May 19, 2009: The Serbian military is claiming that it is the most "serious" force in the Balkans. This isn't true since Greece, with its multibillion dollar defense budget and lavish equipment expenditure, takes that honor. Still, despite economic recession and continuing tension with NATO over Kosovo's independence, the Serbians have forged ahead with improving their military, with some surprising results.
For one thing, enrollment in Serbia's military academies has increased dramatically in the past year. Serbia's defense minister claims that attendance in officer school has increased to six times what it was in 2006, reflecting an increased interest among the country's youth in military service. All of this is unusual, given that the defense budget, which has been reduced gradually over the last two years, provides poor salaries, few benefits, and a motley array of aging or obsolete equipment. While military pay and benefits have never been outstanding in most Western militaries, they are absolutely pitiful in Serbia. The economic crisis has all but halted the country's ability to upgrade and modernize its weaponry and gear, but the implementation of professional reforms in the military have continued unabated.
The country is hoping to have a fully volunteer army by 2010, but, unlike the military academies, voluntary enlistments have been falling far short of what was hoped due, again, to poor pay and benefits. Currently, Serbia's defense budget stands at $1.3 billion dollars. This is more or less the standard among ex-Yugoslav republics in the region. Croatia's defense budget is a little less than $1 billion at $850 million whereas Slovenia spends $750 million on their own forces. Serbia's active forces stand at 41,000 active personnel. In short, the Serbian military is struggling to feed and pay its troops.
One thing that hasn't changed is the use and preparation of elite units of the police for future military roles. Serbia has good reason for retaining and training SWAT-type units for actual combat since they are often the best special operations "troops" the country can field in a future battle and they can be used for a variety of roles. During the Yugoslav Wars, the regular army performed dismally and the Serbians are afraid that any future conflict might see a repeat of that failure, especially with their defense budget drying up so fast.
Thus, they are understandably not eager to relieve their special police units of their heavy weaponry and equipment or to stop training them for more military-like roles. During the Milosevic period, the primary special police unit was the Joint Special Operations (JSO), but that group was disbanded in 2003 for fear of it turning on the state. Still, similar units have been either retained or created by the national government that sees them as essential to the nation's combat capability. Another issue is that these forces are almost always the only units available that are equipped with state-of-the-art weapons, in contrast to the Warsaw Pact gear used by the army. Western-style uniforms, night vision gear, quality boots and communications equipment, and the latest in small arms and vehicles are the norm in Serbia's Interior Ministry troops.
Currently, Serbia's Interior Ministry has two major paramilitary units: the SAJ (Special Anti-Terrorist Unit) and the PTJ (Counter-Terrorist Unit). Both units probably consist of several hundred troops, and are trained for a variety of roles above and beyond even special police duties. The PTJ consist of four teams, two of which specialize in urban warfare and two in rural operations. The SAJ has two assault teams, A and B, and a logistics team C. Both formations have responsibilities ranging from typical SWAT duties, like executing warrants against war criminals and organized crime figures, to outright combat operations like counter-insurgency and urban warfare. In most Western countries, elite police units, even counter-terrorist formations, focus on a narrow set of objectives like hostage rescue and raids. Not so for the Serbians, who view the police as an essential element of their defense strategy.
The counter-terrorist units are part of the Gendarmerie which, unlike the civil police, have military duties as well as law enforcement ones and have access to equipment like armored vehicles. The entire paramilitary organization consists around more than 3,100 soldiers and participation in armed conflict is a specifically states role.
Equipment, like MP5 submachine guns and Sig-Sauer pistols, have always been bought on the European market, even during the wars in the '90s. With its defense budget diminishing, the government can only afford to equip a few specialized units so lavishly, and wants desperately to keep their own army of policemen in shape, despite calls to civilianize law enforcement in the Balkan country. The Ministry of the Interior is not part of the Defense Ministry and so the Serbian government can continue to throw the extra funds on their soldier-cops at the expense of the regular army, claiming that the shock troops are needed to maintain "law and order". Without them, the country might not have any decent men to throw into combat should a crisis erupt.