Structural reform, about face!

In Blog, English by Bernhard VölklLeave a Comment

The Austrian Armed Forces’ 2017 reform, still incomplete, has been halted. The force structure’s future might look a lot like its past 

ADAPTABILITY is regarded a key attribute for military personnel, and duly so: Soldiers have to cope with rough climates, changing cultural environments and dynamic mission objectives. Those in service of the Austrian Bundesheer, the nation’s armed forces, have learnt to deal with an additional set of changeable conditions: The shifting structure of their own organisation.

Current force structure

The Ministry of Defence and its subordinate departments are currently structured in four pillars: commands, academies, schools and agencies.

    • Four operational commands contain the lion’s share of uniformed personnel; the largest by far is the Land Forces Command (Kommando Landstreitkräfte) with most ground troops (4 brigades, 9 regional commands); the other three are the Air Forces Command (Kommando Luftstreitkräfte) with its air and air defence units (2 brigades), the Logistics Command (Kommando Logistik) with medical and support units and facilities, and finally the Service Support & Cyber Defence Command (Kommando Führungsunterstützung & Cyber Defence), overseeing IT and communications infrastructure, dedicated units, and a school.
    • Academies are the National Defence Academy (Vienna), the Theresan Military Academy (Wiener Neustadt) and the Noncommissioned Officers’ Academy (Enns).
    • Schools are the Army Troop School with its light and mechanised infantry, reconnaissance, artillery, armour and engineer institutes, and the Logistics School. (Other schools such as the Air and Air Defence School or the CBRN Defence School are formally part of their respective commands.)
    • Agencies are the intelligence services, the Armaments and Defence Technology Agency, the Personnel Management Agency and the Property Management Agency.

LV21.1 – the 2017 reform

When, at the beginning of 2017, then-Minister Doskozil decreed this new force structure, 70% of departments and units were affected, most of them in what used to be the Joint Forces Command (JFC). In the name of decentralisation and shortening the chain of command, this entity – overseeing virtually all ground forces as well as the air arm since 2006 – was disbanded and replaced by separate commands for the land and air forces, and the newly created ones for logistics and the information domain.

Simultaneously, more responsibility and resources were transferred to regional commands. Termed Military Commands (Militärkommandos) and located in states’ capital, these nine territiorial entities are essentially divisional commands without the division. With few own troops – a HQ unit and around a battalion of lightly armed reserve formations – they mainly serve as a liaison to state governors and provide operational leadership to deployments in their respective state. (Vienna is the exception, with the Guards Battalion and two dedicated reserve battalions of their own.) Under LV21.1, the Military Commands were assigned an additional active infantry battalion each. This raised the concern that these transfers, often coming at the expense of the non-territorial brigades, have significantly weakened the standing formations; at the same time, this dispersion of resources arguably did little to enable their territorial counterparts to deal with larger contingencies.

Notably, the move towards  a greater number of operational commands echoed past organisational structures: the Joint Forces Command itself had succeeded an earlier iteration of the Land Forces Command and the Air Forces Command when it came into being in 2006. Indeed, the latest shift happened right about when Switzerland took to setting up a Joint Operations Command (JOC), in charge of planning and carrying out all operations and missions of the Swiss armed forces. Closely resembling the 2006-2017 Austrian structure, the bulk of the Swiss ground forces as well as the Air Force now report to the JOC.

An argument for the LV21.1  can be made however:

For one, maintenance, procurement and ongoing logistics for the air arm differ significantly from the same processes in the ground forces; they are thus unlikely to gain from being forced under one roof. Subsequently, current supply structures for the different branches remained largely independent of each other.

More importantly however is the fact that the JFC used to be split between Graz and Salzburg; sub-staffs of the air and ground arms worked with about three hours’ driving distance between one another. Unifying the command structure thus retained an air of pretence.

As a result, it can be argued that the JFC in its old form was a strange hybrid of a command: While Defence Staff firmly occupies the function of strategic level leadership, the JFC’s sub-staffs effectively held on to performing the same on the operational level. Following this line of thought, the “upper operational level” JFC could be seen as little more than an added layer of management.

Nonetheless, LV21.1 was off to a rough start: decreed and provisionally enacted by January 1, 2017, it was never ratified by the federal chancellery, which retains the prerogative to affirm organisational structures and posts within MoD. Inner-party rivalry in the run-up to the 2017 elections has been made responsible for then-Chancellor Kern withholding approval of Minister Doskozil’s revised organisational chart. As a consequence, the mandated structure, albeit lived in practice, has been a tentative arrangement ever since, with the bulk of personnel being assigned to “temporary” posts.

2018: Super Mario goes back to the future

In December 2017, Mario Kunasek, dubbed ‘Super Mario’ by some, came in as Austria’s new Minister of Defence; in late March of this year, the former career NCO halted his predecessor’s reform plans. This did not have an immediate effect, as all personnel remained in their provisional functions; but it made clear that LV21.1 was unlikely to ever become the Bundesheer’s formally approved structure.

On May 9, the Minister instructed Defence Staff to work out new plans and publicly outlined some guiding priorities:

  • a reduction of the “upper level operational commands” from two to one, responsible for the four standing ground and two air formations
  • infantry battalions returning from Military Commands to the standing ground forces brigades to strengthen their core capability of homeland defence
  • the formation of engineer companies for each Military Command to bolster regional disaster relief capabilities.

A revival of the JFC seems likely. Justifying the step with a “somewhat bloated” command structure, the Minister left little doubt that Graz would again be the site of a newly formed JFC. The new structure’s blueprint is to be delivered by the end of May.

This pace of action is remarkable, and some outlets have suggested regional politics as an underlying motif: state elections are due early next year in the Minister’s home state of Styria, and he stands to be his party’s leading candidate. A public commitment to Graz as the armed forces’ re-emphasised centre of gravity can only serve to bolster a possible bid for governorship. This hypothesis is underlined by the symbolic concession to regional commands in the form of a company of engineers each.

Be that as it may: the future of the Bundesheer’s structure might look a lot like its past. And for Super Mario, he might not need roads for where he’s going.


Image credit: Back to the Future, 1985.

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