Let’s talk about …Austrian National Security

In Blog by Bernhard Völkl

Pt.1: The current state of neglect

This article has been co-authored by Chiara Libiseller, doctoral student at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, and Bernhard Völkl. Taking this summer’s debate on Austrian conscription as a starting point, it explores Austrian’s notions and attitudes towards the Bundesheer, the nation’s stance towards security and defence as a whole, and proposes reframing the public debate.

Header image: Bundesheer/GREBIEN

The German language does not know a direct equivalent to “silly season”; instead, the same period is called a Sommerloch, i.e. a “summer hole”, where – just like in its anglophone counterpart – serious news and debates make way for ones that are …less so. It is thus quite common to see Austrian politics’ supporting cast make it to a slightly grander stage once the temperatures rise.

This summer, current Minister of Defence Mario Kunasek, of the far-right freedom party (FPÖ), incited a short but telling debate on the duration of conscription specifically, and the value of the Austrian Armed Forces, the Bundesheer, more generally. In an interview with the Austrian news magazine Profil at the end of July, the Minister reiterated his suggestion to extend the nation’s compulsory military service. His plan envisions lengthening the service period from six to eight months, effectively reintroducing the sixty days of reserves training that were cut in 2006. Around the same time, newly appointed Chief of Defence Robert Brieger audibly called for an increase in the defence budget so that the Bundesheer would be equipped to fulfil its main role as armed force of the state.

Both proposals initially gained some attention. They were supported by other military officials, experts or media commentators; Brieger’s call for an increased budget even gained the improbable, outspoken support of Austrian federal president Alexander van der Bellen. Eventually, however, these calls shared the same fate as every other debate on military issues in Austria. The centre-right people’s party (ÖVP), the FPÖ’s senior coalition partner, dismissed the extension of conscripts’ service period outright and did not even bother to publicly dismiss Brieger’s call, effectively stifling any further fiscal debate. Much like any other Austrian government before it, the current administration does not seem interested in considering those pleas in earnest; as a consequence, both schemes failed to generate much public interest and/or support.

How come any suggestion to better equip the Bundesheer (be it with conscripts, vehicles or weapons) tends to be rejected without much – or any – meaningful deliberation? Are the Bundesheer’s pleas unjustified, greedy or overly self-interested, as most user comments in online media suggest? Does Austrian neutrality, enshrined in its constitution, render defence expenditures outright unnecessary?

In this multi-part article, we argue to the contrary. This text illustrates recent debates on conscription and sets them in context with other discussions on the Bundesheer and its prevailing image among the Austrian electorate. We argue that a naive understanding of neutrality – to date the key guiding principle of Austrian foreign and defence policies – has prevented any deeper engagement with central issues of national security and defence and its connection to societal welfare.

Bogged down in partisan wars: the (non-)debates on conscription

Kunasek’s suggestion does not represent uncharted terrain of course. The “6+2” months system was in place from 1971 to 2005, when then-minister of defence Günther Platter (ÖVP) cut the two months of training with the reserves that Kunasek now wants to reintroduce. In fact, similar political debates on (the duration of) conscription have tended to erupt periodically over the last decades; this is especially true since the end of the Cold War gave an impetus to those who are skeptical of conscription (or of armed forces altogether). And while the duration of conscription has been changed (read: decreased) twice since it was set at nine months of continuous presence when it was introduced in 1955, the majority of above mentioned debates have not produced any major outcomes. And maybe that is for the better, considering they all have followed the same scheme and suffered from the same limitations:  based on a naive (mis-)understanding of neutrality, they have ignored central aspects of national security and defence and societal welfare more generally; instead they have revolved around secondary questions of individual interests. Failing to engage with what is actually at stake, these debates have left the Bundesheer at whim and mercy of party politics; the two major events regarding conscription in 21st century Austria provide telling illustrations of this.

When then-minister Platter shortened conscription to a historical minimum of six months in 2005 (in effect from 2006 onwards), not only did he disregard the advice of military officials and a special commission tasked with building the foundation for reforming the Bundesheer (Bundesheerreformkommission) who recommended, in light of the ongoing deployment to the southern and eastern border regions, to not decrease the duration of conscription before 2007; he also created a gap between reality and both letter and intention of the law. Shortening the duration of conscription meant cutting the sixty days of duty with the reserves that had formed (and legally still form) a key pillar around which much of the Austrian armed forces’ structure and contingency plans are built around. These sixty days were supposed to be spread out over several years and aimed at maintaining former conscripts’ key military skills, and with it some semblance of force readiness at scale should any larger contingency arise. Unimpressed by critics, Platter went ahead and forced the change against the opposition of the FPÖ, the ÖVP’s junior coalition partner. His move is widely seen as having fatally incapacitated the reserves by pulling out their personnel base from under them. Having presented little factual support for this move, Platter stands accused of having used it as a maneuvre to gain votes in the next federal election.

Similar interests seem to have been at play before the 2013 referendum that could have abolished conscription altogether. From inception to outcome, this referendum was at the mercy of party politics: originating in a last-minute election campaign pledge to advance the abolition of conscription by Michael Häupl (SPÖ), then campaigning for re-election as mayor of Vienna, the debate on conscription saw a bizarre swap in both government parties’ traditional positions on the issue. The result was an insincere and stilted, but enduring opposition to one another, with the referendum announced to finally resolve the debate. While social democrats suddenly campaigned for the introduction of a smaller professional military, the ÖVP was newly fond of keeping but reforming conscription. Of the 52 percent of the electorate that participated in the referendum, 59.7 percent were in favour of continuing conscription, while 40.3 percent preferred a professional army. All was not well: the electoral decision’s main driver was not the military service itself, but the alternative community service. With 74 percent, the wish to stick to the community service was the main motivation of those voting in favour of conscription. This comes as no surprise, considering that the debate preceding the referendum featured dire warnings of the potential collapse of the health care system should conscription – and with it the community service – be discontinued. While this alternative service – chosen by roughly half of young males liable for military service – is of the highest relevance for the functioning of many civil organisations, such as the emergency services or elderly care, it is odd to see this aspect emerge as a central argument in a debate that should rather have centred on aspects of national security.

Present woes and deeper meanings: the unpopular Bundesheer

Fast forward to 2018: Kunasek’s suggestion to reintroduce the sixty days of training was backed by the newly appointed Chief of Defence Robert Brieger and the Austrian Officers’ Association. Their main argument is that without these two months of training with the reserves, a large number of conscripts are being trained at a rather basic level, but never reach readiness to be engaged in more complex scenarios. The electorate, on the other hand, is less fond of it: according to a recent survey conducted by Profil, only 32 percent of Austrians aged over 16 support Kunasek’s idea, with 49 percent opposed and 19 percent not voicing either inclination. The FPÖ’s senior coalition partner ÖVP, too, rejected the suggestion, maintaining – without stating detailed arguments – that the decision to decrease the duration of conscription had been the right one and the coalition programme did not foresee any changes to the status quo. This has put a premature end to the debate on the political level. Military officials such as Brieger, however, have tried to build on the momentum and to continue the debate on a more general level, pleading for more resources. Alas, calls to better equip the Bundesheer tend to be swiftly rejected, without due deliberation of national security implications.

These diverse instances are all too characteristic of the nature of public debates on conscription and on the Bundesheer more generally. They illustrate what can be termed a chronic unwillingness to meaningfully engage with matters of security and defence. This unwillingness is connected to an understanding of neutrality that equates being neutral with not having armed forces. Indeed, Austrians seem to prefer not arming their armed forces: all military aspects of the Bundesheer are highly unpopular and often considered unnecessary since Austria is neutral and does not face any (conventional) threats. Unpopular throughout most of the year, the army seems to get a break from the pillory on only three occasions: One is national holiday, when a significant chunk of its operational equipment is hauled onto public squares and put on display. There, the army seeks to showcase its range of capabilities, kids get a chance to crawl into tanks or ride pack animals, and field kitchens dole out free goulash to passersby. Largely resembling a fun fair, the two-day event attracts a sizable crowd, but few stop to reflect on the armed forces’ role in state and society. Equally folksy in nature, the second break from public disregard is when conscripts are used to prepare and help maintain the slopes for Alpine Ski World Cup events. Finally (and least controversially), the Bundesheer’s manpower is regularly called for (and answers) when and where disaster strikes. Floods, mudslides, heavy snowfalls and avalanches have evolved into the prime raison d’être for the armed forces in the eyes of many.

As a result of its unpopularity, the Bundesheer as a military force has few outspoken advocates in the public arena. Neutrality in the eyes of many implies that Austria need neither think about nor prepare for conflicts; this strongly reflects on how actions and structures of the Bundesheer are judged. Accordingly, any decisions on defence spending and planning tend to be half-hearted in nature. While Austria’s constitution and neutrality mandate an operational military force, Austrians just don’t seem to want to have one. The consequence is that resources allocated to the Bundesheer largely resemble a lip service, just enough to maintain a force that looks like a military, but is severely limited in what it can hope to do or achieve. “Too much to die, too little to live” is a common adage among career soldiers when it comes to budgetary matters.

Where we are now: Conscription, Procurement, and Structure

One of the few more popular aspects of the debate is the idea to make conscription ‘more attractive’, meaning that conscripts have to be able to ‘gain more’ from their service. This vague notion has been part of the debate for years; Kunasek’s suggestion to increase conscripts’ salary to the minimum income level in Austria is rare in its specificity. While the question of attractiveness for conscripts certainly is an important issue, it reveals the prevalent view of conscription: the Bundesheer is supposed to offer life lessons and teach practical skills to conscripts, which is well and good; but beyond that, many seem to demand that the Bundesheer teach skills that are more befitting of a civilian context, and provide a grand old time for the boys. This again goes back to the conscription being seen as unnecessary and berefting young adults of time they could somehow spend more usefully, be it working (i.e. earning money) or simply enjoying their summer break before taking up university studies. The fact that this argument is almost exclusively levelled at the military service option is revealing in its own right. Conscription is understood as a burden; and if young men have to do it, at least they should get something out of it. That this ‘something’ might be somehow related to collective security, enduring peace, both within Austria and its surrounding states, both for now and the coming generations is a distant afterthought, completely disentangled from and never really raised as part of the public debate. This is also why the other side of the ‘attractiveness’ argument, i.e. what the Bundesheer can and should gain from its conscripts, remains untouched. The limited individual service period and lack of resources means it is nigh-impossible to meaningfully train recruits. However, considering the fact that the Austrian Armed Forces are based on conscripts is mandated by the constitution and was reaffirmed by a referendum in 2013, it hardly seems too much to ask to structure compulsory service so that it is beneficial for both conscripts and the Bundesheer. And yet, the debate is never approached from that angle.  

The Bundesheer encounters a similar dilemma when it comes to  equipment: while armed national defence is clearly outlined as the Bundesheer’s main purpose, the only way of providing it with some of the necessary assets and resources against popular indignation is by framing the army as a disaster relief force; this was again illustrated in the recent acquisition of new transport helicopters. The automatic coining of such acquisitions as Aufrüsten (i.e. upgrading one’s arsenal, a distinctly bellicose term loaded with mainly negative connotations) instead of Ausrüsten/Aufrechterhalten (i.e. to equip and/or maintain) is a telling indicator of how skeptical the purchase of any piece of equipment is viewed by domestic media and bears semblance to a similar recent debate in Germany.

Due to its unpopularity, the Bundesheer has difficulties in making itself heard; as a consequence, it is left to the mercy of party politics. New structural reforms of the Armed Forces are conceived with a strange regularity – often, these coincide with the tenure of a new responsible minister. In practice, this often means that new reforms are devised and launched even before their predecessors are implemented. Most importantly, all of this happens without any meaningful debate on contemporary threats, a corresponding desired set of capabilities for the Armed Forces to have, and the tasks they should be able to perform.

The Root of all Evil? Neutrality is not a National Security Strategy

All these oddities reveal the lack of a coherent vision of what the Austrian Armed Forces are for, what they need to be capable of and how they should subsequently be structured and equipped. Instead, a widespread misinterpretation of neutrality has led many Austrians to consider the Bundesheer as an unnecessary institution that costs quite some money but offers few benefits. As a consequence, governments have put national security and defence on the backburner, bringing it to the fore largely for populist maneuvres. At the same time, the Bundesheer itself, due to its unpopularity is incapable of making itself heard. Left at the whim of politicians, the Bundesheer is now barely capable of fulfilling its constitutional aim.

Neutrality, however, is not a national security strategy. It merely says that Austria will neither join a military alliance nor host military bases of other states on its territory. It does not say that Austria is immune to threats. Neither should it suggest that the last 73 years of peace in Austria have been achieved through neutral passivity. Instead, this peace is the result of a continuous effort of European countries to work together, guaranteed by the military protection of the world’s biggest military power, the United States.

Furthermore, the fact that Austria currently does not face an imminent conventional threat does not render the Bundesheer irrelevant or obsolete; on the contrary, this might partly be the harvest of its work; additionally, the character of recent threats has changed, with many of them being less obvious and more volatile. If none of that satisfies you, think of the Bundesheer as an insurance – not having an insurance may sometimes go well and save you some money; but in case something does happen, the costs and damage falling on you might be horrendous.

A more substantial public debate is thus needed, one that raises awareness of the fact that security must not be taken for granted. Accepting this prior might allow for a debate that takes the necessity of armed forces for granted and can focus on how to structure and equip them so they can fulfil their constitutional aims. In Part 2 of this series we will focus on what a such more substantial debate might look like by discarding the naive interpretation of neutrality and focussing on key aspects of Austrian and European security. Such a conscious engagement of a society with those who bear arms in its defence is not an act of courtesy – it is vital for its very stability and continued functioning should crises of the highest order arise.


Chiara Libiseller is a doctoral student at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and a Teaching Assistant at King’s War Studies Department. Her research traces the evolution of contemporary military concepts to understand broader patterns and fashions in the ways Anglo-American scholars and military professionals study and understand war. Her broad interests include military strategy, military history as well as Austrian and European defence.