FACTBOX: Balkan candidates offer NATO leaner military muscle

(Reuters) - NATO membership candidates Croatia, Macedonia and Albania have trimmed down and tightened up the armed forces they inherited from the communist period to offer the Western allies leaner and more usable military muscle.

Here are some key facts about the forces NATO will add if it admits one or all of the three hopefuls at its summit in Bucharest next week.

* Croatia and Macedonia are former republics of the now defunct Yugoslav federation, which steered a non-aligned course between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, flirting with NATO at times but stocking mainly Soviet-made or designed weapons for one of the largest land forces of its time in the post-World War Two period. Albania was ruled for four decades by the Stalinist and increasingly paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, who fell out with Moscow and then fell out with Beijing but amassed a huge arsenal of arms from both.

* Croatia abolished compulsory service from January 1 and plans to downsize the army to around 16,000 professional soldiers. It purchased Patria armored vehicles from Finland last year and plans to buy a dozen fighter planes this year. The choice is between Sweden’s Gripen, the Eurofighter, the U.S. F-16 and the Russian MiG 29. Modern navy ships will also have to be purchased. Overall, Croatia tentatively plans to invest around 2 billion euros in modernizing its armed forces by 2015.

* Albania’s conscription will end completely at the beginning of January 2010 and the forces will become all-professional. The armed forces number 14,500. Their old Soviet MiG fighters and obsolete tanks are being sold for scrap. Albania plans to buy armored vehicles, not tanks, and helicopters, not fighter aircraft. Its four rusting Odessa Class submarines will be replaced by three fast patrol boats. The Kalashnikov assault rifle remains the weapon of choice. Albania had so many it donated some to Iraq.

* Macedonia abolished compulsory service in 2006, and has downsized its army to a present 7,800 professional soldiers. The weapon of choice for a Macedonian soldier is the Kalashnikov assault rifle, while the special forces use Western made automatic and sniper rifles. The army plans to withdraw the Kalashnikov, but has not decided what to buy. Most of the old Russian tanks have been melted down for scrap, while there is still a tank battalion with 32 Russian T-72s. The army has 14 helicopters, 10 are the MI-24 Russian helicopter gunship.

* Croatia’s army is the most experienced in modern warfare, having fought for independence from 1991 to 1995 against far more heavily armed Serbs using the arsenal of the Yugoslav army. U.S. advisers were brought in secretly in the middle of the war and modern weapons funneled to Croatia which scored a stunning victory over rebel Serbs in two lighting offensives in 1995.

* Macedonia’s army fought an Albanian guerrilla insurgency for 6 months in 2001 and was hard pressed to keep the fighting under control. It turned to using tanks against the more lightly armed insurgents and brought in Soviet-made Hind helicopter gunships flown by Ukrainian crews before NATO and the European Union intervened diplomatically to stop the drift to all-out war.

* Albania’s ramshackle post-Communist army was actually disbanded in 1997 follow the national debacle when rioters infuriated by the collapse of a pyramid scheme ransacked poorly guarded arsenals and stole 1 million Kalashnikovs and other weapons, triggering days of total chaos which required the intervention of a European paramilitary force. The reconstituted force is now among contributors to Western-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

* All three have troops in missions abroad. Albania has a total of 280 troops serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Georgia. Macedonia has 237 soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia. Croatia has 45 officers in 12 U.N.-led missions abroad, while 200 troops are stationed in NATO-led ISAF in Afghanistan. Other locations are Eritrea/Ethiopia, India/Pakistani border, Western Sahara, Liberia, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Cyprus, Georgia, Sudan, Lebanon and Sierra Leone.

Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic, Igor Ilic, Kole Casule, Benet Koleka; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alison Williams