Austria: The referendum on the abolishment of conscription and the present and future situation

2013-05-14 austria
Author: Brigadier General DDr. Harald Poecher Head of Auditing Division B at the Ministry of Defence
Austria: The referendum on the abolishment of conscription and the present and future situation

The ways of recruitment to the military vary notably from country to country. The Austrian Armed Forces dispose of a system based on conscription. On January 20, 2013, Austria held a public opinion poll on the abolishment of conscription. A public opinion poll is nothing else but a consultation of the Austrian citizens. Paragraph 49b on the Austrian constitution reads as follows: “(1) a public opinion poll on a matter of fundamental and overall national importance, which shall be implemented by federal legislation, must take place if members of the National Council present a motion for it or the Federal Government decides to do so after a preliminary debate in the Central Committee.” The result of a public opinion poll is not binding for the government. However, the Austrian government declared that it would respect the outcome of the consultation. The essay discusses the poll in a broader sense and provides some background information about Austrian Security and Defence Policy and the status of the Austrian Armed Forces.


Summary of the cornerstones of Austria’s Defence and Security Policy and its Armed Forces

First of all, it is necessary to list some statistical data about Austria to obtain insight in the position of Austria in Europe and in the world. Austria is a small, central European country, with an area of 83,855 sq km and a population of 8.4 million inhabitants. From statistical figures can be derived that Austria is a rich country; the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in 2012 was 42.500 US$ which stands for rank 13 in the world ranking. And in the world ranking list of the composite statistic for the Human Development Index (HDI), Austria was on rank 14 in 2011.

On 15 May 1955, the State Treaty between Austria and the Allied Powers was signed, re-establishing Austria as a fully independent nation. In October of the same year the last foreign soldiers left the country and on 26 October 1955 the Constitutional Law of Austria’s Neutrality was declared. In 1955 Austria joined the United Nations Organization (UNO) and in 1995 it entered the European Union (EU). Austria hosts UN-Organisations and other international Organizations, such as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

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The State Treaty of 1955 re-established Austria as an independent nation

Credit: Bundeskanzleramt/Wenzel


As a consequence of the historical data given above, Article One of the Federal Constitutional Law on Austria’s permanent neutrality played an important role as a basis of Austria’s Defence and Security policy. It is worth quoting this in order to give the whole picture of the basis for our defence policy. Article One reads as follows:

(1)  For the purpose of the permanent maintenance if its independence from exterior forces and for the inviolability of its territory, Austria declares herewith on its own free will its permanent neutrality. Austria will maintain and defend this neutrality by all means which are at its disposal.

(2)  In order to secure these purposes, in future Austria will neither accede to any military alliances nor permit the establishment of foreign military bases on its territory.


In 1955, the Federal Army of the Second Republic was founded, mainly on the initiative of senior officers. The tasks they had were not easy, as the government had quite different priorities such as the reconstruction of the economy, the infra-structure, and the provision of housing, etc. Therefore, only modest resources were available for defence. But also the psychological barriers were enormous. Reasons given such as “Defence is impossible for such a small state”, “We are neutral - what do we need armed forces for?”, ”Nuclear bombs make conventional defence pointless”, and “In case of emergency, the West/or East will help us” were put forward by many Austrians. Despite such reservations and objections, and the lack of money, remarkable progress in many areas was made during the last decades, based on universal conscription and a 6-month period of basic military service (Grundwehrdienst).


As a consequence of its permanent neutrality, Austria has never joined a military alliance, it did not even join NATO, however, it participates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Austria is also part of the common security and defence policy of EU and also in UN, NATO or EU-lead humanitarian and peace keeping missions, mostly on the Balkans (Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and in the Middle East (Golan Heights). Currently 1.400 soldiers are deployed in such missions abroad. Though Austrian soldiers are not engaged in peace enforcement operations, this figure is reason for pride, because other countries which are comparable in size and population are currently sending smaller contingents to such missions.


In numbers, the standing forces of the Austrian Armed Forces are not very strong (approx. 30,000 professional soldiers and conscripts plus approx. 9,000 civilian employees). In the case of emergency, the standing forces can by complemented by 25,000 militia soldiers. It is important to note that besides the basic military service for conscripts during six months there is also a civil service, which lasts nine months. In 2011, according to the medical examination nearly 40,000 young Austrians were physically and mentally fit for military or civil service. Of this total, more than 13,000 young Austrians decide to opt for civil service. The civil servants (“Zivildiener”) (which is the alternative service for the basic military service)” are employed in more than 1,200 welfare organizations. Statistics made it obvious that the figures for civil service increased quickly within the last decade. Although the civil service takes nine months, it becomes more and more popular. The persons in power of Austrian Armed Forces therefore complain more and more a lack of conscripts as employees to operate armed forces or to man the military battlefield organization. More than a half of the conscripts were used in the system administration as employees to reduce costs.


The main weapon systems are 66 modern battle tanks “Leopard 2”, 114 most modern armoured infantry fighting vehicles “Ulan”, 20 military infantry mobility vehicles with a vehicle armour “Dingo II”, 80 self-propelled artillery M-109 A5, 15 fighter aircraft “Eurofighter Typhoon”, 22 trainer aircraft Saab 105 Ö, 3 transport aircraft C-130 Hercules, 8 short take off and landing (STOL) utility aircraft PC-6 Turbo Porter and 12 low-wing training aircraft PC-7, 9 transport-helicopters Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk, 24 light helicopters SA 319 “Alouette III”, 11 armed helicopters OH-58B “Kiowa” and 24 transport-helicopters AB 212. The Austrian Armed Forces do not dispose of patrol crafts on the rivers and cross-border lakes.


The Armed Forces are located in more than 80 barracks and training grounds. The barracks are run by career soldiers, civilian employees and conscripts. Only selected tasks are undertaken by firms. Logistics is located in more than 20 ammunition sites, maintenance facilities and depots. The logistics is organised such that the top is under the lead of officers but on the basis it is operated mostly by civilian employees and conscripts.


The defence budget in 2012 counted of 3.2 billion US$. This military budget pays the salaries of all employees, the training, maintains arms, equipment and facilities, funds operations, and it is also reserved to develop and purchase new equipment. A detailed analysis of the defence budget shows that more than 65 % are spent to pay salaries (more than 2 billion US$) and only 35 % is made available for covering operating costs and for investment in new weapons and weapon-systems. If we consider that a sum of 20 percent should be available to finance new investment (640 million US$) only further 15 percent (471 million US$) are available to finance the operation of Armed Forces at home and in missions abroad. Knowing the prices in the market for armament goods and the prices for goods and services which armed forces need for the operations, it is obviously that MOD and Austrian Armed Forces are not able to buy military and dual-use goods of state-of-the art technology and services in the market on a bigger scale considering this small amount of defence budget.


Therefore, in the decades since their foundation, the Austrian Armed Forces of the Second Republic have learnt to live with the small amount of money available for operating the Forces at home and in missions abroad and to undertake the necessary investments. When we compare the budgetary situation of the Austrian Armed Forces with the situation of the former Austrian-Hungarian Forces of the Monarchy, Austria is a worthy successor because the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy spent considerably less money than all other great powers in Europe, e.g. France, Germany, Great Britain or Russia. Still today as during the times of the Habsburg-Monarchy, the following slogan is valid when we compare the add up defence budget of Austria within the last decades with the defence budget of other comparable nations in Europe: “Austria spends as little money for its Armed Forces that it is able to loose a war with decency”.


Many experts from outside who studied the system of the Austrian Armed Forces are always surprised how it is possible to operate Armed Forces in such a professional way with such a small amount of money. The mystery is manifold and is not easy to explain. On the one hand it is the high talent, the high skills and intensive training and profound education of soldiers, civilian employees in all levels of responsibility for improvisation and on the other hand side it is the outstanding engagement of many privates, non commissioned officers, officers and civil servants within the Forces.


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Austrian Armed Forces are famous for their outstanding engagement of their soldiers

Credit: MoD/Filzwieser


Let us conclude this chapter presenting the most important data of Austrian Defence Industry. The key capabilities of Austria’s domestic defence companies include armoured vehicles, aerospace, ammunition and electronics. Exports are currently dominated by the wheeled and tracked armoured vehicles produced by the leading organisation Steyr-Daimler-Puch (a division of General Dynamics European Land Combat Systems). The Pandur II armoured fighting vehicle has recently enjoyed success in both the Czech Republic and Portugal. Schiebel (design, development and production of mine detection systems and unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Camcopter), Steyr Mannlicher (design, development and production of hunting, sporting and military firearms such as the Steyr AUG, the SSG69 and the HS .50 sniper rifle), Glock (design, development and production of firearms such as the P80 pistol - currently in use by the Austrian Armed Forces).


The discussion prior to the referendum

In 2010, during the Viennese local elections campaign, the mayor of Vienna, Dr Michael Häupl, proclaimed the abolition of compulsory military service as a kind of campaign motivator. In August 2012, Dr Erwin Proell, the head of the local government of Lower Austria attracted the attention to propose a referendum about the further organization of the recruitment system. Though he is a powerful local politician, the government seized his suggestion and decided to hold a referendum on January 20, 2013.


After Haeupl’s fateful cryptic statement and in a kind of pre-emptive obedience, Norbert Darabos, at that time Minister of Defence, suddenly changed his attitude from a strong proponent of conscription (…“conscription for me is engraved in stone”…) to follow the suggestion of the mayor of Vienna and ordered to set up a working group to work out a plan for an all-volunteer army which should cost the same amount of money as the existing system. After presentation of the results, Darabos favoured professional Armed Forces with about 8,500 professional soldiers, 7,000 soldiers on 3-4 year contracts, and about 9,300 "militia". During the same time, the Minister for Social Affairs made a plan for a paid volunteer social work which should be suitable to substitute the civil servants from the alternative military service. His proposal was to pay each volunteer € 1,386 gross 14 times per year. The proposal caused a wave of anger aroused by voluntary organizations, especially volunteer emergency medical service transport organizations and volunteer fire brigades.


The issue has divided politicians in the coalition government formed by Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Peoples Party (ÖVP). The centre-left Social Democrats stated that the current make-up of the armed forces does not work for the 21st Century, arguing that a professional army would be needed to co-operate more effectively with other European armies. Defence Minister Norbert Darabos called the current force outdated with respect to "counter-terrorism, cybercrime... [and] failed states".


But the conservative People's Party expressed themselves against changes of the current system. Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner mentioned that the current system "fits Austria like a glove and is the best guarantee for all future challenges". Opponents feared the move will not only turn out to be more costly, at a time when Austria is trying to cut military budget, but would also push the country towards membership of NATO and the abandonment of neutrality it has upheld since 1955. Army Chief of Staff Gen Edmund Entacher also warned that changes to the current set-up would lead "… irreversibly to a drop in quality, numbers and abilities…". A major part of the public discussion was the importance of conscription for the social system in Austria. Many proponents of conscription, mainly members or sympathizers of ÖVP, said that an end to conscription would be a challenge for Austria's social welfare system which relies heavily on conscientious objectors performing civilian service.


In the run-up to the referendum two Cross-party initiatives were formed, headed by former VIPs of the Austrian policy. The Social Democratic-affiliated “Personenkomitee Unser Heer” (Committee for our Army) was headed by Hannes Androsch, a former SPÖ Finance Minister and the Peoples Party-affiliated “Einsatz für Österreich - Ja zur Beibehaltung von Wehrpflicht und Zivildienst" (Committee Mission pro Austria- Yes for maintaining Conscription and civil service) was headed by Veith Sorger a former president of the Federation of Austrian Industries. Both committees organized round tables and nationwide advertising campaigns in the public. In the end, „Einsatz für Österreich“ made a better job and managed to mobilise tens of thousands of people, resulting in a turnout as high as 70% in some federal states.


In general, security policy is not a big issue in the Austrian public discussion, but in the critical phase before January 20, 2013 newspaper were full with special information about the Austrian Armed Forces. But the public discussion increasingly could not be taken serious any longer and it became almost unbearable; especially a large nationwide offered newspaper and two giveaway newspapers published populist articles on the disadvantage of conscription nearly every day. However, all these activities of the press appeared more of an own-goal than a serious support for the followers of an all-volunteer army.


A prominent role in the discussion played the trade union of public administration. Leaders of the trade union often stated that a change of the recruitment system would lead to make a special part of the workforce redundant and it would also lead to a closing of garrisons.


The result of referendum and the resulting current situation

When all the votes of the referendum were in and counted, it turned out that 59.7 % of the voters chose to keep conscription. Only 40.3 %voted for an all-volunteer professional army. The voter’s participation showed a share of 52.4 %. Compared to the last election in Austria, this participation cannot be considered as high. Therefore it is not easy to draw correct conclusions. In the abstract, the result means that not more than 30 % of eligible voters who went to polling site were in favour of conscription.


Shortly after January 20, 2013, the Council of Ministers adopted guidelines to effectuate the declared intention of the people. According to this, a ministries-overarching working group was set up which had to draft a plan to make conscription more attractive to conscripts. Results should be submitted in summer 2013. The cornerstones should focus on highest attention to skills and interests of conscripts by assigning a conscript to a task, significant reduction of conscripts who work in the system administration (such as conscripts working in kitchens as kitchen ancillaries, in mess halls as waiters, etc.), experience-oriented basic military training, improving the image of Austrian Armed Forces in the public opinion and the enhancement of attractiveness of the Austrian Armed Forces as an employer.


As an implicit consequence Austria's Defence Minister Norbert Darabos resigned at the beginning of February 2013 to become secretary of the ruling coalition's biggest party, less than seven months before the country goes to the polls. Darabos was replaced by Gerald Klug, who has been heading the SPÖ's parliamentary group of the upper house (Bundesrat) in the Austrian parliament. Klug was sworn into office on February 11, 2013 by the Federal President. In his inauguration speech during a military ceremony in the Rossau barracks, in which the MOD is located, Klug had promised that not later than beginning of summer he will present a draft for a state-of-the-art military service. As of now, in April 2013, there are no interim results available. With regard to presence in media, the press went back to normal and there are just a few sporadic articles about the Austrian Armed Forces. In addition to this, the Austrian Armed Forces have shifted outside of the focus of attention of citizens.


On April 15, 2013 the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Interior held a press conference at alpine drill ground “Seetaler Alpe” to present the first measures taken to improving the military service. As a first remedy the order was given to reduce the number of conscripts who are employed to keep up the system (“Systemerhalter”). Until autumn they should be reduced by 10 % and next year by 50 %. It can become very interesting to follow the measures to be taken for improvement of the military service within the next months.


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Minister of Defence, Gerald Klug (l.) and the Minister of Interior, Mikl-Leitner (r.) held a press conference to improve the first measures to improving military service

Credit: MoD/Pusch



The Austrian citizens took a wise decision to vote against a change of the recruitment system of the Austrian Armed Forces because existing the existing conscription system proved to be able to fulfil the tasks in the best way possible when taking into account the extremely tight budget.


The author wrote his dissertation about “Implications of different systems of recruitment on the national and regional economy under consideration of Austria” in 2002. Calculations with respect to an all-volunteer system in the Austrian Armed Forces which is able to fulfil the same tasks as forces based upon conscripts, resulted in a demand of more than 6 billion US$ defence budget to equip and operate all-volunteer forces in Austria. This is an amount of money which is twice as much of the current defence budget. Austria is a rich country and it is able to finance all-volunteer forces which are able to fulfil the same tasks as the consisting conscript army is able to do but nobody in Austria will feel sympathetic towards a change of recruitment system with simultaneous consideration of a vast increase of the defence budget.


The environment with respect to security policy shows that there is neither a stable status nor is it predicable. Future events having effects on the European security cannot be calculated in advance. Recalling the last 30 years in Europe, nobody was able to predict the sudden fall of the iron curtain at the end of the 1980ies or the admittance of former members of Warsaw Pact in NATO. Security policies with emphasis on the asymmetric warfare saw volunteer forces in advantage to conscript forces, but if the times change immediately as it happened in the late 1980ies, accompanied with the need for larger forces, the maintenance of conscription has the advantage that it is possible to increase the manpower faster than in the case of an all-volunteer force. To maintain the existing recruitment system was the best way possible and a wise decision when it comes down to master prospective challenges for the security policy in the near future.


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