Opinions - 24.01.2013 - 00:00 

Military service in Austria

Austria voted on the introduction of a regular army. Swiss citizens are unlikely to learn many lessons from it for the federal popular initiative “Yes to the abolition of conscription”, comments Peter Platzgummer.
Source: HSG Newsroom


25. January 2013. Even though the two neighbouring countries have had compulsory military service for decades, the systems differ widely. Whereas Switzerland has a conscript army with conscript NCOs and commissioned officers with an extremely small proportion of regular soldiers, Austria at least in the last ten years has had an army that has purely consisted of soldiers who have done their military service at one stretch commanded by regular staff. The conscript contingent may have been a weighty factor on paper but did not play a great part in reality. In fact, conscript exercises have almost exclusively been conducted by NCOs and officers in recent years.

Chiefs without Indians
In Austria, people liked to use the image of “chiefs without Indians” in connection with discussions. Besides, missions have also been different. More than 1,300 soldiers of the Austrian Armed Forces are posted in Kosovo, Syria, the Lebanon and Afghanistan at present. To prepare and follow up these missions alone, the Austrian Armed Forces require several thousand men a year.

Big differences between Austria and Switzerland
The text of the initiative launched by the Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) can hardly be compared with that of the Austrian popular ballot. Whereas the Austrians had to cast their votes on “Conscription as until now or a Regular Army”, the GSoA want to have a voluntary militia which most closely corresponds to the US-American National Guard. Austria likewise had a so-called professional militia in the regular army option, which is also tantamount to a voluntary militia. However, this had always only been planned as an additional component, like in the USA.

When it comes to alternative community service, there are great differences. Although people who do this kind of service serve one and a half times of what is required for military service in both countries, the status of this service has always been completely different in Austria. About a third of all conscripts, more than 13,000 young men, registered for community service in 2011 – in Switzerland, the number was about 5,000. A majority of Austrians on community service have always been employed in social jobs and been trained accordingly. If as a patient, one meets someone doing community service in a rescue or ambulance service, this is therefore the rule rather than the exception.

The Swiss budget is virtually extravagant
In financial terms, too, the differences between the two countries are serious. Costs are usually cut with the help of modern technologies. With an Austrian defence budget of just under 0.6 per cent of the gross domestic product, the scope has been exhausted. In comparison with this, the Swiss budget is virtually extravagant. In the context of the existing budget, a conversion to individual modern technologies has not been precluded in advance.

The advantage of direct democracy
A great plus for Switzerland is the way it deals with direct democracy. Whereas in Austria, talk was about a more or less immediate implementation of either possibility, even a clear-cut army opponent like the GSoA knows that time pressure would serve little purpose in Switzerland. The Federal Council would have up to five years for implementation. What this implementation would look like is left open by the initiative, with the exception of the fact that the army would be distinctly smaller.

Beside the point
And yet there is some common ground: firstly, security policy strategy and the related questions regarding neutrality ought to have been discussed first of all in Austria. And in Switzerland, too, the question misses the point. Actually, everyone knows that the Group for Switzerland without an Army does not want a voluntary army. Secondly, the many uncertainties make it difficult to estimate the costs and the effective number of volunteers. Therefore many benchmarks are lacking. And thirdly, the debate in Austria was highly emotional. This can also be expected to be the case in Switzerland.

Photo: Photocase / PNetzer