July 2019, the Polish MoD and state-owned Polish Armaments Group (PGZ) inked an agreement covering the overhaul and a small-scale upgrade of 300 T-72M MBTs in the active inventory of the Polish military.
Poland is also upgrading its Leopard 2A4 inventory to the Leopard 2PL standard, with the first tanks delivered in December 2018. This is a deep upgrade effort, which is being undertaken jointly by PGZ’s Bumar-Łabędy and Rheinmetall to cover 128 2A4s. In 2018, another upgrade contract, this time covering 14 more MBTs, was inked for upgrading 2A4s to the 2PL standard.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic signed a contract in July 2019 worth CZK1.5 billion ($60 million) for a total of 33 T-72M4CZ tanks to be upgraded by state-owned VOP CZ company, with completion slated for 2023.
The upgrade works will be centred on the sighting and communication system. In addition, the Czech MoD has disclosed plans for the purchase of new MBTs in the second half of the next decade to replace all the T-72s in the sole tank battalion of the country’s land forces component.
As Naydenov noted, some East European countries have completed an evaluation of the effectiveness of their defence investments which prompted them to go-ahead with the upgrade of the existing defence equipment inherited from the Soviet-era, while other counties in the region have elected to invest in new platforms.
For example, Hungary inked an agreement with Krauss-Maffei Wegmann in December 2018, covering the purchase of 44 Leopard 2A7s plus 12 second-hand Leopard 2A4s for training to replace existing T-72Ms.
Serbia is expecting to received 30 T-72B3 by the end of 2019. These second-hand MBTs will be provided free of charge from Russia, taken from the surplus stocks.
Naydenov said that Serbia has succeeded to materialise its good political relations with Russia, as it is struggling to invest in the procurement of new heavy weapons systems within the context of the permanent crisis of its relations with Kosovo.
Romania is still considering giving a go-ahead of an MBT procurement programme to replace the current TR-85 (a license-built T-55 version) inventory. In July 2019 Romania joined a European Defence Agency project, together with Cyprus, Greece and Spain, calling for the joint procurement, upgrade and operation of Leopard 2 MBTs.
The Romanian MoD has noted that only technical negotiations have been held so far on this project.
In 2018, the Bulgarian defence minister, Krasimir Karakachanov, claimed that the county is set to upgrade a proportion of its T-72 inventory, but no further details have been released. In December 2018, the Bulgarian MoD inked an agreement with state-owned TEREM Holding company for the overhaul of 13 T-72s worth BGN13.6 million ($8 million).