On January 7 the new Conservative-Green government coalition in Austria swore in Klaudia Tanner as Austria’s first woman Defence Minister. She previously headed the Lower Austrian Farmers’ Union when she was asked by the young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (OEVP) to take over the long neglected and chronically underfunded Ministry of Defence. The former interim defence minister, Lieutenant General Thomas Starlinger, has calculated an investment backlog of €16 billion. The politicians surrounding Chancellor Kurz – often referred to as “young Turks” – do not give the impression that they want to fundamentally change this dire situation.
In a first public appearance before the military leadership and civil defence partners on January 20 Minister Tanner inaugurated “Conscription Day”, an anniversary that was created in 2013 in the wake of a plebiscite to maintain conscription and to oppose the change to a much more expensive professional army. Under the heading “Comprehensive National Defence – a Comprehensive Response to Modern Threats,” high-ranking experts from the army and adjacent civilian ministries highlighted the links between military, economic and civilian national defence.
Tanner thanked the 16 partner organisations of the alliance “Defensible Austria” and recalled: “Since my time in the Farmers’ Union, our association and I have defended conscription, with the focus on disaster relief by the military. And I would like to remind of the stormy media headwind against conscription which opposed the plebiscite. But it was true then and it is still true today: our recruits are the foundation of our army. Without conscription there would be no cadres and no militia. Without conscription, the military would be incapable of action and would also lose any anchoring and embedding in society. That is why I want to make military service and the militia more attractive. In the near future there will be two levels of fitness for military service. On the one hand, we will significantly improve the contact points for initial registration in each federal state, as these are the first points of contact for young men with the armed forces. And those who are fully fit for military service will then be deployed primarily for purely military roles and not for purely system functions. Furthermore, I stand for a militia as it is anchored in the constitution as the basis of the Austrian military. For a militia that is equipped with sufficient personnel and material. And for a militia that can be called up to conduct more exercises out there!”
According to data from 2018, 24% of the 46,519 mustered 18-year-old male young Austrians were unfit for military service and 4,650 were temporarily unfit. The main reasons were overweight, metabolic diseases and psychological problems. Of the 30,700 fully fit for service, 44% opted for community service in the Red Cross/hospital or geriatric sector. This means that 17,200 (56%) entered the 6-month military service.
Tanner then underlined how much she stands behind every soldier and officer, and she said that she, her cabinet and the general staff have been informed about several “major acquisitions” in advance, especially with regard to helicopters and air police. “But please excuse me for not being able to make any budgetary and/or tax returns tonight,” she concluded.
Currently, Austria spends only 0.6% of GDP – a little over €2 billion – on national defence. Its predecessor STARLINGER has demanded a minimum of 1% or €3 billiob. For 2020, there is a provisional budget from 2019. The next budget for the period from 2021 will be presented in Parliament on March 18.