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Without doubt, the despicable and foolish video showing two drunken and corrupt politicians from the Viennese coalition partner FPOE, recently published by leading German media, is unprecedented in Austrian post-war politics. As a successful outside “sting operation” which “killed” a national government and led to early elections, a consequence of the scandal has been that all military financing and modernisation steps, which have been painstakingly and, despite much opposition, initiated since the start of 2018, are now left in limbo without losing relevance or urgency.

And, since the shocked and humiliated FPOE has been unwilling to sacrifice its popular ‘anti-migration’ minister of interior Herbert Kickl to the demands of chancellor Sebastian Kurz, all their ministers have subsequently resigned, including the esteemed minister of defence Mario Kunasek. It remains uncertain whether he will be able to keep his party’s promise to double defence funds by up to 1% of GNP or receive additional funds for long overdue ‘big ticket’ acquisitions. It is very much unclear what will happen now until a new government is appointed by December.

A Foreseeable Downturn

The young Chancellor Kurz will achieve good electoral results at the ballot box in September, given his courage in dropping the discredited FPOE. He and his party, the OEVP, will continue to focus on zero new debt, which, in fact, was only recently achieved for the first time in decades. They are aware that defence issues – with the exception of disaster relief – are not a high priority among the population and the majority left-wing leaning media. Most Austrians have never taken the military aspect of neutrality seriously, no matter to what extent the ‘Founding Fathers’, in Moscow 1955, had conceived this concept along Swiss lines. For example, Austria has 84,000 sq km and 15 jets while Switzerland has 41,000 sq km and 50 jets.

The officers around Chief of General Staff Robert Brieger would be delighted if they were able to maintain the urgently needed growth rates of 2016, which add up to the highest financing ever – €2.3Bn. From 2021 onwards, however, the curve shows a downturn once again. It remains to be seen whether the “dark times” of 2007 until 2016 will return, when the military had to ‘swallow’ budget cuts of €571M due to a broad package of austerity measures introduced in the wake of the European financial crisis. These cuts forced the decommissioning of 750 older armoured and wheeled vehicles and artillery over the past decade. During this period, 41% of air and rotorcraft, 62% of heavy weapons, 60% of protected and armoured vehicles and 56% of unprotected vehicles were decommissioned. The number of workers fell by 16%, with mobilisation falling by as much as 50% and the annual share of conscripts by some 47%.

Right-Wing Infiltration?

Since the inauguration of this government before Christmas 2017, the left-wing opposition has always been afraid that handing over both armed executive bodies to the FPOE would lead to right-wing infiltration. And, just at the beginning of May, there were new concerns about military liaison officers in other federal ministries. This has caused astonishment and criticism. Liaison officers are deployed in the offices of the Chancellery and Vice Chancellery offices and in the Ministries of Finance, Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs, Interior and Education – but not necessarily on the ground and/or on a full-time basis. Originally introduced during the Austrian EU Presidency in 2018 to improve interdepartmental co-ordination, these officials remain in place and are expected to be deployed more intensively in the future. Military liaison officers have previously served temporarily in connection with certain events and there has always been one in the Office of the Federal President as Commander-in-Chief of the Bundeswehr. However, the fact that Mr. Baumann previously held senior positions in the Federal Intelligence Service and that the Ministry of Defence is in the hands of FPOE has now made this a sensitive issue.

The MoD claims that this closer link between ministries will quicken decision-making processes with the participation of two or more ministries and corresponds to the idea of ‘comprehensive national defence’, the guiding principle of Austrian defence – at least in theory. Connections have the potential to be a step towards the realisation of this concept, which envisages national defence not only as a matter for the armed forces, but for all political, economic and social public institutions. However, the opposition parties suspect ulterior motives lay behind the move, warning against both infiltration and espionage. A constitutional expert has warned that the aim of this new role could be to obtain information for the Bundeswehr and questioned the legality of this move. This shows that the MoD has also moved into the focus of those who are now cheering on the collapse of the current centre-right model.

Remaining a Trustworthy Partner

In spite of all this turmoil, the Austrian forces are still a trustworthy ally in many multinational missions and bilateral agreements, the increase of the Austrian contingent in Mali being a vivid example. Since 4 June, a total of 47 Bundesheer personnel will have been deployed to Mali as part of the European Training Mission Mali (EUTM), which will be under Austrian command. Its objective is to train the Malian army in the fight against Islamist and Tuareg insurgents. The incoming commander Bgdr Habersatter will oversee the Bundesheer’s fourth-largest mission abroad, after Kosovo/KFOR (>400), Bosnia (>300) and Lebanon/UNIFIL (<200). With a total of 1,028 personnel deployed abroad, the Austrians are maintaining a traditionally large footprint overseas in relation to their size. It is also important to mention a recent joint exercise between Austrian and US military police where a binational, company-sized element went through different training scenarios. The overall aim was to enhance interoperability and to work out communication protocols and procedures for international deployments.

Back to the Old structure

When it comes to their structure, however, the Austrian forces have become ‘normal‘ again, since the 2019 structural reform became effective only by 1 April 2019. The ill-fated so-called ‘LV 21.1’ reform from a year ago has been rolled back and the extra Air and Ground Forces Commands made way for a unified upper command, led by a three-star general in an effort to further centralise command structures. The Bundesheer operated under such a ‘Joint Forces Command‘ (at Graz) until 2016. However, the actual extent of this change remains to be seen. It was perhaps not really a decisive change, but only part of the general reform ‘frenzy’ in which the military – and not just the Austrian – constantly finds itself, as current defence ministers reverse the reforms made by their predecessors. Only the Austrian Air Force (now again only a staff element) has protested against this move, angry to have lost their short-lived independence from the ‘aardvarks’. As the most expensive branch, they have asked who advised Minister Kunasek to retitle an engineer “Air Chief”.

What will become of Minister Kunasek is completely an open question. In fact, who will replace him and by which party is actually a matter of no concern. This is because the new minister and all heads of government will, nevertheless, have to deal with geopolitical conflicts, international terrorism, organised crime, cyber risks and hybrid conflicts involving state and non-state actors. These internal and external threats pose growing challenges to all government agencies involved in providing security and defence protection to the public.

The Endless TYPHOON Squabble

Despite of all this turbulence, Viennese public prosecutors believe that, contrary to public expectations, there is little basis for initiating criminal proceedings against the €1.7Bn Eurofighter TYPHOON purchase, of which Austria became the launch export customer some 15 years ago. In an internal meeting held on 1 April, which only became public because of an internal document that was leaked by the news platform ‘Addendum’ (a product of Red Bull founder Didi Mateschitz), two public prosecutors stated that there was no sufficient legal reason to open the investigation in 2017.

At that time, the former Defence Minister Hanspeter Doskozil (SPOE), together with the Austrian financial prosecutor Wolfgang Peschorn, initiated the investigation, claiming that former EADS executives had “cheated Austria of supply capability, equipment and hidden costs for many years.” However, contact with ESD at “Addendum” confirmed that a prosecutor at the (unusually recorded) meeting said he “had difficulty understanding why the investigation was opened at all.”

After the controversial meeting was publicised, the public prosecutor’s office, which has been conducting the Eurofighter investigation since February 2019, is now openly accusing the Secretary General in the Ministry of Justice, Christian Pilnacek (OEVP), of abuse of office for having demanded that the case be closed quickly.

The Procurator General’s Office, a body which oversees prosecutors, confirmed it had received a complaint. In response, Mr Pilnacek has rejected the accusation, saying on public radio that “the question at the meeting was how to make best use of the results we have collected to date, or to bring the case to an end. There was a lack of willingness [at the special prosecutors’ side] to understand that viewpoint. But I was not asking to ‘simply‘ turn it down!“

The Austrian Air Force is suffering from all this delay. The ongoing third parliamentary inquiry has caused the now outgoing centre-right government to once again sit tight. Chancellor Kurz (OEVP) originally wanted to have a fundamental decision made this summer as to whether Austria should either phase out its EUROFIGHTER fleet or upgrade it. However, the MoD (FPOE), who is now also outgoing, said that a “timely solution is needed, as the life span of the 12 remaining 70s of the Saab-105 jet trainer in Austria, which works alongside the 15 EUROFIGHTERs in air policing, expires at the end of next year.” Austria must, therefore, decide whether to continue using two fleets of jets for air policing or switch to one type. In view of the financial situation and current political rifts, however, the latter seems increasingly unlikely.

At the same time, and according to ICAO regulations, the Austrian EUROFIGHTERs will also have to operate a new IFF Mode S/-5 transponder after 2021. At an expected cost of around €500.000M per aircraft, the materials authority of the MoD is currently waiting to see which of the models the four core nations will choose. Allegedly, the German Air Force is very relaxed on this matter, and if no fleet-wide decision is to be expected, Austria would turn to Leonardo’s model of equipment.

Georg Mader is a defence corres-pondent and freelance aerospace journalist based in Vienna, Austria, and a regular contributor to ESD.