This week - on March 12th - the Czech Republic will mark the 7th anniversary since the country joined NATO in 1999. Over that period the country's military has changed beyond recognition - investing in new technology, going fully professional, redefining its overall approach to warfare. Later this year, Czech soldiers will be able to serve on key foreign missions with greater impact than ever before.
The Czech Army in 1989, the Czech Army now: then, it was a colossal and unwieldy Soviet-era military machine; now it has changed from the ground up. Going fully professional, increasing in specialisation, and, after numerous difficult missions abroad, military prestige. The 90s witnessed a full transformation, and says Ministry of Defence spokesman Andrej Cirtek, the Czech military dramatically changed its approach:
"For the first time in Czech history there were no enemies at the borders, and this led to a complete change in the army's philosophy. Since entering NATO we needn't defend our 'administrative borders'. Now, from the military point-of-view, the borders lead to the Balkans and the Middle East, [areas which present new dangers and threats]."
Since joining NATO Czech contingents have served - indeed continue to serve - on missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq, and in no small numbers, either, counting some 1,000 military personnel. Especially since the NATO Summit in Prague in 2002, the Czech military has increasingly focused on areas specialisation where it has already begun to excel:
"The Czech Army still has all the regular components of a classic army, but there are certain areas in which we now specialise. These are passive surveillance, where we acquired top-of-the-line technology. Another specialisation is defence against weapons of mass destruction. And, the third is our special forces, trained to combat behind enemy lines, to see and not to be seen. All of these 'specialised' components we want to offer as 'the cream of the crop'."
Czech military representatives say as of this autumn the army will keep good on its promise to offer NATO the services of a complete rapid-response brigade ready to serve anywhere in the world, at relatively short notice. Pavel Rossler is the spokesman for the 4th brigade:
"Until now we had only smaller units - at the level of battalions. For example, the NBC unit used in nuclear, chemical, and biological detection created for NATO's rapid-response force. Now, we will be able to provide a full brigade: up to 3,500 men."
According to the Defence Ministry, the Czech military will hold major exercises later this year. After that, more Czechs than ever will likely end up serving in some of the world's hottest spots.
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