Neutral Austria mulls changeover to a professional army


VIENNA LETTER:Austrians are likely to face a referendum next year on whether the current regime of national military service should be retained

ROW AFTER row of soldiers clasp machine guns across their chests and stand stock still, as if frozen by the bitter wind gusting through Vienna’s Heldenplatz or Heroes’ Square.

Standing in the shadow of the Hofburg palace, once home to the Habsburg emperor, they are joined by a huge crowd to celebrate Austria’s national holiday. In keeping with tradition since 1965, the Heldenplatz has been transformed on this day into a showcase for the Austrian army.

“Discover, explore, marvel,” the head of the armed forces urges the crowd.

And they do: after watching the swearing in of almost 1,200 new soldiers, visitors inspect tanks spaced out around the square. The biggest draw is undoubtedly the sleek black Eurofighter helicopter while children can enjoy a ride on a military pony or try out a machine gun for size.

To Irish eyes, this kind of military celebration seems odd, particularly in a fellow neutral country like Austria. But the show is part of the country’s tradition of “armed neutrality”, adopted a day after the last occupying troops withdrew on October 25th, 1955.

This year’s celebrations come with Austria’s armed forces under unprecedented political scrutiny and economic pressure.

The defence ministry has been ordered to cut its budget by a quarter by 2014 under reform plans put forward by the Social Democrat (SPÖ)-led grand coalition government. And, as in neighbouring Germany, Austria is debating whether the current conscription model of military service has a future.

Vienna’s SPÖ mayor Michael Häupl came out against the practice ahead of recent elections in the city and now Chancellor Werner Faymann has joined the debate.

“We are not closing ourselves to a discussion on how to shape the army’s tasks in the future,” said Mr Faymann on Heldenplatz. “This is about having a discussion, analysing, considering, but then deciding.”

Various future army models are being analysed by the defence ministry as part of a wider security strategy review. Senior government officials say that a referendum is likely next year, asking voters to decide on whether to retain the compulsory military conscription, currently at six months, or whether to move to a professional army.

Public opinion is almost equally divided on the matter, and seasoned observers say the road to a decision is lined with obstacles.

“Many Social Democrats oppose a professional army because of how, in the civil war in 1934, soldiers fired on workers,” says Austrian journalist Roland Adrowitzer, on Heldenplatz to watch his son’s swearing in.

The core responsibilities of Austria’s army are national defence and natural disaster assistance. Like Ireland, it has a long UN peacekeeping tradition, going back 50 years, of which Austrians are rightly proud.

This tradition is unlikely to be spared from the cuts and reforms.

Currently Austria has around 1,000 troops on mission abroad, primarily in a 36-year Middle East mission to Golan, though UN mandates over the years have brought Austrian soldiers to many other destinations, from Congo to Cyprus.

Beyond that, Austrian officials say the army has “new defence possibilities” through membership of Nato’s Partnership for Peace and the EU’s common security policy.

Austria participated in the Irish-led EU mission to Chad to protect Darfur refugees. The mission began amid huge political controversy but ended without casualties and with positive rating by politicians and the public.

Officials insist Austria will decide on future participation in EU missions on a case-by-case basis, with each requiring parliamentary approval.

“Chad was a mission to gain Africa expertise but the mix of UN-EU missions in the future will very much depend on what is required in the EU missions,” said Dr Peter Huber, international organisation head in Austria’s foreign ministry.

“The EU mission had the expression ‘battle group’, which has a negative connotation. People speak enough English here to know what battle stands for and there’ll be huge discussion when a battle group is deployed for the first time.”

Some military analyses predict that running a professional army would cost twice what present arrangements do, suggesting troop cuts would be a likely means to control spending.

But reforming Austria’s 15,000-strong army is not just a matter of scaling back on soldiers, but also on bureaucracy. “We have more generals now than in 1918,” one senior official said last week.

Austrian soldiers say they are well used to funding shortages and debates on restructuring and are sceptical than any drastic changes are coming their way anytime soon.

In a tent on Heldenplatz, soldier Michael Loscher is showing visitors the new radio equipment just acquired by the army. “It takes a long time for anything to happen in the army; it operates on its own timetable,” he says. “Until recently we were still carrying around the same backpack radio sets the Americans used in the Vietnam War.”