In 2019, Romania will face three major defense policy challenges, which, if not handled efficiently, will hinder its ability to deter aggression on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastern flank and improve its military posture in the Black Sea region. These challenges affect the defense budget and how it is spent, the acquisition programs initiated since 2017 and, finally, command of the Armed Forces themselves, which has become a source of political conflict. Moreover, 2019 is an election year in Romania, and defense policy will likely become entangled in electoral politics.
Since 2017, when the pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense legally came into force, Romania has been unable to reach this spending target in practice, despite appropriating the necessary funds in 2017 and in 2018. Poor planning and lack of administrative capacity explain the inability of the Ministry of Defense to make good on Romania’s pledge. Nevertheless, defense spending has been consistently growing, reaching 1.81 percent GDP in 2018 and 1.92 percent of GDP in 2018 (Curs de Guvernare, March 14). However, 2019 brings a particular set of challenges in terms of budget spending across the board. This year’s budget was adopted quite late and been challenged in the Constitutional Court by President Klaus Iohannis. The Court decided in favor of the government, and the president had to sign off on the legislation in March 2019. In practice this means that all civil and military investments planned for 2019 have been delayed by about three months.
In 2018, the Ministry of Defense launched a record number of major equipment programs, such as the procurement of four multi-role corvettes for the navy, coastal-defense systems, and the acquisition of 227 Piranha V armored personnel carriers (APC). Currently all of these programs suffer from delays or have been suspended due to administrative mishandling. The best-known example is the corvette program, which the defense ministry was supposed to award in October 2018, but has been delayed and subsequently suspended in January 2019 (Mapn.ro, January 11). The APC procurement was delayed by problems related to the integration of the unmanned turret on the vehicle; however, these issues have been rectified as of the end of March 2019 (Hotnews.ro, April 4). Nevertheless, Defense Minister Gabriel Leș has threatened the manufacturer, General Dynamics, with financial penalties for not respecting the delivery schedules (Mediafax, March 22). Only 8 out of a batch of 36 Piranha Vs were delivered by the end of January 2o19. Finally, the tender for the coastal-defense systems was restarted after all of the participants provided security certificates (Hotnews.ro, March 25).
In procurement terms, air defense and the navy face the greatest uncertainties. The initial acquisition of a squadron of 12 F-16 fighters in 2013 has yet to be followed up with the procurement of a second one. The initial estimate of 48 multi-role fighters necessary to modernize the Romanian Air Force has been slightly increased to 52, but the government offered no details so far regarding subsequent acquisition plans. Defense Minister Leș has confirmed only that, in the short term, Romania will acquire five more F-16s and that the current fleet of MiG-21s will be kept in service until 2025–2026 (Realitatea TV, March 31). It is still not clear if the second squadron of F-16 will be composed of newly built aircraft or used models. Moreover, it is not clear if Romania still intends to procure the F-35A fifth-generation multi-role fighter, for which it has expressed interest since 2010 (Economica.net, September 29, 2016). The naval corvette program, meanwhile, remains suspended pending an investigation by the military prosecutor’s office concerning the integrity of the acquisition process (TVR, March 22, 2019). The delay in awarding the contract negatively impacts on the ability of the defense ministry to run complex and high-value acquisition processes.
Romanians go to the polls this May to elect their representatives in the European Parliament; and in December, they choose their president. Although defense and foreign policy are likely to play a minor role in the election campaigns, the 2 percent of GDP target for defense spending is coming under populist pressure. The opposition national liberals have already called to re-invest the funds earmarked for defense into infrastructure (Hotnews.ro, March 21). While Finance Minister Teodorovici has announced that the Ministry of Defense will build, using money from its own budget, two hospitals, in Constanța and Craiova (Digi24HD.ro, March 29).
By far the greatest political challenge that has affected Romania’s Armed Forces in the first half of 2019 is that of command. In December 2018, General Nicolae Ciucă’s term as chief of the Defense Staff expired, and a new chief needed to be named by President Iohannis, after being nominated by Defense Minister Leș. However, the head of state rejected the proposals made by the defense minister and opted to prolong the term of General Ciucă by another year (G4Media.ro, December 28, 2019). The defense ministry has chosen to contest the president’s decision in the administrative courts. Initially, the courts found in favor of the ministry, but then the latter lost on appeal. The Supreme Court ultimately found in favor of the president and reinstated Ciucă in his position on April 10 (RRA, April 10).
General Nicolae Ciucă is the most respected officer of the Romanian Armed Forces in recent history, both inside and outside the country. His reputation as a “fighting general” has lent credibility to the current efforts to modernize Romania’s military. Minister Leș’s decision not to prolong his term as head of the Defense Staff was widely perceived as an attempt by the PSD-ALDE governing coalition to politicize the Armed Forces and, in particular, as an attempt by Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the PSD, to gain access to the acquisition programs run by the Ministry of Defense (Adevărul, December 28, 2018). The conflict between the president and the defense minister over the leadership of the Armed Forces reflects how polarized and partisan Romanian politics have become. The entire situation has called into question the leadership of Defense Minister Leș.
Romania will have to chart a difficult course in 2019 in order to modernize its military and consolidate its defense posture. The 2 percent of GDP spending target is likely to remain a tantalizing goal to achieve this year due to delays in adopting the 2019 budget and because of poor administrative capacity.