Army on the Cheap


I hope the Belgian Army is not representative of the majority of armies, because apart from the paratroopers, it does not give the impression of an effective fighting force. The main reason for this was that at least for us “miliciens” precious little money was being spent, and it looked like the equipment we used had been inherited from a previous generation.

For starters we were being paid 70 Belgian Francs per week, which even at the prices in the bar amounted to one 25cl glass of beer a day. Obviously our expenses far exceeded our income, and as a result I had to live of my savings from my time as a researcher at university. Not sure how much the professional arm of the army was paid, but given their lack of enthusiasm for the job I can’t imagine it can have been that much.

As for expenditure on equipment, I had the opportunity to use a FAL and a Vigneron for shooting practice – five bullets each. Doesn’t really make you very confident in your capabilities with a gun. As for the larger guns, I’ve already said that their reach was far inferior to what we could expect form a well equiped army, but at least we still went on manoeuvres twice, once in the Ardennes and another time on the Lüneburger Heide, and we did shoot with real ammunition. Shortly after I left the army I heard that on subsequent exercises the guns were left in the shed, and somehow you were supposed to practice without actually shooting a shot in anger ?

As for equipment, I already indicated that our methods for calculating the direction to aim the guns was paper-based (aided by our personal calculators), and other equipment was equally ancient, from the gas mask to the shaving brush and soap we were handed when we arrived in Soest. The story made the rounds that one of the Belgian Army jeeps had broken down, and some American soldiers went to see if they could help. When one American soldier saw the radio in the jeep, he called his mate with the words “Come have a look! A radio with vacuum tubes!”. Even in the early 80s vacuum tubes had been out of use for more than a decade in radios and television, but obviously the Belgian army lagged somewhat behind the times.

Obviously I can’t speak for all of the Belgian army, but if my experience is anything to go by, I sometimes wonder how Belgium can fulfill its NATO duties. Maybe the end of the cold war dividend helped (at least the current generation doesn’t have military service anymore), but I sometimes wonder how professional the current version of the Belgian army really is.

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