22 February, 2019 10:53

Armenian Armed Forces Should Be More Proactive: Q/A with Defense Minister

Armenia's Minister of Defense Davit Tonoyan speaks with Taline Papazian about various directions of the country's security strategy. 

Taline Papazian is a political scientist. This interview was conducted in English, on January 21, 2019, in Yerevan. Since that date, Dr. Papazian has been appointed to the Ministry of Defense of Armenia, in charge of Strategy and Policy Development.
Taline Papazian: You are the first ever Armenian Defense Minister to publish an official document exposing your vision for the development of the armed forces and the defense sector and an action plan. Why did you choose to do so and what have been the reactions so far?
Davit Tonoyan: It is true that in Armenia it had never been done, yet it is a common practice in many countries. I have followed the best practices, because I believe it is important that the Defense Minister, who is heading one of the most important ministries in the country, makes his own views public and share the orientations defense policies will pursue with the society at large. First, it is an act of responsibility and accountability towards the society. Second, it is one more way of establishing a channel to get the public’s feedback and assesses the reactions. Third, it is a political commitment in the sense that you lay down strategic directions and predictions on the basis of parliamentary approved government program.
TP: The document lays out problems, reforms and/or policies to be pursued in the armed forces and the defense sector, in strategic terms, but also economic aspects, industrial aspects, human rights issues, and, last but not least, moral terms. Could you please outline the top three points touched on there?
DT: If I had to cite three outstanding points, I would say that the Armed Forces of Armenia should be more proactive and imposing in their strategic and political environment; second, that they become more innovative when it comes to finding solutions; and third that they be ready under any circumstances to assist the diplomatic endeavors that aim at solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Armed Forces need to be developed in accordance with some of the changes taking place in the society at large. The new generation, especially, looks at the Armed Forces as too heavy, too Soviet-style, outdated in this sense. Transformations within society impact the Army. Sometimes they are helping us to get better and healthy, sometimes they are distracting us. For instance, there is an anti-militaristic trend in a fraction of the urban society that can make us weaker. Aside from what I may wish as a person, my task is to make people ready and prepared for a possible war. Seen from where I am, peace is a very distant prospect.
TP: In the International Republican Institute public opinion survey of July-August 2018, to the question “What do you think Pashinyan’s government should do in the next 6 months?, 8% of respondents answered “solve army problems”. Army problems were also mentioned in the top 3 problems of the country by 6% of the respondents. What types of “problems” are these respondents actually referring to and what are possible solutions?
DT: A wide range of issues can be considered, starting from material ones to human rights issues in the army. There is no issue we are neglecting. Realistically, there are things we could and already improved; others we are working on; and still others we have to work with while solving them is a long-term perspective given the lack of financial resources. For example, starting from this month, the soldiers will no longer have the poor quality non-reusable underwear they used to have, but be provided with better quality underwear. Recent public debate has focused on a slogan: “No kids to the frontline”. My view on this as Minister of Defense is that it is a wrong way of thinking. Society must acknowledge that when a man is on the frontline, or more generally within the Army, he is a soldier with responsibilities. There is a wrong perception in the public that young conscripts are sent unprepared to the frontline. That is absolutely not the case: they receive a training adequate to that particular task; moreover, they are not alone, but under direct supervision of more experienced officers and sergeants. Performing frontline tasks adequately is not a question of age, it is a question of preparedness and of readiness to act. Conscript training instructs them to get skilled in both.
TP: Andranik Kocharyan, newly elected chairman of the Security, Defense and Internal Affairs commission at the National Assembly, recently spoke on Armenia Liberty of a proposal which would consist in replacing the young conscripts by professional soldiers with higher salaries on these positions. Your assessment?
DT: I don’t find this proposal adequate, if only because of our population numbers and our economic capabilities that put serious limits on competitive salaries. Even if we could ensure attractive salaries to these professionals, we would not have enough of them to fulfill all required frontline positions. I am naturally open to discussing proposals or ideas put on the table by relevant officials, yet without further deliberation important obstacles are vivid on this one.

One has to see the larger picture into which our work is set. Defense and Armed Forces deal with multi-level challenges, sometimes inextricably complex problems: we are in a security environment that is highly demanding and our response must be commensurate to our demographically modest resources. Some of these demographic limitations on the long-run result from that same security situation. On the other hand, we crucially need more robust economic development, but desirable levels cannot be attained without a perfectly viable security situation. That is also why the Armenian governments past and present have invested so much efforts in the Defense sector and continue to do so, with about 4.5% of the GDP going to the Defense sector. This allows us to assure the stability of our security situation even in the riskiest configurations, in which we constantly find ourselves.
TP: In your vision you mention the necessity for the public to have “absolute trust” in the army. Among the factors of public mistrust are corruption; human rights abuses including cases of murders/serious injuries in non-combat circumstances; mismanagement of resources. What is being done and what do you intend to do further regarding these issues?
DT: As a general principle, I want to underline the fact that the army is an overwhelmingly  sensitive issue in Armenia and very much talked of. Armenian society is quite heavily militarized by the ratio of defense personnel to total population. Every year, the Ministry receives and releases an average number within the tens of thousands conscripts. For a country with so small a population like Armenia, it is a lot. So it is no surprise that the army is at the center of public attention, and all that touches the army receives broader amplification than anything else. In that process, the Ministry of Defense keeps being as transparent as possible, and is not avoiding even some negative publicity along the way. I am committed to increase the level of transparency even more, in the areas and within limits compatible with our security standards. For instance, I want more light to be shed on how we are preparing ourselves. I am also committed to increase transparency and predictability in the procurement processes. That is a way of targeting corruption. But I also want to emphasize something that may be overlooked by the public: being in a system of compulsory service like ours is the best way to ensure a high level of transparency because there is an organic link between the parents and my soldiers, which keep me and the Armed Forces in general under watchful eyes. We are interconnected in a way professionalized armies and societies are not.
TP: How does the MOD keep up with the level of public trust and the problems on which civil society is focused?
DT: We have a team within the Ministry in charge of collecting and analyzing public information regarding issues of dissatisfaction. We also have a Center for Human Rights and Good Behaviour, of which the head directly reports to the Minister. Contacts exist with NGOs and civil society on these issues but I would not say they are satisfactory. The issue of hazing in the Army for example is under public scrutiny. The critics are legitimate and I am glad they are out there. But expectations must be realistic: there is no army in the world where such things do not happen and eliminating them altogether is simply impossible. Aggression happens not only in the army, but in the streets, in the schools, etc. Our critics should also understand the security environment in which our soldiers serve, which is physically very demanding. Exhausted with the burden of service, some young men may more easily behave aggressively towards each other. People working in the NGOs on these issues are very often people who have not undergone military service and therefore who have not experienced first-hand what is the operational and institutional environment in which army relations take place.

Abuses are slowly decreasing and tolerance regarding abuse of conscripts is also decreasing. We are working on improving education of drafted conscripts, teaching them their rights and their duties in the army, which are somewhat different in that context than for ordinary citizens. Results are not immediate.
TP: In a country like Armenia where there is absolute need of efficient armed forces; small numbers of people; modest budget; and war situation, whether open or not, the moral standards of the armed forces are crucial. Can you please break down the components of these moral standards and how you want to raise them?
DT: Raising moral standards in the army is a comprehensive program that goes from education to discipline to interpersonal behavior of each individual. It is long term work. Foundation is education. Second is to infuse the right spirit in our troops. Compulsory service is the time when to do that: during two years, these young men serve as soldiers, and they learn a lot in the army, as to what discipline means, hard work, trust, care, devotion to a mission you are entrusted with. Our instructors ensure that these conscripts make good reservists in the future or highly professional soldiers. The conscript as well as the professional soldier should see his task as a mission, as opposed to an obligation.

In the past years, we noticed a tendency towards more anarchy in the service, less education, less discipline, but more awareness of rights. There is good in that, in the sense that it is a good thing that a young person is aware of his rights. But we also have an obligation to insert this knowledge in the context of the army. The Armed Forces are an excellent milieu to form better citizens in the sense that we are preparing young persons to serve their country to the best of their abilities, in different domains, and with discipline.
TP: To support this more optimistic side of things, you may be unaware that in the same IRI survey, 74% of respondents say they have a favorable opinion about the army, making it the second highest favored institution right after the Prime Minister; and in November 2018, this figure jumped at 81%.
DT: We are doing everything,sometimes more than we can, to deserve this trust and will continue. Part of the society does not have realistic views of what the army is about and needs to be; because quite naturally nobody wants to see his own son in the trenches. But they are overlooking the good things that the Army does for these young men. Parents are also responsible for morally preparing their child/children to serve, again as a mission. I do understand that they are trying to protect them from possible harm, but sometimes what they do is that they “negatively program” them towards the service. Whereas, in fact, one can notice that adult men who underwent military service generally do not reflect on it negatively, quite the contrary.
TP: Among other “first time” things is your strong statement about corruption in the Armed Forces and the Defense sector, “twice as bad a calamity” as anywhere else in the state. Corruption was always a case for a lot of rumoring and imagining, but in recent months the levels of corruption in Armenian public institutions have become more concrete with striking anti-corruption operations. What can be done on that issue?
DT: Reducing corruption in the Armed Forces and Defense is highly difficult. One shall bear in mind that inadequate salaries –and by that I mean inadequate to sustain a normal family living- are corruption risk factor number 1 in this sector as in the rest of public institutions. This year, the government decided not to raise salaries, the logic being to first accelerate economic growth, and raise salaries afterwards accordingly. So salaries in our institution have remained the same too. In order to reduce corruption, I am favoring soft transformations, through processes and internal checks, rather than brutal changes. I believe that we can do better with what we have. For example, by reorganizing internally, by reducing some personnel in order to gain productivity, avoid duplication and repetition of functions in some jobs, we can find room to somewhat increase salaries. It is not an easy task. As of today I am targeting an annual maximum salary increase of 10%, in the current economic conditions.
Corruption risk number 2 is being under-resourced. In Armenia we have a total population of barely 3 million keeping a nearly 45 000 strong defense and armed forces sector with a budget of 633 million dollars this year; and that is a high year (note of the editor). This share of about 4.5% of our GDP is money that does not go in Education, Culture, or Social welfare. It is a very heavy load for our society and still it is far from enough. So even with the optimization of the use of resources, it can never be enough to counterbalance the scarcity of resources.

TP: What are the main categories of defense spending this year?

DT: Personnel, equipment and combat procurement. We expect to receive a credit from Russia in order to buy new armaments. Among our goals is air-superiority. We are therefore replacing part of our old fleet with new Russian-made ones, through procurement and credit.  

NATO countries with comparable defense budgets have more or less 6000 military personnel, so 7-8 times less than us. At the other end of the spectrum, NATO countries with about twice the number of personnel rely on defense expenditures 36 times higher than what we have. And still, we are doing our job, we are ensuring the security of the state and the borders every single day.

TP: Was the past year, with the Velvet revolution, more or less difficult in that regard?

DT: No year is easy but everything is manageable. As Defense Minister, I am operating in an environment of external threats to our country on its borders; and I am dealing with questions of life and death every day. My overarching responsibility is to ensure permanent security and stability of this country in a difficult environment. Even at times of domestic political developments, such as our country experienced this year, we never loosened our vigilance on the borders and the frontline. That is the result of keeping the army strictly within the limits of its mission and impermeable to politics.

TP: One can see that the Azerbaijani military has been operating on the frontline positions of Nakhichevan in the last six months and is trying to gain better positions there. Should we be more on the offensive?

DT: Being more offensive is first of all a matter of education and training. Our army was built on defensive posture. Now we are introducing a turn on deterrence strategy but that is an everyday exercise, not a brutal twist. Part of it also relies on equipment, so our units can become more mobile and flexible. On Nakhichevan, we are neutralizing any movement: it means that to any action Azerbaijani troops take, we give the appropriate response so as to counteract the effects of their activities. This is preferable to war so far, but war is always a possibility.

TP: Can local industry feed the Armed Forces’ need for equipment?

DT: Yes. Local production is rather small but increasing. Our strengths are technological solutions, optics, IT solutions, modeling, monitoring devices. In order to grow this industry should be subsidized or receive investments from foreign companies. Next month, a selection of 30 of our best products will be presented at the IDEX (International Defense Exhibition and Conference) in Abu Dhabi.

TP: If things work well, an army can become a recruiter and a pool for talent, particularly in the Tech sector. What is being done in order to attract part of the young elite to the defense sector and to the army?  

DT: For some specialties, we have a selection process before conscription starts, during which we sort out the best recruits for their technological knowledge, in air defense, radio electronic warfare, communication, for engineering and cyber-defense units. Unfortunately, the salaries we can offer after service do not make us competitive with the private sector and so we are often not in a capacity to retain the best. Nevertheless, there are certain material advantages to working in the Armed Forces, such as housing opportunities and medical care for the employee and his/her family. On these aspects, we have room for improvement and we are working on it. For example, I am aiming at having 9000 families included in an enlarged housing program. I think we can manage to provide housing for 500 officers every year. We are favoring construction outside the capital city, with only 35% of the new housing in Yerevan.

TP: In the last fifteen years, Armenia has participated in a number of international peace-support, security and stability missions, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan, the last being UNIFIL in Lebanon. This year however you are launching a different kind of operation, this time in Syria, with particular resonances for the Armenians. Can you tell us about it?

DT: Humanitarian Mission “Near East Relief” Back is indeed starting on February 8. We are sending a 100 strong personnel for humanitarian purposes in Syria, essentially around Aleppo. They will consist of sappers specializing in demining and doctors. The request has been officially made by Syria. Our foreign partners understand that the Armenian state cannot remain indifferent to the situation of an Armenian community abroad. It is a matter of national interest. We will coordinate on the ground with Russian forces for some logistical aspects, like transportation, but this is our own mission. After World War I, the US extended a very generous hand to the Armenian survivors of the genocide and launched the Near East Relief committee. In 2018, a century later, the Armenian state is in a capacity to do its share to alleviate the fate of compatriots living in Syria, and the Syrian population more largely. That is the sense of “Near East Relief” Back.