Opinion | Does Austria’s Military Have a Future Role to Play on the International Stage?

The Bundesheer is the nation’s stepchild, unloved and underfed. But it is a respected international player and may have found its new role.

Today’s Austrian army, the Bundesheer (BH), is a military minnow: 15,000 professional soldiers, 18,000 draftees, 7,000 civilians and 25,000 Miliz (reservists). It’s a strange beast, an army that never fights, a conscription force with too few conscripts, and a political orphan starved of funds. It is charged with four tasks: defending the borders, operations abroad, assistance during natural catastrophes and infrastructure protection.

Prosperous little Austria spends well under one percent of GNP on defense, about half the European average. In popular debate, it is justified as disaster response, a kind of Red Cross in khaki. The Trump US’s partial withdrawal from the world stage is pushing the Europeans to re-think their collective military needs and despite Austria’s technical neutrality, BH participation in the international PfP (Partnership for Peace) and various peacekeeping missions has become acceptable. Austrian officers are proud of their small army’s specialized expertise and knack for improvisation; France and the US send troops here to train in mountain warfare. During the Kosovo crisis, the Bundesheer was charged with searching civilian homes for explosives. The Austrians went in with teddy bears for the children, earning a peek into their backpacks. An American unit would have kicked in the doors.

Through the Cold War, neutral Austria sheltered cozily between the NATO forces of Germany and Italy. A 1989 Pentagon study (“The Austrian Army, is it Worth the Effort?”) questioned whether in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion, the Bundesheer could be taken seriously at all. Successive defense ministers fought manfully for their army’s budget, usually on the losing side. The truth is that many Austrians are not sure that the Republic even needs an army, or as one retired Miliz officer put it, they think: “Es wird eh nix passieren.” (Nothing’s going to happen anyway). “That’s the way the government wanted it,” he added wearily. Democracy Austrian style.

Professionals vs. Citizens

By 2010, the debate over the future of Austria’s military crystalized into an almost philosophical debate over a professional volunteer army (the Anglo-American model) vs. continued conscription. Unsurprisingly, the pragmatic conservative ÖVP argued for a professional army and the principled social-democratic SPÖ defended the hallowed concept of the “citizen in uniform”.

Suddenly, Vienna’s socialist Mayor Michael Häupl spoke up in favor of the professional army, just days after Defense Minister Norbert Darabos (also SPÖ) declared the existing draft system “chiseled in stone.” The two governing parties swapped positions and agreed to a Volksbefragung (consultative referendum) to resolve the stand-off. Voters were asked: Are you in favor of introducing a professional army? (the SPÖ position) or maintaining the general draft? (ÖVP). As with Britain’s unholy Brexit vote, the blunt instrument of a referendum reduced the subtle issue of the Republic’s future military to a feeding frenzy of populist posturing in the Boulevard (yellow) press.

One of the hottest issues was the future of the ambulance service, manned largely by low cost paramedics doing Zivildienst (Alternative Service). Ironically it was the conservative ÖVP, who vehemently opposed the Zivildienst back in the 70s and now proclaimed it a pillar of the social system. In January 2013, the ÖVP preference for retaining the citizen in uniform model won comfortably 60/40. The liberal German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung commented drily that after 70 years spent demonizing the professional soldiers who put down the 1934 workers’ uprising, the SPÖ had failed to understand its own voters.

The future of the Austrian Republic’s military probably lies in increasing involvement in international peacekeeping missions, “do-gooder” enough to satisfy lingering left-wing suspicions. The Defense Ministry’s site states proudly that Austria provides “hundreds of soldiers every day in the service of peace” and shows an impressive list of current Bundesheer hotspot involvements – Lebanon, Kosovo, Bosnia, Ukraine and others. Nations have always used the military to advance their interests, and neutral Austria is no exception. The “Great Dealmaker” Bruno Kreisky understood this: In 1960, he leveraged Austria’s willingness to send a medical unit into war-torn Congo to get the UN to formally discuss Südtirol, pressuring a reluctant Italian government to grant long wished-for regional autonomy.

Currently, there are nearly a thousand BH troops abroad, more than half in our own Balkan backyard – long an area of legitimate Austrian self-interest and a continuing opportunity for Austrian business, as one officer told us with a smile. Will the future of Austria’s military once more be to defend the old Habsburg crown territories from barbarians at the gate?

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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