On Sunday (December 1- Romania’s National Day) I had a chance to do something I’ve never done before, which was to see the big “parade” here in town. I say “parade” with quote marks because it is nothing like any parade I’m used to back in America (or in other countries such as Spain and Italy’s Easter processions).
Just like the bigger version in Bucharest, the “parade” is really just a show of strength of government vehicles, police officers, firefighters and soldiers. There are no regular people participating. With hundreds of vehicles lined up on Bulevardul Eroilor (a main street here in Cluj) before the parade commenced, it looked as though a car dealer was having some kind of sale. With all the flags flying and people walking up and taking pictures and kicking the tires, it really did look like a blowout sale.
Over the years an incalculable number of people have joked or hinted at me being a “CIA spy”, which of course I’m not, but my invariable response is always, “What exactly is there to spy on here?” Truly I cannot imagine anything secret going on here that’s worth one’s life to discover. Nonetheless, for any paranoid people reading this, please understand that everything occurred right out in public on a downtown street as part of the December 1 National Day “parade”.
The police (and gendarmes) and firefighting vehicles were interesting to look at but what caught my eye was the military vehicles, all of them painted a uniquely dark and ominous shade of green, far darker than the color the American army uses. Most of the vehicles were nothing special, a lot of Jeeps and trucks, a few howitzers and AA (anti-aircraft) guns. But there in the middle of the line were three vehicles that had once been state-of-the-art technology in the bad days of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the “west”.
Specifically I am talking about an SA-8 Gecko (the NATO name) or 9K33 Osa, the name meaning “wasp” in Russian. They look like a long, ugly car with a bank of missiles rising up from the rear (the antennas were folded up for the parade) and when they were invented they were the first “all in one” vehicle that had its own radar and missiles to shoot down airplanes (SAM = Surface-to-Air Missile). The South African military captured a 9k33 Osa in 1982 (from Cuban forces in Africa) and it was quite a coup at the time because it was such an advanced piece of military hardware.
Since these three monstrous vehicles were parked in broad daylight on B-dul Eroilor I went in for a closer look and saw to my (only somewhat) surprise that they still had all of their original Cyrillic instructions and indicators still written on them. I guess it’s no big deal that “Mircea Geoana for President” posters are still hanging around for five years and that the public buses (acquired from Paris) in Cluj are still plastered with their French interior instructions but really, who in the Romanian military can understand Cyrillic instructions? Aren’t these active-duty weapons? Shouldn’t someone have stenciled the signs in Romanian on these vehicles?
My Russian-language skills are pretty rusty but I wrote down a few of the words on the side of the 9k33 Osa vehicles out of curiosity. I was quite surprised to learn (once I got home) that the stencils were actually in Belarussian, not Russian. While those two languages are similar, they aren’t identical and I later asked a native Russian speaker if they could understand the Belarussian words and they couldn’t. So not even a Russian-speaking soldier in Romania can understand what’s written on the side of their own vehicle.
I then spent about three hours chasing down information on these vehicles, which was largely a waste of time because this blog isn’t (and never will be) about military hardware. I just couldn’t help but wondering why in the world Romania owns at least three of these things (other sources say they may own 12-36), why they’re buying them from Belarus and what “good” owning ancient pieces of Soviet military hardware is doing anyone in Romania.
Although the soldiers were letting children climb on these vehicles, no one got to go inside. Nonetheless above is a picture of what the interior looks like, an image I obtained from the manufacturer’s website. That link goes to their “improved” version, called 1T, while Romania’s military is still using the older, original version although from everything I’ve read, the original missiles for the vehicle are no longer made (and are too old to be reliable) so Romania is probably using the new Belarussian-made “Stiletto” missiles.
There is absolutely no question this is old technology as my phone has more modern controls than does this SAM launcher. As I wrote about before, Romania’s military has a LOT of old equipment and just about none of it is capable of dealing with any conceivable threat. Again, Romania’s neighbors are Bulgaria and Hungary (both NATO members and allies), the Republic of Moldova (not only desperately poor and ill-equipped but also a cultural and historical ally), Serbia (still broken from the 1999 war and on very good terms with Romania) and then Ukraine (which has enormous internal difficulties and in no position to be attacking anyone). The only conceivable possible threat to Romanian territorial integrity under any possible circumstances would be the one coming from Ukraine (with or without Russian support).
Would these 9k33 Osa vehicles stop an attack from Ukrainian (and/or Russian) fighter jets? The simple answer is no. The last time a 9K33 Osa did any damage to a modern fighter jet was in 2008 when (the Republic of) Georgian forces managed to shoot down 6-7 (reports vary) Russian planes. Now all that sounds good until you realize that 1) the Russians learned a lot from that war, a conflict that lasted a grand total of 5 days and resulted in an overwhelming Russian victory, 2) Russian infantry troops took out Georgia’s 9k33 Osa vehicles and 3) both Russia and Ukraine now have next-generation fighters such as the Sukhoi-27, which weren’t deployed in 1998.
Neither the F-16’s that Romania just bought nor these ancient 9K33 Osa vehicles are equipped to handle a Sukhoi-27, which flies so fast that the 9k33 cannot even engage it (the maximum speed of a plane that the manufacturer of the upgraded Osa T1s can handle is 700 m/s while the Sukhoi-27’s published top speed is closer to 750 m/s). Again, I’m no military expert but I just can’t see these antiquated missile systems being able to fend off some kind of future Ukrainian and/or Russian attack.
Furthermore, Romania hasn’t been in a territorial conflict for 70 years and I just really can’t see a new one breaking out any time soon. I realize that certain “boys” like to have shiny vehicles to drive around and missiles to fire off but considering the poverty and difficulty that many hundreds of thousands of Romanians are undergoing, parading around all of this military hardware seems deliberately insulting. I don’t know what it costs to buy, maintain, refurbish and equip a 9k33 Osa but I can easily imagine that selling it off to some other country would pay for a hell of a lot of medicine, food and other urgently needed things here at home.
I’ll say it even more simply: the military in Romania is 100% useless. There is no need for it whatsoever. Aside from some coastal patrolling, there is no need for a military whatsoever. There isn’t going to be a war, or a battle, with any nation any time soon so even if Romania’s military had top of the line equipment (which it definitely doesn’t), all of it would be degeaba, hundreds and hundreds of millions of euros wasted when hospitals are disaster zones and the economy is a wreck.
Despite paranoid ramblings from the Defense Minister this summer that Romanian airspace is being “infringed daily” by foreign military aircraft, the truth is that the only place the Romanian army is doing anything whatsoever is in Afghanistan. Romania is in a unique position of having only peaceful and non-threatening neighbors and should really take advantage of that by reducing their military to a few naval vessels and selling off not only the thousands of antiquated missile batteries, shitty tanks and antique fighter planes it owns but also liquidate the enormous properties that the military still owns, including not just bases and firing ranges but also (financial) black holes such as hotels and resorts.
On Sunday after the parade began, an extremely loud and menacing looking Mi-8 helicopter flew over the city. While very impressive to an unarmed civilian on the ground, this helicopter too is another piece of antiquated Soviet hardware. I noted, with some irony, that in 2008 the Georgian forces using their Osa 9k33’s scored their last hit by shooting down a Mi-8 before the Russian army completely crushed the opposition. The most iconic image of that war was the formerly cocky American-allied president eating his own tie in fear as Russian jets overflew his capital unmolested. Somehow I imagine something quite similar would happen in any hypothetical distant future if the Romanian military was foolish enough to provoke a shooting war with Russia.
Needless to say, I was the only person on December 1 who was having these thoughts. The rest of the people out there were all seemingly delighted to see their government waste money on Soviet-era military hardware instead of paying teachers and doctors a living wage. Oh well, so it goes!