Viewpoint from Vienna
“Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you”
It was with these serious words that Maj Gen Thomas Starlinger, the current Defence Minister, addressed all Austrians. For the first time, a responsible government official openly admitted that the national army could probably not be of help to the citizens (who pay one of the highest taxes in Europe) in case of crises, disasters or catastrophes.
As a professional officer, he has no obligation to any party and openly said the sobering truth directly to the face as no one at his level has done before, which is why his paper “Our Army in 2030“ was subsequently discussed in most of the election talks on TV and in the press. Otherwise even prominent TV presenters like Armin Wolf, recently named European Journalist of the Year, would never have talked about 'unsexy' technical issues like the successor to the obsolete Saab-105. Even more sobering, however, were the answers from the top candidates.
Gen. Brieger said that out of 265 critical infrastructures, the Austrian Armed Forces could quickly take control and protect three of them. If an enemy would capture Vienna Airport, the nearby oil refinery and the nearby marshalling yard, Austria would need an entire brigade to retake these assets – and this is the maximum the Austrian military currently has on quick alert. When it comes to the remaining 265 facilities listed in Austria`s 2014 “Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection”, we need to cite Minister Starlinger: “Sorry folks, please turn to your politicians“.
First, this frightening capability gap is due to a shortage of running vehicles in the Austrian barracks, especially in the front units. These units have to borrow vehicles from other units for their exercises; most of the time they hire Hop-On, Hop-Off buses that carry them to their destinations.
The militia units, which are enshrined in the constitution as the foundation on which the federal army is to be organised, have become second-line formations in which the officers train all alone with themselves and without foot soldiers. However, this dismal situation is not only due to the dismal budgetary situation. It is also because a small group of officers are not accepting the 2013 plebiscite to maintain compulsory military service; they are still quietly working towards their goal of a professional army. Unimpressed by the discouraging experience of Sweden or Germany, they forget that a professional army would rarely be much better funded than it is now. But in a now looming coalition with the Green Party, these officers might well find allies to support their intentions.
Conscription vs. Persistent Structures
What even Defence Minister Starlinger will not be able to change – he recently said he will stay if a new government follows the conclusions of his '2030 report' – is the far too high share of 60% of the €2.2Bn for personnel costs (salaries and pensions). This share is most likely the highest among the Western armies. Material procurement is at a low 10%; internationally normal would be a share of 20 to 30%. In addition to decades of political neglect, one reason is the special status of most officers and many non-commissioned officers as civil servants for life. This status is - as with most employees in all ministries - anchored in the Federal Chancellery, so that these structures are naturally sluggish. The military leadership knows, of course, but after several reforms, the total number of defense posts of standing troops and military administration has fallen from 23,857 in 2004 to only 21,899 in 2017.
On the other hand, the current military leadership is pressing for a return to eight months of conscription, as opposed to only six months since 2006. Recruits are currently being trained, some of whom are assigned to the South/Eastern border relief mission or are deployed in other functions. Gen. Brieger described this as a 'wasted human capability because we train them until they are basically usable - and then we never see them again'! However, based on statements made during the recent election campaign, it is unlikely that a new government would dare to extend the period of conscription. This also applies to the recruitment of women in the light of the frequently emphasised 'gender equality'.
What Needs to happen?
The most important and expensive of the urgent questions is what to do with the Austrian Air Force, as the 15 TYPHOONs require IFF/Mode-5/S upgrades and all-weather IR capability such as PIRATE or LITENING pods. The Saab-105s which still account for 35% of daily air policing will retire by the end of 2020. This issue is, however, being discussed at a very primitive level, without any technical expertise.
Chancellor Kurz has only briefly signalled his support for 'the medium-term target of 1% GDP, while I call for the most cost-effective solutions in air traffic control'. Days later, a Green politician called for 'international cooperation on airspace surveillance' and had no idea that this would mean stationing foreign jets in neutral Austria.
It is comments like these that make the author and perhaps many Austrian pilots and technicians pause, because according to national economic figures, population data and area size, Austria could operate 40 such jets without a citizen missing a cent in his wallet. And even that would only bring Austria into the EU average.
This is the result of a lack of political will, mixed with a canine cowardice towards the media. All polls since Starlinger's report show that over 50% of Austrians demand better financing of the armed forces. This change of opinion results from the impressions gained from international events since 2014 and from the slow and painful realisation that other actors do not care at all about Austrian neutrality, the UN and OSCE location, or the Vienna Opera Ball.