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At the moment, it does not look as if the new conservative-green cabinet of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will improve the precarious financial and material situation of the Austrian Armed Forces. Therefore, the prospects for Klaudia Tanner as Austria’s first female Defence Minister are bleak. In the tabloid press, however, she gives a first impression as if she knows what kind of mission Kurz has chosen her for. After being sworn in on 7 January 2020 at the Federal Presidency, the Austrian Armed Forces welcomed their new political leader in the Rossau barracks. The new Defence Minister of Kurz´s neo-conservative People’s Party (OEVP) succeeds Mario Kunasek of the Freedom Party (FPOE), who resigned in May 2019 when the previous centre-right government collapsed in the aftermath of the ‘Ibiza’ scandal.

A Huge Investment Backlog

Since then, Interim minister, Lt-Gen. Thomas Starlinger used his non-partisan role to confront the Austrian public with the dire situation of the Austrian Armed Forces, which is facing an investment backlog of about €16Bn. On 7 January, he reminded for the last time of the serious situation in many units and the obsolescence of many weapon systems by stating that Austria’s military is unable to protect the population or critical infrastructure .

Upon her arrival in the Ministry, Tanner promised the officers and soldiers “to develop the army and national defence in tune with our time and our tasks”, adding that “there is a difficult and steep road ahead of us. She emphasised that the Austrian Armed Forces need sustainable resources and structures as well as new equipment. With several procurements, major decisions have to be made. “We will master these challenges together.” She announced the consistent implementation of a policy in the interests of the Austrian Armed Forces. “I know the uniforms and I know the hierarchies” from the time when she was the first woman to head the Lower Austrian Farmers’ Association. She wanted to be “minister of the armed forces and not of words”, she added, underlining that she saw the Army as “Austria’s security guarantee”. She also promised “adequate personnel and material equipment for the militia”. The militia recently lost many vehicles and was also severely restricted by a fatal decision in 2006, which abolished previously obligatory military exercises.

In Tune with our Time

Yet, what does “in tune with our time and our tasks” actually mean? It is obvious that Defence Minister Tanner is in a difficult position. For many years, the Ministry of Defence was more an ejector seat than a career springboard, and she faces prejudices because she is a woman and a representative of the Farmers’ Union. Yet, a female defence minister is nothing special today, as she is one of a number of successful female European politicians, even though the Austrian media quickly compared her with the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had also been German Minister of Defence. However, even more than its German counterpart, the Austrian military faces so many challenges that could quickly overwhelm Tanner’s political fate. She will only be able – the presentation of the budget is on 18 March – to grant some relief to the many problems she has inherited, depending on the funds that will be granted to her. Therefore, it might be tempting for the politicians around the young ‘boy wonder’ Kurz to re-model the tasks of the armed forces instead of providing it with sufficient funds. Allegedly, the politicians surrounding the Vice Chancellor lack any interest or affection for the nation’s military or any military. Whatever her fate, the military will remain an unpopular stepchild. For decades the military served as a ‘piggy bank’, slaughtered to finance other ‘sweet treats’. With the result that the piglet, which was beaten for so long by socialist-led coalition governments, now looks more like a skeleton from a horror film.

No Battle at Vienna’s Gates

The recently presented government programme states that Austria no longer has any enemies in its neighbourhood and, therefore, the classic military means are no longer needed and the previous reduction of heavy systems such as LEOPARD 2A4 MBTs and M-109A5OE artillery should continue. Many insiders, therefore, predict that there is a hidden political agenda at play owing to the Green Party, which, it is said, aims to transform Austria’s army into a kind of lightly armed disaster relief agency. Perhaps, it is true that there will be no heavy tank battle at the gates of Vienna. While other missions, such as disaster relief or cyber defence, are of civil and/or military importance, this is not the constitutionally prescribed mission of the military. However, if hostilities were to break out again, which nobody wants to happen, we all have seen the heavy tracked systems that are prominently featured on our evening television news, not somewhere far away, but near Europe, from Libya to Syria and Ukraine. Maintaining only 20 such platforms is not a competence factor, as key personnel will disappear and the few remaining systems will soon be obsolete, especially if, as in Austria, nothing investment has been lacking for the past two decades.

Critics From Out of the Blue

What is known so far about the strategy of the new centre-left administration has already caused some alarm – naturally from the bipartisan Officers’ Society, but also from the Freedom Party. Their defence policy spokesman, Dr Reinhard Boesch MP, called the OEVP and the Greens “the gravediggers of the Austrian Armed Forces” and stated, “A constitutionally oriented and capable army for national defence was never the honest concern of Sebastian Kurz and his ‘young Turks’. The huge problem of financing the Federal Army is apparently to be compensated for by a reorientation of the army with a decimation of its scope, tasks and capabilities, all at the expense of Austria’s security! The military national and territorial defence is no longer mentioned in the government programme. Kurz thus is making a U-turn compared to our previous FPOE coalition government.” In addition, he quoted figures issued by parliament last year, which called for a steep increase in the Austrian defence budget – €2.9Bn in 2020, €3.3Bn in 2021 and €3.6Bn in 2022. At that time, the Social Democrats supported this, but they were not in government either, and this motion has never been heard of since.

Sad Examples

Looking at the catastrophic record of their predecessors, one might think that things can only get better. However, the problems are numerous, whether on a small or large scale. For example, the army in Upper Austria owns 1,000 hectares of forest which are infected with bark beetle. Requested by the authorities to remove infected wood, the regional commander has only one military forester at his disposal – and this person is on a long-term recreational leave. So he gathered recruits who are from the countryside and are familiar with forestry, but they have no forestry equipment. Another sad example describes how in all of Upper Austria, there is only one lawnmower for all the barracks.

On 7 January 2020, the new Austrian Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner assumed office. (Photo: ÖHB)

Another sad example from the upper end: 12 of formerly 40 Saab 105 aircraft are now 50 years old, and here we must recall that this is the Austrian Air Force and not the army of a failed African state. To make matters worse, these jet trainers are currently grounded due to cracks in the joints of the aircraft.Although the type was due to be phased out by the end of 2020, new hinge bolts are being custom-made to get them back in the air by March, because air policing alone for the whole of 2020 with the remaining 15 single-seat Tranche-1 Eurofighters would be much more expensive – €3,000 compared to €30,000 per flight hour. The replacement of these six-decade-old interceptors has been postponed for at least 10 years. Modern aircraft from Italy, UK or Czech Republic available, and maintaining a second replacement type would cost more or less the same as doubling the Eurofighter’s expensive flight hours and QRA. However, the administration wants to maintain its zero budget deficit policy.

According to recent surveys, Austrians now prefer to strengthen their own armed forces as a kind of insurance policy rather than being defended by the ‘zero deficit’ and empty phrases of neutrality. Modern threats do not care about Austrian neutrality, especially if it is only big-mouthed and not really supported by serious firepower as in Finland or Switzerland. Switzerland, half the size of Austria and even further to the east, have agreed to their current fighter aircraft procurement because there is supposedly a period of heightened tension for which four fighters are to be permanently on Combat Air Patrol for a whole month. Anyone who made similar demands in Austria would be deported to the lunatic asylum!

As long as the armed forces is still anchored in the Austrian constitution, politicians should respect their role by equipping soldiers in such a way that they are able to fulfil the national defence tasks assigned to them by law. However, if politicians, media and wider society do not live up to this responsibility, the troops will be led to the proverbial slaughterhouse in case of a future conflict. Or the politicians should openly tell us and our European neighbours that Austria does not want to afford the military. If we keep our fingers crossed and hope for neutrality, this could mean risking everything we are proud of. There is no one with a crystal ball, not even Tanner, who is being sold to us as an uncomplicated, tough ‘power woman’. It is and remains the Russians who are the undisputed masters of deception.

Georg Mader