June 17, 1997

With a click and a drag on a computer screen, a military map maker moves Poland an inch closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Street by street, city by city, every bump, bend and building of this East European country is being numbered and marked as a Western military coordinate. The quiet metamorphosis, by soldiers transferring data from old paper maps to modern computer screens in downtown Warsaw, puts Poland and its former Communist neighbors squarely on NATO's horizon.

As the countries vie for membership in the world's most sophisticated military alliance, their fighter pilots, tank commanders, paratroopers -- even map makers -- are working to overcome tremendous logistical and technological obstacles.

"I remember when I drew maps, I had to go to the site and measure the ground," said Col. Eugeniusz Sobczynski, deputy chief of the army's topographic unit. Grinning, he slipped on a pair of 3-D goggles to watch his homeland's transformation. "I used a pencil."

Eight years after the fall of communist rule in the region, three members of the former Soviet Bloc are on the edge of a new era. NATO, conceived five decades ago as a common Western bulwark against the Soviet Union and its satellites, will expand into Eastern Europe. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the region's strongest democracies, have emerged as the top candidates for admission.

This series of articles will examine those three likely new Western allies and the massive practical and strategic adjustments they face to become full NATO members -- trying, in the midst of a decade of wondrous change, to leap past decades of economic and political decay.

For every dust-free military computer lab in Poland, there are dozens of empty, unneeded barracks. For every soldier in the country's force of nearly a quarter-million who has mastered English in the past couple of years, there are thousands who have no time or money to learn it.

Invitations to join the alliance, expected to be issued at a NATO summit conference in July in Madrid, are seen as a first step toward a historic expansion that, in time, could stretch from Estonia to Romania. A majority of NATO nations favor the entry of two additional countries -- Slovenia and Romania, but President Clinton made clear last week that the United States wants to begin with just three.

This spring, Czech President Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who became his country's first post-Communist leader, spoke for all the hopefuls when he said that no one in NATO should doubt its obligation to move east.

"It's not a matter of the United States being called up to defend a small country" in Eastern Europe, Havel said in an interview. "We should regard the European continent as one political entity . . . and we should ensure that no more world wars are exported from Europe to the rest of the world."

Poland, the largest and most eager aspirant, represents the seminal argument for NATO expansion. Its history, scorched by periodic invasions by neighboring Germany and Russia, spells out its security fears. Its determination, evinced by millions of Poles who mocked communism for decades and then gritted their teeth through market reforms, adds moral luster.

But even Poland comes to the Madrid summit this summer with a mixed portfolio. Here is a contender adept at political maneuvering and the art of persuasion. Here is a country with a proud military heritage that, even with some diligent training and reform, offers few military assets to the alliance.

"We don't have any easy periods in this country," said Gen. Henryk Szumski, chief of the Polish armed forces general staff. "We've done a lot to prepare, but we are completely aware that all the burdens will be heavier after July."

NATO's criteria for admission of new nations are largely political. Candidates must foster a stable democracy, adhere to market reforms, create military commands that fall under civilian control and respect their neighbors and minorities at home.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were resolute in living up to those demands during the stormy years after the fall of their Communist governments.

Lobbying the U.S.

Poland, a country of 38 million people, went further last winter. It began taking its case to Washington and other capitals across Europe. Its lobbyists, seeding goodwill and playing to the millions of Americans with Polish roots, persuaded a dozen state legislatures to back Poland's entry.

In Washington, no senator crucial to clinching U.S. approval of NATO expansion went unnoticed. The Polish Embassy and Foreign Ministry created weekly computerized files on each, tracking their every statement regarding NATO. Even Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland this month was given a NATO twist; the Foreign Ministry passed out pamphlets promoting Poland's case for entry to reporters covering the papal visit.

But after the Madrid summit, rhetoric will take a back seat to military reality. The prospective new members will begin to find out how far they fall below Western standards of military capability and preparedness.

According to preliminary Western studies, including one by the Rand Corp. and the German research firm IABG, the gap is wide. Poland, with the biggest army in Eastern Europe, offers a "large force of low quality, in both readiness and modernness," one analyst said.

Top officers in all three countries are loath to discuss what hardware or readiness they bring to NATO. In some cases, their closemouthed demeanor is based on a lack of systematic data or even on disinformation lingering from the Soviet era that is still being sorted out.

"Bases? I can't tell you how many bases we have," said a colonel in Poland's Defense Ministry. "Nobody knows. Poland was the logistical base for Soviet forces. We have barracks everywhere."

Maps were another riddle. Western analysts found that during the Cold War some Eastern Bloc countries had two maps for the same territory. One, for high-level officers, was accurate. The other, given to soldiers, was deliberately wrong in case any were captured by an enemy.

Today, in a nod toward NATO compatibility, all the militaries are redrawing their maps under a U.S. initiative. All will tell soldiers, in at least two NATO languages, what is on the ground.

Other gaps are more costly to remedy. More than half of Poland's 1,700 tanks are Soviet T-55 designs from 1955 and are unusable. About one-third of its 300 to 350 fighter jets are deemed old enough to retire or cannot be flown because of lack of spare parts. At least six in the past year -- including one last week -- should not have tried. They crashed.

Minesweepers, starved for upkeep, now cover only one-third of the Polish coast. About half the country's naval vessels need to be overhauled. Artillery is deemed to be largely in good shape.

The shortcomings take their toll on morale. In January, warrant officers from the 17th Mechanized Brigade in southern Poland complained in a letter published in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza: "We've reached the bottom. Twenty-year-old tanks and even older reconnaissance vehicles are the norm. Radio communication practically doesn't exist. . . . Basic training consists not of learning to shoot but of reading the instructions on how to shoot."

The same newspaper reported this month that soldiers in one training unit north of Warsaw were heaving rocks and cans in lieu of practice grenades. Their commander, frustrated but buoyed by the hard work of his men, bought some grenades with his own money. The commander's wife also pitched in, sewing uniforms out of old parachutes.

The Czech Republic and Hungary fare no better. Hungary's fighter-jet fleet is down to 50 Soviet-made MiGs. The Czech air force lacks spare parts and lost a handful of jets to crashes last year. This spring, its planes were grounded when microbes infested the gas tanks and ruined the fuel.

Fighter pilots from all three countries average between 40 and 60 hours of flight time a year. That compares with a standard of 180 hours for NATO pilots. U.S. pilots clock as many as 220 hours in the air yearly.

Even Hungary's top ground unit, a showcase rapid-reaction battalion of 600 soldiers who demonstrate the best in Western-style training, feels the pinch. Its commander drives around in a rattly, 26-year-old jeep. Its warriors pound the earth with 30-year-old grenade launchers. Everything is Soviet-made. "This is what we have, and this is what we have to know how to use," said Hungarian Lt. Col. Laszlo Keresztury this spring during an ear-splitting equipment demonstration in Csorna Puszta. "We think we're probably okay for NATO."

Cost of Membership

Such deficiencies in training and equipment are glossed over by military and political establishments here that say the benefits of joining such an elite Western institution as NATO far outweigh the costs.

The latest State Department estimate is that adding new members will cost, overall, between $27 billion and $35 billion. Other studies suggest that two to three times as much could be spent.

In the State Department estimate, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will have to come up with at least $10 billion to $13 billion over the next 12 years to finance their NATO membership. Poland, where an independent research center has produced its own analysis, considers that a bargain.

"Contributing to NATO is cheaper than if Poland were to bear the cost to modernize on its own," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a former defense minister who headed the survey.

But betting on vague cost formulas and assuming the fragile new free-market economies can count on a decade of prosperity is risky. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, speaking to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, said recently that force reductions "should produce some savings" for the aspirants.

In fact, slashing the number of troops under arms has not produced the savings anticipated. In Poland, where troop strength has fallen by 270,000, reductions cut both ways. Some money was saved, but other spending soared.

Forced retirements triggered an increase in pension payments, a hardship for a country in which pensions are the biggest economic drain and a large part of the military budget. Poland plans even further reductions of its forces, down to 180,000.

Today, even as it enjoys slightly more than 6 percent annual economic growth, Poland fights to maintain current levels of military readiness. This spring, the Defense Ministry reportedly had to cut equipment purchases in half because of price increases. The cost of manufacturing tanks and helicopters at state-run plants had more than doubled since December. State workers threatened to demonstrate for more money, and Defense Ministry officials decided to pay the price to avoid unrest.

"There is no expectation that tomorrow we will have new equipment, new planes, new radar," a senior officer said. "It's not important now to have tanks. It's the mentality that counts."

In a certain sense, money worries disciplined the countries' ambitions. Through NATO-related training exercises and seminars, military leaders came to value troop preparedness over new equipment. Under the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact alliance, officers counted their strength by how many men could be sacrificed in battle. With an eye toward NATO, they refocused on creating smaller, more efficient units.

Some shifts were dictated by common sense, such as moving radar points from west to east and buying modern radios. Other changes evolved more subtly. NATO's mantra for preparedness in Eastern Europe -- "interoperability," or compatibility of forces -- became a national and personal challenge.

Learning the Language

In Lodz, Poland, at a refurbished military medical academy, about 140 men were doing their part last month by learning what leaders call "the language of military conflict." English -- accented, sometimes awkward, but perfectly understandable -- rang out from a long row of classrooms.

"It's the call of new times," said Capt. Marek Smagala, 32, a logistics officer from Szczecin, in northwest Poland, using his tentative English. "Before, Western languages weren't useful for us. Now, for me, it is practical."

Smagala and classmates studied six hours a day in hopes of passing fluency tests. Some sat for hours listening to tapes in one of three language labs paid for by the U.S. government. Others spoke in conversation classes run by the British government.

The first hello was not hard at all, they said. The devil lurked in military jargon and NATO acronyms. "Do you know what a FEBA is?" Smagala asked. He winked at the silence. "It's `Forward Edge of Battle Area.' "

But is that a front line?

He paused. "Well, that is actually an old term. Now there's a new one, and I can't remember what it is."

So far, among the 230,000 soldiers in Poland's army, up to 1,500 are deemed fluent in English. The Czech Republic's army counts about 100 English speakers, plus hundreds of German speakers, in its ranks. Hungary's has about 1,200 English speakers, analysts said.

Yet even here, progress can be a liability. Officers adept in English can easily find careers elsewhere. In recent years, the armed forces in all three countries have lost men they were trying to keep.

A significant number of military men under the age of 40 -- up to 20 percent by some defense analysts' estimate -- left for better jobs.

"We are all in transition," said Polish general staff chief Szumski. "I want to stay a realist. Our Polish army is based on this country, in this situation. We need time . . . but we are aware of our potential."