April 23, 2009:
As one of the newest members of NATO, and a country that long held aspirations of joining the alliance, Croatia is eager to prove to its new allies that it is serious about defense modernization and reform. As far as equipment is concerned, they've done reasonably well over the last decade, clearing out significant portions of their Warsaw Pact-era weaponry in favor of newer, more sophisticated Western equipment. The Croats have done especially well in re-equipping their infantry with an almost entirely new stock of small arms and light weapons. This is unusual among nations trying to build up their defensive capabilities, particularly ones with a legacy of possessing aging equipment. Most countries, when they plan and implement equipment acquisitions, tend to concentrate on the heavier stuff like tanks, helicopters, and air defense systems.
Recognizing, however, the emerging threats are likely to be extremely infantry heavy, Croatia has gone against the grain to equip its ground forces with variety of new infantry weapons, including the Heckler & Koch and M4 assault rifles. The AK-47 rifles still predominate in the regular forces, with about 120,000 of them still in service and in inventory, but this is changing rapidly, particularly as manpower reductions reduce the number of personnel who need to carry them.
While the attention paid to the grunts on the ground and the new equipment being purchased to better outfit them for battle is a step in the right direction, other changes being implemented may not be so wise. Foremost among these are the drastic manpower reductions planned by the ground forces, part of a long-range series of defense reforms. The Croatian Army currently consists of only two brigades, both of which are mechanized, plus some small special forces units, and a training and doctrine command. All in all, about 12,000 troops to defend a nation of 4 million people in what has historically been one of the world's most volatile regions. This force also must be ready to provide troops for major military deployments with NATO allies.
The Croatians, having won their independence from Yugoslavia in the '90s, see little chance of a new conventional war breaking out, but then this is the Balkans and it's impossible to predict what kinds of scenarios could play out in the future. The country has also put end to compulsory military service, having voted on the measure in January of last year. They hope to obtain enough volunteer soldiers to adequately man its forces. Retention and recruiting shortages in volunteer armies are often problems even in wealthy nations that pay their troops well, like the US, so it is unlikely that many of Croatia's youth will be eager to sign up for a job that promises little pay and potentially dangerous deployments to places like Afghanistan. Despite this, Croatia has done much better than some countries, developing a competent ground force, providing more equipment to the traditionally neglected infantry, and showing its new allies it can get the job done.