Bordered to the north, east and south by Ukraine and to the east by Romania, Moldova is “Europe’s poorest country” with a population of just four million and an army of some 6,500 personnel (plus 2,000 civilian staff members), most of its equipment dates to the Soviet era, with some equipment 50 or 60 years old.
The Moldovan Ground Forces, known officially as Land Forces Command is the land armed-forces branch of the National Army of the Moldovan Armed Forces. The Moldovan Ground Forces date back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union between 1991 and 1992.
Military and security forces
National Army: Land Forces (Fortele Terestre ale Republicii Moldova, FTRM); Air Forces (Forţele Aeriene ale Republicii Moldova, FARM); Ministry of Internal Affairs: Carabinieri Troops (transferred in 2022)
At the beginning of 1994, the Moldovan army (under the Ministry of Defence) consisted of 9,800 men organized into three motorized infantry brigades, one artillery brigade, and one reconnaissance/assault battalion. Its equipment consisted of f56 ballistic missile defences; 77 armoured personnel carriers and 67 “look-alikes (Romanian vehicles based on Soviet BTR-60);” 18 122 mm and 53 152 mm towed artillery units; 9 120 mm combined guns/mortars; 116 anti-tank guided weapons (ATGM); 138 73 mm SPG-9 recoilless guns, 45 MT-12 100 mm anti-tank guns; and 30 ZU-23 23 mm and 12 S-60 57 mm air defence guns.
By 2006–2007, the Army had been reduced to a strength of 5,710, including three motor rifle brigades, one artillery brigade, and independent SF and engineer battalions, plus an independent guard unit. Equipment included 44 BMD-1 Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles (AIFV), and 266 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC), including 91 TAB-71s, as well as 227 artillery pieces. The modern Land Forces Command was established in 2008. In 2010, the Army had been further reduced to 5,148 (3,176 professional soldiers and 1,981 conscripts) plus 2,379 paramilitary forces. The reserve force consists of 66,000 troops. Equipment included 44 AIFV, 164 APCs, 148 artillery pieces, 117 ATGMs, 138 recoilless guns, 36 towed anti-tank guns and 37 towed anti-aircraft guns.
Current military strength is estimated at 6,500 personnel (including 2,000 civilians), reserve 12,000. Equipment is estimated as 381 armoured vehicles (all types), 145 pieces of artillery, 120 ATGM, 16 surface to air missiles, 37 anti-aircraft guns and 36 anti-tank guns. The vast majority of the equipment is of Soviet or Romanian origin and is badly out of date, there are some 80 US Humvees (provided by the North Carolina National Guard) but these are not the most modern.
The Moldovan Air Force (Forțele Aeriene ale Republicii Moldova) was formed following Moldova’s independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991 and is part of the National Army of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Moldova. The Air Force currently consists of around 21 aircraft in total (1 Transport aircraft, 4 trainers, 4 attack helicopters and 16 utility/transport helicopters). The fighter aircraft that Moldova “inherited” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union were too expensive to maintain and were eventually sold off and other transport aircraft were placed in storage.
National Army Overseas
As part of the NATO Partnership for Peace programme Moldovan soldiers have been, since March 2014, part of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, they have supported the international coalition in Iraq and elements are due to deploy to Lebanon next year.
In terms of international collaboration, Moldovan troops have been training with Western states (mainly NATO member Romania) with the aim of increasing “interoperability.” There are also ongoing military relationships with other Western countries including the US (Defence Colleges and the North Carolina National Guard), the UK (Defence Colleges and Capacity Building Initiative) and Poland (Capacity building).
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought into sharp focus the military situation in Moldova. The country’s pro-European President, Maia Sandu, has promised the “modernisation and continuous transformation” of the army. The army must be capable of effectively retaliating against a potential attack from hostile forces. Moldova’s government says it plans to phase out Soviet-era military hardware and create a fast, flexible fighting force.
According to the Secretary of State for Defence the plan is to replace heavy, outdated military equipment with lighter, more mobile alternatives without losing firepower. “Moldova does not plan to increase the size of the army, he said, but soldiers should be professional, not conscripts. We are not considering the possibility of extending the personnel of the National Army. The personnel remain at 6,500 units plus 2,000 civilian staff members. But the Soviet-type equipment we inherited needs to be replaced.”
In 2020, the Military Capabilities Plan of the Moldovan National Army set down the steps Moldova would take over the following decade to modernise its defence capabilities, transitioning from Soviet-style combat systems to Western systems. According to the government, the army should be able to defend the state, help in civil emergencies and participate in international peacekeeping missions.
Moldova currently spends about 0.4% of its annual GDP, or just over 40 million euros, on defence, a tiny sum compared to its regional peers and like states (Ukraine – 4.13% (2020), Estonia – 2.57%, Latvia – 2.38%, Lithuania – 2.33%, Georgia – 2.17%). The bulk of the money goes to salary payments and ongoing military activities.
European Peace Facility (EPF)
EPF has pledged €40 million for the benefit of the Armed Forces of Moldova and this is intended to strengthen the capacities of the Moldovan Armed Forces’ logistics, mobility, command and control, cyber-defence, unmanned aerial reconnaissance and tactical communications units by providing relevant non-lethal equipment, supplies and services, including equipment-related training.
This assistance complements the €7 million assistance measure adopted in December 2021 which strengthens the capacities of the Military Medical Service and the Engineering Battalion of the Armed Forces.
Future security and the debate?
As Russia ignores all the international law provisions, Moldova’s neutrality becomes dangerous for the whole region. The concept of permanent neutrality had content before February 24, 2022 but acquired another interpretation after the Russian military aggression. Irrespective of who respects the neutrality status of Moldova it is fair to note that in the context of the war in Ukraine, this status does not offer the security wanted in Chisinau. There is much debate in Moldova about how best to strengthen its defence and not all of it sounds the same. One thing is clear and that is that Moldova’s neutrality in the context of the security crisis in the region is an element of vulnerability. The neutrality of the Republic of Moldova is not sufficient to ensure security.
The modernisation of the National Army is an imperative. Moldova’s financial plight will make military reform and increasing defence spending exceedingly difficult. The EPF external funding sounds a lot but is not in real military capability terms. Moldova cannot only rely on external funding to carry out all the required modernisation. Unless there is a real commitment to focus on true defence reform then any defence reform may fall lower down the political agenda.
What should keep the defence reform on the agenda is that it is clear that a more militarily capable Moldova would be a useful partner for Ukraine, and the EU, in the future and it may result in Moldova being invited to participate in more NATO exercises to enhance capacity-building measures.
There are views that the Army should consist of small, mobile units that could fight in different environments that would include firearms for infantry, light artillery and drones. New air defence systems of the kind used in Ukraine would be “the minimum necessary for the national army.”
Also, there is the perspective that increasing logistics, early warning and cyber defence would be the priorities for Moldova as a neutral state. Moldova should also be wary and protected/advised against being persuaded of the logic of demilitarization as a way forward, this cannot work in the current regional context.
Other views include that massive firepower and being aggressive in destroying the enemy at the onset of a war are the only ways to ensure a robust deterrence and raise the probability of successful protection of the territorial integrity and sovereignty.
The discussion goes on…..
What must be done?
What is abundantly clear is that Moldova must strengthen the defensive capacities of the country and to ensure the defence system is appropriate for its needs. This would entail a fundamental revision of funding, a minimum of 2% of GDP (preferably 2.5%) for the next 3-4 years would be needed to even start to bring up the defences to the required level (it is not just equipment but training, etc.). This would need to be maintained for at least 8-10 years to ensure upgrade and continued capability.
Spending such a sum does not mean that the army will be equipped for large-scale offensive operations. It will be equipped for defence, to be more resistant. It is all about the ability to resist, an element of military deterrence for the enemy. Because if the enemy knows that you know have high-performance anti-tank missiles, when it attacks with tanks or with infantry fighting vehicles of lower capability, performance and armour, it knows it will suffer big losses and this is the deterrent factor. Additionally, any defence would include early warning and cyber defence as well as new air defence systems.
The most important problem of the Moldovan army is its effectiveness because it is small in terms of active forces. This can be increased by introducing a budget-based active military solution – reserve and territorial units. Units where the core active military element would be supplemented by trained reserve and territorial personnel in time of war or emergency. This only requires regular periods of training for reserve and territorial personnel to maintain their effectiveness and operational capability but effectively increases the capacity of the defence force.
Equipment – an analysis could be made based on lessons learned in Ukraine and conclusions should be drawn as to the most necessary equipment, including armament that does not involve extremely high operational and maintenance costs. Moldova needs to be equipped with Western military equipment that ensures an appropriate performance and reaction capacity. The early warning and air defence systems should be a priority along with cyber defence. Armoured infantry fighting vehicles have their place for mobility. However, where possible the equipment purchased should be capable of being both a combat platform as well as a troop transporter. The ability of the vehicle to have an anti-aircraft missile or anti-tank system mounted on it is extremely desirable. The vehicle has the armour providing protection to the personnel but would then also have a greater striking power. Of course, the vehicles should be extremely mobile and suited to the terrain (wheeled vehicles move more easily than tracked vehicles over certain terrain). The key is that the National Army becomes mobile, can operate independently, when needed, yet poses enough of a deterrence that any aggressor will think about losses before starting any aggression. In terms of the Air Forces, attack helicopters and utility helicopters are optimal and numbers defined by the support needed by the ground forces. There is no real infrastructure to support fighter/ground attack aircraft (airfields would be targeted before any aggression and render those assets inoperable).
Increased manpower and professionalism – in terms of manpower an increase to 7500 core, professional military personnel with a reserve force 15000 with the potential mobilisation of another potential 70000 should suffice as a deterrent and provide a proper defence capability. It should not be forgotten of the vital role of the non-commissioned officer (NCO) in military success. It is clear how much of a difference a strong NCO corps has made for the Ukrainian Army, and other western military forces, as it demonstrates the value in having professional and quality leaders/decision makers at the lowest levels in their structures. The National Army needs to continue to enhance the role of its NCOs, intelligence and capacity never flow in only one direction.
Alliance – it is considered to be much less costly to form part of an alliance than to ensure national security at one’s own expense. However, in terms of neutrality this is hard to reconcile with the Constitution in terms of an alliance with a non-neutral state. However, cooperation, close cooperation and expansion of participation in international missions (NATO and others), mutually beneficial to all, can help to generate favourable conditions for joint activities leading to interoperability more favourable equipment purchase, upgrade, training, etc.
Ultimately, if the National Army can become a deterrent, have good early warning and defence capability and strong firepower (modern systems) then any aggressor would have to calculate the cost of violating the neutrality of the state before embarking on any military action.