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The Austrian Head of the Defence Staff, General Robert Brieger, talks to ESD about what he has encountered and what he has been doing for the drained army of the wealthy neutral country since taking office a year ago.

ESD: General, first of all, I would like to ask you an international question: during the current EU Parliament Election campaign here in Austria,, and also in other Member States, the issue of a future EU army was raised several times. Do you consider this issue to be realistic or feasible?
Gen. Brieger: Neither – nor. It does not pop up for me but you have described it correctly. We are a neutral and democratic country in the middle of Europe; we utilise the possible cooperation among NATO-PfP and EU nations to the maximum as we are deeply embedded in all these bodies. And we are happy with that – according to our possibilites. What may happen in 30+ years from now does not help us with today’s manifold tasks, and I answer with my minister: No topic for now.

Although the Austrian Bundesheer has a respectable numbers of recruits, a sizable component is not fully combat-capable due to the cut in compulsory service. (Photos: Bundesheer)

ESD: In March 2019, you attracted some public attention by publishing a brochure where you openly pointed out the limits of Austrian military capabilities if everything remains at the current and forecast budget level of 0.5% of GDP, or how high the funds or billions will need to be if we only want to keep the current level or how high if we want to reduce the investment backlog. What prompted you to publish this?
Gen. Brieger: I woud like to summarise the issue as follows: When I came into this function, I faced the severe challenge around the financial situation of the Austrian Armed Forces on the equipment level and the critical level regarding combat readiness. For many years now, it had been accepted that this status was unsatisfactory. However, we we military people have become accustomed to this dire funding culture, while emphasising and publicly highlighting what in fact are secondary roles – and not the constitutionally stipulated armed defence of this neutral country and its citizens. I decided to change this strategy and presented – together with Defence Minister Mario Kunasek – a candid look at the status of the armed forces to the public and the media, without groaning or complaining but also not creating a glossy image that all is fine and that we can happily fulfil our tasks. That was the driving force behind the brochure ‘Effective National Defence – An Appeal.’ Of course, by creating a certain public stir, the brochure had the strategic objective of pointing out to the Austrians that something must now be done with their armed forces and that, if we maintain the current level of funding, we will soon be at 0.5% of GDP, well below any minimum required to comply with certain basics of military defence.

ESD: But today that doesn’t mean the classical defensive combat with all means against a comparably armed conventional enemy.
Gen. Brieger: No, of course not – not in the classical way. I did not mean that, since for that large-scale conventional defence the Armed Forces are too small and also lack certain up-to-date capabilities. But national defence today for example also means securing nationwide critical infrastructure against asymmetrical threats and hybrid attacks, to be expected in ‘derailed‘ or otherwise chaotic times, or under an indiscriminate terrorist attack. And for that, as we call it ‘protection operation‘ in several locations, we need manpower equivalent to a funding of 1%. If policymakers in their fiscal approach decide otherwise, then the General Staff and advisers to the minister must draw consequences and policymakers must know what risks they are taking if this underfunding continues.

ESD: So, was it worth it in the end and what was or will be the outcome?
Gen. Brieger: I must say that some reactions have strenghtened or underlined my position as no factual or technical arguments against what I said were put forth. In the public reception it was not questioned in substance, but it was understood that here a critical situation has been highlighted, similar to when the director of a hospital explains that he lacks some vital up-to-date technical installations for curing and caring according to their professional integrity. So, there was a broad consensus in the media and in public comments by various decision-makers. Closely related to this, however, is the question of whether what I am asking for is at all realistic in Austrian politics. I then always answer that it is my and our task to translate the constitutional tasks entrusted to the Austrian Armed Forces into capabilities. These demand a certain amount of quality and quantity of forces. If we are forced to accept or, rather, suffer drawbacks from those amounts, the responsible politicians will have to accept the inherent or connected risks. And that is what we are making clear here.

ESD: Meaning, to simply highlight the risks they are taking for the population?
Gen. Brieger: Exactly, to let them know the risks occurring sooner or later. That was the intent behind this brochure as the budget negotiations have only now begun.

ESD: In May, you were criticised by the opposition Social Democrats for your openness in a parliamentary questionnaire on the grounds that you had ‘revealed military secrets’. Was it not exactly the same people who, over a decade, created and ignored this backlog?
Gen. Brieger: That is partly right. I do not need to tell you that you can easily find all the capability data in SIPRI, reports to the OSCE, Jane’s or Military Balance. At least in Europe, you can today track every piece of equipment, like our M109 artillery pieces that were sold to Estonia, for example. Or how many vehicles of an obsolete type are still operational.

As an alpine country, the Austrian armed forces are competent in mountain warfare, which frequently attracts international military visits.

ESD: To me, it seems that since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, the public mood in Europe, including Austria, has turned away from the zero expenditure policy and returned to the defence of all of us, even though there are still some politicians playing games on the backs of the armed forces. For example, one party is not granting its coalition partner a budget success because its current defence minister would run against it in next year’s regional elections. Is this also the impression in the armed forces as a drained institution?
Gen. Brieger: You know that in my function I cannot comment on domestic political manoeuvres, no matter how more or less accurate these observations may or may not be.. I can only say that for decades we, in Austria, have unfortunately accepted the daily experience of party politics interfering into the planning and financing of the armed forces. And there has always been the contradictory desire to keep defence policy and its instrument to protect the country and its population out of such infighting.

ESD: This is more or less how it is handled in most Western countries, keeping the armed forces out of politics and election campaigns. and so forth.
Gen. Brieger: Exactly. There is a consensus in all parliamentary parties that security and defence policy has to stay out of the daily party political infighting.

ESD: Surprisingly, however, in late 2016 there was this all-party parliamentary motion to provide additional funds to the Bundesheer.
Gen. Brieger: Yes, this was one such rare case; it occured also because of the awareness of changed security parameters. But that was a singular effect and it did not translate into a turn-around and meanwhile has been ‘consumed‘.Hence our appeal to get serious again and to achieve a solid and decent regular budget that is also appropriate for one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

ESD: You mentioned the key task of protecting critical infrastructure. Aside an exercise at Vienna Airport, I once was told by an officer that the material and human resources scale to protect Schwechat international airport the country’s largest oil-refiniery nearby and the close main railway marshalling yard at Kledering, would consume all the short-time available personnel. Yet, there are many more such physical objects in Austria. Is that true and how many forces would we really need to cover all of them?
Gen. Brieger: Yes, for that task we would need the equivalent of a brigade. To fully protect and patrol an international airport like Schwechat within its perimeter, you quickly get to several battalions. It is a highly manpower-intensive mission. Also, you would initially not mobilise but instead try to cover this with available forces, which, of course, are limited. While we have quite respectable numbers of recruits, a large number of them are not fully combat-capable, which has to do with the cut in compulsory service [since 2006 from eight months down to six]. Thus, we largely rely on the ready or standing troops, which quickly brings us to the limit. By the way, I am observing this not only in our own forces.

In view of shrinking demographics, the Austrian army is rethinking its fitness criteria: If you do not have the sight of a sniper, you can still work on a computer screen.

ESD: With the current level and strength of troops, what kind of protection could the Austrian armed forces provide for how many critical objects? What numbers of troops could be deployed throughout the country and in what timeframe could it be achieved?
Gen. Brieger: Of the ready component of the Austrian Armed Forces, about a brigade equivalent can be deployed within 48 hours. We constantly prove that we can achieve this in various so-called assistance operations in support of law-enforcement. We have over 700 troops – including conscripts – in border surveillance operation. And we have about 1,000 troops in international operations, which ties up certain potential. In an assessment of a situation or crisis, there would likely be a decision to shift forces, as in the event of a domestic terrorist attack, to interrupt or end the border operation, for example. It is an assessment of priorities. In general, in any military, it is a reality that when you have four building blocks, like large units, in fact only one is fully available for combat.

ESD: This is like warships and aircraft carriers. Only one in three is ready for action.
Gen. Brieger: Right. In the form of a construction kit, where you can take the modules you need right now.

ESD: Or, in large-scale exercises for example, when units have to borrow vehicles from other units to fulfill their objectives?
Gen. Brieger: For example, sometimes, for better co-ordination in such larger exercises, we are now moving along the path to standardising the induction dates during the year in order to have the brigades do their exercises together towards the end of each conscript contingent’s service period. In the past, this was a ‘patchwork‘ and the large units are, in effect, no longer brigades anymore but instead only ‘force providers’.

The Austrian fleet of tracked vehicles needs to be renewed as there has been no investment in the LEOPARD 2A4 fleet for 20 years.

ESD: Let us talk about border-protection. When you took office, you said in an interview that uncontrolled mass migration is one of the major current threats. That has caused raised eyebrows in some political circles. What did you mean in particular? And when does it become a military question that requires military action?
Gen. Brieger: I would explain what I meant by saying that we are currently supporting border protection in the form of assistance to law-enforcement. Furthermore – and this easily draws us into a highly political arena – our approach to security is that if in a society you have a growing share of problematic or hard-to-integrate characteristics, then this can lead to social discord and furthermore, over the medium term, theoretically to law-enforcement operations on a larger scale, to calm or tone down scenarios of – again potential – domestic unrest. Thus, migration as a potentially destabilising factor is listed today in every international threat analysis.

ESD: And such threat analyses and strategy papers also shows we can no longer afford the ‘luxury’ of ignoring many scenarios and potential crises as we could a few years ago.
Gen. Brieger: Of course not. The ‘end of history‘, longed for and propagated after the Cold War, has been falsified. That luxury is gone – and all European armies are struggling to cope with that. Especially since 2014, potential threats have tended to develop much faster. There are no warning times anymore, very different players.

ESD: Let us get back to capabilities and force posture. We have collected some figures from various sources about what has been abolished, phased-out or scrapped from your inventory over the last 15 years: 41% of air and rotorcraft, 62% of heavy weapons, 60% of protected and armoured vehicles, 56% of unprotected vehicles. Human resources dwindled by 16%, with the mobilisation number down by even 50% and the annual contingent of conscripts by 47%. Are these figures correct?
Gen. Brieger: Unfortunately, these figures are correct, and are the figures I have presented in my brochure. One can use these figures, yes. And, after it was released, for example, I was asked why the number of standing manpower was reduced by only 16%, while there were 60% fewer MBTs. Well, it is hard to explain that even equipment that is not in the first line has to be maintained., skills need to be preserved, and so on.

ESD: When it comes to weapon systems, where do you see the largest gaps in the Austrian inventory?
Gen. Brieger: First, I would mention protected as well as unprotected mobility. Many trucks are twice as old as their drivers, andit is possible, if only selectively, to procure replacements. The fleets are shrinking even though there is considerable demand. We are also struggling to equip our infantry with protected vehicles. We have been able to equip three battalions but the majority of them currently do not have that kind of equipment. There are deficits in individual combat equipment and in communication equipment like modern radios. Another area that is dear to me are the tracked vehicles, the core of any force. For 20 years, no investment has been made in the Leopard 2A4 fleet, so at least some life-extending measures are needed.

ESD: Were these MBTs not subject to modernisation in co-operation with Germany and Switzerland? Which upgrade was or is planned for them? Night combat capability perhaps?
Gen. Brieger: Yes, there are ongoing talks about that. The problem is that these steps are so costly that we have come to take such life-extending measures on our own. That is often no big deal, like when it comes to hoses, which have become porous. Or changing the turret‘s hydraulic drive to an electronically controlled one. There is a need to overhaul the tank gun since the old Rheinmetall gun cannot fire modern ammunition. In such cases, we look for bilateral solutions. Another issue was that cadmium sediments had been found in fuel tanks, at least after they had used NATO diesel during some deployments to Germany. And you are right, they need night-combat capability. These steps are necessary to make the tank combat-capable for another 10 to 15 years. Some demand is also reported from the artillery, where, for targetting, we are introducing the meanwhile operational tactical tracker UAV. We have also begun fielding the protected Iveco HUSSAR 4×4 vehicle for the mobile reconnaissance units.

ESD: How would you rank the capabilities where the Bundesheer today is 1) very good, 2) on a moderate level 3) has only scientific basic knowledge or 4) is not pictured at all? Things like EW on troop level, mobile air-defence, and so forth.
Gen. Brieger: I would not answer that using such categories. Why? Because in all these assessments, one must not underestimate the human factor. And we have very good and capable professional soldiers in most units. Our training is a ‘top product‘, also internationally. In fact, we receive very good marks when it comes to training and the approach to the professional education of NCOs and officers, which results in great capacities of improvisation, down to the individual commander. In international operations, other and larger armies often admire us for that. That being said, we have some branches of the forces where the training level and the equipment quality are better or more up-to-date than in others. This is the case with the NBC defence units versus armour. This means that, generally, our plus is the human capital, which often compensates for equipment that is not state-of-the-art. We simply have good personnel, otherwise we would not achieve successful daily operations. And thanks to the efforts under [former defence minister] Doskozil, there is more interest in military service and more recruitment of capable personnel. Yet, of course, the point is to provide these young, ambitious ‘tech-afficionados‘ that they are with modern, up-to-date equipment. And with decent infrastructure in the barracks and decent working conditions to keep them in the forces after national service.

ESD: Regarding incoming conscripts and their ‘potential’, there have been reports in recent months that you want – or need – to ease the demands on personal fitness or medical aptitude in mustering the incoming young recruits. So, what is the aim and the reason?
Gen. Brieger: Generally, we have a shrinking demography and, of course, the incoming conscripts reflect that. But the number of conscripts considered unfit for service has risen by a quarter [in 2017, 10,204 or 26,3% out of 38,840 conscripts were found unfit]. Therefore, we are reassessing the fitness criteria: If you do not have the eyesight of a sniper, you can still work on a computer screen, just as you do in your private life.

The Austrian Armed Forces are currently supporting border protection measures of civilian law enforcement authorities; depicted is an exercise at Spielfeld, 26 June 2018.

ESD: However, of course, there are capabilities or roles where, in an international comparison, there is only basic theoretical knowledge in the higher and specialised ranks, although not at troop level. I would like to emphasise once again the entire EW sector.
Gen. Brieger: Yes, as in any army, there are strengths and weaknesses. Being an Alpine country, we are very competent in mountain warfare and operations. Foreign armies are continously coming to see and learn from us about that. For decades, we have had bi-annual helicopter mountain flight training, where foreign forces send pilots and sometimes helicopters too. That is very demanding for crews otherwise flying only over sea or desert. And let me highlight here the sector of cyber defence and warfare, where we have – with our very limited resources – established a level where we have repeatedly won ‘cyber challenge’ competitions and are decently able to protect our networks. Thus, while there are top marks in some sectors, there is hardly any weapon system in our arsenal where there would be no need for smaller or larger upgrades or improvements.

ESD: This brings us back to the dire budgetary situation, which is the result of widespread illusions among politicians and the media. While Austrians drive to SATURN for every latest technical gadget, the defence sector of the EU’s fourth richest country has to continue with 50-year-old systems, such as the helicopter ALOUETTE-III or the jet trainer Saab-105OE, or with 0.5% of GDP. European defence budgets average at around 1.4%, which means that Austria would have to spend more than twice as much just to reach the average of its neighbours. Is this realistic, or does it give the impression that the military is of no interest to political decision-makers – no matter which party? Can you still be disappointed?
Gen. Brieger: I must admit I am a trauma patient when it comes to the treatment of the Austrian Armed Forces. Ever since I was a lieutenant, we have always had shortfalls. We discussed guided weapons decades after their introduction on the battlefield. Just yesterday, I had an appointment at the Ministry of Finance on the dry subject of accounting, where I was told that we should set sound priorities, and then we would manage with our budget. That is the impression some people have. On the other hand, I have the impression that it has become known at the highest fiscal level that large-scale procurements cannot be funded by our meagre annual budget. But regardless of more or less accurate impressions, the General Staff is requesting a rise of military funding from the current €2.2Bn to a minimum of €3.3Bn by 2022, or an annual budget of €2.7Bn, plus approximately €400M for extra procurement investments, and from then on a minimum of 1% of GDP, for example, €4Bn just to cover the most pressing needs to get the armed forces to an up-to-date level.

ESD: I am sure some of my fellow journalists have asked you what you will do if these well-calculated and illustrated questions continue to be ignored. What can you do to highlight the shortfall? Would you then propose at the political level that it tells the people that military defence should be removed from the Constitution?
Gen. Brieger: One should not scare the general public that may be more insecure than in the past. But with the necessary insistence and tenacity, I have to clearly point out to individual decision-makers, who have sworn an oath to protect the constitution and the population who elected them, that underequipment and understaffing of the Armed Forces does come with considerable risks. If we are unable to protect high-level summits or comparable large-scale events, politicians need to know this. If we are unable to respond to a large-scale terrorist attack, politicians need to know this. Changing the constitution is a political decision; the military has to illustrate faithfully the status of the available forces. With 0.5% of GDP, we cannot even achieve rudimentary military defence. We have also illustrated in the booklet what can be expected from what figures, and what cannot be expected.

ESD: This brings us directly to the postponed decision on the future of the 15 EUROFIGHTER Tranche-1s that have been operating from Airbase Zeltweg since 2007. The current Defence Minister Kunasek handed over his report on another commission to the political level of the current coalition a year ago, which, however, held him back. Now it is no longer up to the MoD to decide whether to modernise EUROFIGHTER, drop it or replace the old Saab trainers. But I am sure that you had to make some fundamental considerations on this rather expensive question.
Gen. Brieger: Oh yes, while this is or will be a political decision, some basics cannot be left unmentioned. With all variants, there is the need to calculate all life-cycle costs. That was the mistake with the EUROFIGHTER; after delivery of the first EUROFIGHTER, their instalments and running costs were suddenly included in the annual budgets by a following government – contrary to what had been agreed earlier. Nevertheless, especially a neutral country has to take care of its own sovereign airspace. We cannot leave this task to others, as some NATO countries like Slovenia and the Baltic States do. The other week, I was invited to Switzerland to Payerne by my Swiss colleague KKdt. Rebord. They take this task very seriously.

ESD: There, at Payerne, the in-country evaluation for the renewed Swiss fighter programme is going on now. Did you get any insights?
Gen. Brieger: No, not when it comes to evaluation details. However, what I have noted in general was that one can do much more with €4.4Bn than with €2.2Bn. And we have heard that the Swiss Air Force will in the near future raise its QRA readiness to 24 hours/seven days.

ESD: This means that we are the last country in Europe with a fleet unable to provide QRA readiness, right?
Gen. Brieger: Yes. But that extended mission we cannot achieve with the Eurofighter today. We would need to do an upgrade and we would need to fly considerably more fleet hours than we do today. And we would clearly need more pilots than today.

ESD: ‘Pilots‘ is the buzzword for my next question. While any composition of the future active air-surveillance components will be a political one by any coalition government, is it right that it is impossible to shift the 40% fortnight share of air-policing shouldered by the 12 remaining 1970s Saab-105 to the 15 EUROFIGHTERs with the same number of pilots and not doubling their annual flight hours? The 14 Czech GRIPEN at Caslav for example, are flown by 28 pilots!
Gen. Brieger: Yes. Without any substitute aircraft, the air surveillance will, of course, become further limited or restricted. Just the opposite of what we said about Switzerland.

ESD: And that will not be alleviated or straightened by possibly two or three ex-German EUROFIGHTER two-seaters. That means from the view of human potential, there is a need for a second much cheaper and modern platform.
Gen. Brieger: Correct, such two-seat fighters would not really help. If you look at the issue economically, saving precious and costly flying hours in peacetime air surveillance by bringing it down from the supersonic element into a second fleet would be a good solution, because technically and from a maintenance perspective, our centre at Zeltweg is indeed able to deal with such systems. We have surprised German Air Force guests with the level of what we service on the EUROFIGHTER on our own and how cost-efficiently we operate that system. We have successfully stretched check intervals according to our flying hours pensum, we do not send the ejection seats to a German company but service them ourselves.

ESD: When a new administration might finally commit to a variant including a small number of modern substitute trainers, would it not be too late? Initial deliveries following a contract take two years or more. Is the deadline for retiring the ‘105s‘ still the 1 January 2021? Is there flexibility remaining to stretch that?
Gen. Brieger: I rule that out. End of service is at the end of 2020.

ESD: When will the so-called ‘mobilisation package’ announced last August lead to the launch of an RFP for the 12 to 14 light multi-role helicopters? The extra funds have been granted, right?
Gen. Brieger: Yes, they are granted. And, in parallel, there has been a wide-ranging request and questionnaire to friendly nations – including Canada from what I have heard – and the answers are now being evaluated. We aim to have a relatively swift selection process following government-to-government (G2G) principles.

ESD: G2G means to speak only with foreign governments without a tender for an open competition of manufacturers, right? However, I have heard from some manufacturers that they have doubts about how this should be done in detail, because in the end you have to talk to the manufacturers of the helicopter or any other item. And only Sweden and the US have their own defence export agencies for their equipment. Armies can only sell used or superfluous equipment, but not newly produced technology.
Gen. Brieger: Based on what we experienced with the EUROFIGHTER procurement, there is now a preference for government-to-government. We are investigating the options as there are several. We have sent various enquiries to partners, and the answers are now being evaluated by our directorate-general for armaments. I am convinced we will see results shortly. Regarding the type, I want to point to the example of the PANDUR APC. Here, we procured a certain number – and we then passed a part of that number on to Slovenia, since they had selected that type. The prerequisite is that a partner nation – like for example Italy – procures a particular item and then passes it on to us. That is government-to-government.

ESD: For a long time, the Austrian military structure placed aviators under the the army or an air force staff in the joint forces command. In 2017, new Air Force Command was created, which was recently revoked by the current Minister with the ill-fated LV 21.1 reform. I have heard people criticise this ‘downgrade’ and say that it is only a political step to create a new name tag. Did you hear that too?
Gen. Brieger: Partly. Yet, this is an emotional thing. I am sure that the Austrian military pilots do an excellent job every day, no matter where they are on the organisation chart.

ESD: There is a problem with human resources, with a shortage of pilots and technicians on the AB-212 helicopters at Linz-Hörsching. Reportedly, one squadron is down. Why is that?
Gen. Brieger: Because on the one hand, personnel are leaving for the private sector, and on the other hand, it is difficult to replace them because we have a rather stringent selection process for pilots, with a lengthy assessment procedure. The separation between jet, fixed-wing and rotary-wing assignments happens relatively late in the process. Trainees sometimes feel that it takes too long, which is another issue we need to fix. While pay allowances have been raised, but there are also personal issues, such as individual work-life balance.

ESD: When does the first S-70 BLACK HAWK return from Alabama where ‘Ace Aeronautics’ has been upgrading cockpit displays, Navaids, NVG-readiness and comms systems?
Gen. Brieger: We do not have an exact date yet, but it should happen this coming autumn.

ESD: Is there anything to consider regarding the Pilatus PC-7 TURBO TRAINERs? They are 36 years old.
Gen. Brieger: These are not in a critical condition as far as the stress on the airframe is concerned. There may be some regulation-driven updates, but currently there is no urgent need to take any steps.

ESD: Thank you for the interview, General.

The interview was conducted by Georg Mader.