2020: Quo vadis, Bundesheer?

In Blog, English by Bernhard Völkl

2020 is set to become an interesting year in Austrian defence. In 2019, austerity has again begun to bite and a new coalition government between Conservatives and Greens is due to be sworn in on January 7. We take a look at their agenda and added our comments.

A government agenda without a security agenda

On January 2, incoming Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (OeVP) and Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) presented their government agenda for their term from 2020 until 2024. Setting eight core aims for their future work, foreign and security policy is not part of them. 

In a nutshell, the program is a compromise between the conservatives’ restrictive policies towards asylum and migration, fostering competitiveness of Austria’s economy and avoiding deficitary budgets and the center-left Green’s demands for combating climate change, social security and more transparency of the public service. Yet, the incoming government sees itself as a role model for Europe and claiming to strengthen Austria’s position in Europe and the World by mediation and compromise.

Austria’s Foreign and Security Principles

Austria’s role as mediator in conflicts around the world is well entrenched throughout its recent history. Once again, Austria’s political leadership draws on the concept of active neutrality as a supposed guarantee for “peace and security in Europe (within the framework of CSDP) and throughout the world” (p. 177). The European Union remains the framework for most of Austria’s major interests: human rights, democracy, the rule of law and conflict management.

Most notable in the context of a Green participation in the new coalition government, former bones contention around internal security remain unchallenged; a strict regimen for all matters asylum and migration is expected to continue.

Austria has already announced its candidature as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the term 2027-2028, at the elections to be held in 2026 in New York. The Austrian government can furthermore be expected to continue supporting the establishment of a permanent seat for the European Union at the UNSC.

Meanwhile, the Bundesheer retains a sizeable footprint abroad, with major contingents in Bosnia, Kosovo and Lebanon. In the latter half of the year, Austrian forces are due to take part in EUBG 2020‑2.

Afterthoughts on Defence

‘National Defence’, occupies 4 pages in the 300-odd page long government agenda, published on Jan 2. Covering 38 points in four categories, the agenda is relatively vague and offers few tangible cues for a robust security strategy:

  • Austria’s neutrality is repeatedly emphasised, as is its European solidarity; the two are seen as not contradictory.
  • The current state of the Bundesheer is implied to be in breach of Austria’s constitution and a strengthening of the reserves is stated as a goal.
  • The budgetary shortfalls are mentioned and to be improved, but no figures and few tangible examples for subject areas to be remedied are given.
  • Compulsory military service is here to stay, and is to be expanded to be an educative experience, and to enhance young citizens’ societal integration, German language skills and political education as well as digital literacy to guard against fake news.
  • In a nod to perceived current threats, the Bundesheer is to further phase out heavy weapons and instead prioritise NBC, drone and cyber defense.
  • Intelligence services are to retain their autonomy.
  • Increased focus on domestic deployments to bolster internal security.
  • Aerial surveillance are to be maintained and capabilities expanded in a cost-efficient manner.
  • Rotorcraft to be procured, mainly for disaster relief requirements
  • Upkeep of 1,100 personnel on foreign deployments in accordance with Austrian security objectives (e.g. stability in the Western Balkans).

A detailed breakdown of unredacted bullet points, freely translated from the original document, looks as follows:

In conclusion, the incoming government again emphasises neutrality in lieu of an actual security strategy and its associated cost; adjustments to perceived threats are mostly in line with cost-saving measures. 

With almost no heavy weaponry (e.g. artillery, armoured) left and the remainders severely constrained due to spare parts and fuel shortages, any further drawdown with the aim to ‘retain knowledge’ must seem farcical.

The reinterpretation of compulsory military service as a period with educative benefits is in line with some of our earlier writing (see Dulce et Decorum est, March 2018). Nonetheless, military types’ concerns about having to use conscripts’ preciously short service period on an increasing number of non-military subjects that the army is badly equipped to teach are legit. Lawmakers would be wise to acknowledge that  national cohesion can at best be strengthened, but not created by a national service.

Expanding the criteria for fitness for service seems a nod to the fact that not everyone in uniform need possess the abilities for infantry combat.
Meanwhile, the
Bundesheer in its current form is hardly able to accommodate the needs of service members with impairments (e.g. severe allergies), be it in training curricula, infrastructure or other areas. To determine where an individual could best be placed, a nine-stage scale of fitness is already in effect – it need only be adhered.
On the other hand,
in light of a likely decline in young men fit for service in coming years, this move could prove critical to keeping civilian organisations supplied with the personnel they rely on. (Conscientious objectors deemed fit for service serve in non-military organisations such as the Red Cross or care homes for the elderly; these services are heavily reliant on a consistent influx of young men.)

The handful of major procurements hinted at in the documents smack of a different agenda altogether: rotorcraft are to be procured not with defence but disaster relief in mind, and renovating the Bundesheer’s crumbling barracks is openly associated with an economic impetus for the respective regions. Meanwhile, Bundesheer insiders fear a transfer of ownership of barracks and other buildings to the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft, the federal real estate management agency. 

A final irony is that the Bundesheer’s assets for aerial surveillance are under more strain than ever at a time when two major, separate publications stress their vitality to Austrian neutrality and security.

Whether the incoming Minister of Defence will be able to use this relative absence of a meaningful agenda as a blank canvas to chart a determined course for Austrian defence remains to be seen; her main challenge however will doubtlessly be of a budgetary nature driven by the fact that national defence continues to rank low among governments’ priorities. While outgoing Minister Starlinger called for an annual budget increase of at least EUR 900m, only EUR 400m were discussed during coalition talks; according to Starlinger, this would result in 30% of barracks having to close down and no training for 50% of conscripts being conducted. The government agenda makes no mention of an increase, lest any specific figures.


Header image: Bundesheer/Wallner

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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.