Defence has always been something of sacred cow. Everyone has the patriotic duty to support our military and applaud government expenditure on defence equipment, whatever it is and regardless of the cost. In fairness most people not only give their wholehearted approval to defence spending but many of them also turn up at the annual military parade, or watch it live on television, to admire the country’s military hardware.
Glafcos Clerides secured his re-election in 1998 thanks to the purchase of S-300 ballistic missiles from Russia, which in the end never arrived in Cyprus, because Turkey threatened to take them out. The missiles ended up in Crete, where they have stayed since, while the Cypriot taxpayer had spent some 200 million Cyprus pounds, an obscene amount of money, for nothing apart from the feelgood factor the news of the purchase created among the population. Even after this fiasco, Clerides maintained his popularity.
In short, a government that buys military equipment wins over the public, regardless of whether it pays excessive amounts of money or whether it fails to enhance defensive capability. We are generally too eager to believe what a government says about its defence decisions, which nobody dares question for fear of being accused of being patriotically deficient.
This is why nobody said anything after a report that the government was in the market looking to buy six assault helicopters at a total cost of about €150 million over the next five years with an option to buy another six subsequently. Perhaps this was because at the same time it was announced the 11 obsolete, Russian-made, Mi-35P assault helicopters, bought during the Clerides presidency 20 years ago, would be sold to Serbia, as the maintenance cost would be prohibitively high.
What use did Cyprus get out of these helicopters? There were originally 12, but one crashed killing the two people on board, while a few years ago the government was obliged to have them maintained in Russia at a cost of some €30 million. Had we used them to stop the Turkish drillship and exploratory boats violating our EEZ? They certainly did not act as a deterrent to Turkey’s violations, nor did they stop Turkey opening the fenced-off area of Varosha.
The politicians would argue that all military equipment is for defensive purposes (but not for defending our EEZ) and could also say that many countries buy arms that they will never use, just in case they are needed. This is why we have a national guard and employ some 1,000 full-time privates to supplement the conscripts. The most compelling argument is that we cannot scrap our defence when a third of our territory is under occupation and there are 20 to 30 thousand Turkish soldiers stationed there.
What we do not realise is that our security has much more to do with the fact that the Cyprus Republic is EU territory, than with the few assault helicopters and missiles we have. By all means have an army to guard the ceasefire line, but we should not be wasting huge amounts of money on military hardware, in the belief that it enhances our defence capability. Turkey has the second biggest army in Nato, after the US.
The government needs to get its priorities right. In the last five years we have to had to deal with several catastrophic forest fires and zero Turkish military attacks, yet the fire service and the forestry department are permanently understaffed (a letter was sent to the president a year ago warning him about staff shortages that undermined the effectiveness of the forestry department). And every time there is a big fire we have to rely on neighbouring countries or the British bases providing additional firefighting aircraft to put it out.
A government that was in touch with what is happening would have prioritised investing in additional firefighting aircraft and vehicles as well as human resources, given that wildfires have become a frequent phenomenon all over the planet that is unlikely to end any time soon. Has anyone noticed that Mediterranean countries are still struggling to control wildfires that have been raging for more than a week? Is there anyone in the government that could rationally argue that the country has a greater need for assault helicopters than firefighting aircraft? Why was the fire service borrowing drones from other services and had to rely on donations from private companies?
Many services have been deprived of resources that would upgrade them and better serve people because state funds are diverted to defence, spent on military equipment that we have no real need for other than to show them off at the military parade. We could have had better equipped state hospitals, efficient public transport, we could have upped power production from renewable energy sources, instead of paying fines for high carbon emissions every year. The list is endless.
It all comes down to setting the right priorities and for as long as defence spending remains a top government priority, sucking state resources, important sectors will remain under-funded and under-resourced, with significant risks for the country.