2019: A recap

In Blog, English by Bernhard Völkl

2019 was a turbulent year for the Bundesheer:
Following the
breakup of the conservative/far-right government coalition in mid-may, a sequence of interim cabinets took over, and with them different Ministers of Defence.
Austerity again began to bite, and federal President Van der Bellen repeatedly voiced dismay with the budgetary situation of the armed forces.

At the start of the new year, the end of the provisional government is imminent, with Klaudia Tanner set to take over the Ministry of Defence on Jan 7.
Below, we give an overview of 2019’s most notable events.

February

  • A cooperation between Austria and Switzerland took effect, whereby military aircraft of either nation can cross the shared border for the purpose of intercepting or pursuing other aircraft.

March

  • Excerpts of a paper prepared by General Staff began to circulate before its intended publication; released in its entirety the following month, the paper identified and listed potential threats and strongly called for a defence budget of at least 2% of GDP.

April

  • The Bundesheer assumed its new – and former – organisational structure, with a unified upper command, led by a three-star, in charge of aerial and ground forces.

May

  • On May 22nd, Mario Kunasek was replaced as Minister of Defence by Johann Luif. Luif, an active general officer, was in turn replaced by Thomas Starlinger, two-star-general and then-aide-the-camp of President Van der Bellen, on June 3. 
  • (At the time of writing, Starlinger is still in office, but soon to be replaced by Klaudia Tanner, an OeVP functionary in charge of the Lower Austrian Bauernbund [Farmers’ Association]. See below for details.)

June-August

  • Plans for reopening a military high school were scrapped and Minister Starlinger slashed plans for the traditional October 26 display of the armed forces.
  • The summer months saw some disaster relief deployments and the posting of a warrant for Igor Egorivich Zaytsev, suspected handler of an Austrian former colonel arrested on charges of espionage in late 2018.
  • In late summer, budgetary shortfalls again took center stage when Minister Starlinger published a list of equipment and assets deemed in urgent need of upgrade and/or replacement. Most prominent were aerial assets, ground vehicles and ICT systems, but virtually all of the Bundesheer’s branches are affected by severe shortages. 
  • Meanwhile, swearing-in ceremonies of conscripts outside regular working hours were discontinued because the Bundesheer was unable to pay for soldiers’ overtime.

September-November

  • Report Unser Heer 2030 (Our Armed Forces 2030) published, outlining a mid-term vision and investments required to keep Austria safe beyond the current decade. The report calls out the severe budgetary constraints and outlines ten necessary measures for Austrian security:
  1. Increase defence budget to EUR 3bn now and gradually increase to 1 percent of GDP by 2030.
  2. Gradual reduction of investment backlog.
  3. Immediate decision on future of air-traffic surveillance and control to guarantee sovereignty and neutrality.
  4. Restore the reserves’ readiness as mandated by the constitution.
  5. Extension of conscripts’ service from six to eight months, reversing the 2006 reform; reintroduction of mandatory reserve duty and regular exercises.
  6. Focus on protection against hybrid threats and cyber attacks.
  7. Continued engagement in international peace operations on a high level according to Austria’s interests.
  8. Guaranteeing to meet EU defence commitments.
  9. Increase in the number of personnel to 24,000 and adaption of employment laws to guarantee readiness.
  10. Further develop the concept of ‘comprehensive defence’ [Umfassende Landesverteidigung]

  • Costs associated with Austria’s border security operations were outlined in a reply to an MP’s query. The grand total between 2015 and June 2019 were some EUR 170m, amounting to EUR 40.000 per person apprehended.
  • The parliamentary inquiry around the Eurofigher procurement published its final report; no evidence of bribery was found , but judge Ronald Rohrer did identify a ‘network of bogus companies and … company constructions with ever-increasing complexity [on the part of EADS], which shuffled around money for no apparent reason.’

December

  • Late in the year, the flying branch took a nosedive: All Saab 105 jet trainers, vital to Austria’s aerial surveillance, have been grounded, and only one out of three C-130 Hercules transport aircraft remains flightworthy. (This very aircraft was temporarily stuck in Sarajevo in December, prompting the Minister and Chief of Defence to return to Vienna by car.)
  • Meanwhile, a cheque for EUR 1.5 million and a statement by a whistleblower detailing the flow of said money from EADS to a former Austrian politician provided new substance to bribery allegations connected to Austria’s acquisition of Eurofighter Typhoons from EADS, now Airbus, in 2002. Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Commerce released a report whereby the agreed volume for offset deals connected to the planes’ purchase was exceeded by EUR 1bn; Austrian aircraft industry suppliers were the main profiteers.
  • The annual National Security Preview 2020, a 300-page public report and collection of essays, was published mid-month. The report attests a deterioration in Austria’s security situation, driven by worsening risks on a European level. Hybrid threats taking center stage in the publication, with five central challenges outlined for the Bundesheer for 2020 and beyond:
  1. Countering hybrid attacks, ‘systemic’ terrorist attacks, extreme events of any kind that might endanger the republic’s resilience, and the upkeep of the nation’s ability to act.
  2. Contribution to the stabilisation of Austria’s immediate vicinity, i.e. the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe
  3. Contribution to the stabilisation of Austria’s expanded vicinity, i.e. the Mittle East and Africa
  4. Substantial contribution to the further development of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) by participating in deployments and cooperations to bolster European defence capacity
  5. Interdiction of breaches of Austrian neutrality, especially the protection of its aerial sovereignty.
  • The report stresses that current risks can only be mitigated in close national and international cooperation; it further emphasises the significance of the Austrian concept of Comprehensive Defence, whereby collective defence is a task of a broad range of institutions public and private, and not limited to the kinetic aspects borne by armed forces.
    Furthermore, the report once again highlights immediate measures to be taken to bolster its defence capacity and to reverse its increasing international isolation in matters of security and defence.

Header image: Bundesheer

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About the Author

Bernhard Völkl

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Bernhard is a reserve officer in the Austrian Armed Forces and works in e-commerce.

About the Author
Christoph Bilban

Christoph Bilban

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Christoph holds as MA in political sciences and an BA in slavonic studies. He is a reserve officer and currently working for the Austrian National Defence Academy. His works for sipol.at neither reflect the opinion of the National Defence Academy nor the Republic of Austria.