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Czech Republic: Government Moves To Abolish Conscription, Joins European Trend

  • Jeremy Bransten

The Czech cabinet this week gave its approval to a major reform of the armed forces, which should lead to a professional army by the year 2007. The Czech Republic thus follows several other European states which have recently moved to end conscription. What are the arguments for and against conscription and which states are debating the issue? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to some experts.

Prague, 31 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the fall of the Iron Curtain a decade ago, countries across Europe have reduced the size of their armed forces from 10 percent to as much as 50 percent.

Most military strategists no longer see the need for large standing armies that are capable of repelling a massive land invasion. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to having smaller, more mobile units that can be rapidly deployed in crisis situations.

The Czech Republic yesterday became the first former communist state in Europe to attempt to reform its armed forces along these lines when the cabinet approved a bill that will lead to a smaller, all-professional army in six years.

For Dan Smith, a retired U.S. army colonel and currently head of research at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, this shift makes perfect sense:

"Peacekeeping operations, peace enforcement, humanitarian relief, the evacuation of citizens caught in areas of crises, these are missions far different from the old linear style of warfare. So, the premium is really on being adaptable, being able to think on one's feet and to recognize situations as they start to evolve. And again, a well-trained professional force, I think, is better-suited to these kinds of missions."

British-based military analyst Charles Heyman edits "Jane's World Armies," a bi-annual survey of global armed forces. He points to another advantage of having professional soldiers versus conscripts.

"If you want to involve yourself in out-of-area operations and you want to put troops into Macedonia or Kosovo or somewhere like that, then you need volunteers and probably, the best people are professionals as opposed to conscripts."

The new military thinking coincides with a growing reluctance among young people in Europe to serve in the military. Each year, more and more draft-age young men opt for alternative civilian service. In Spain, to cite one example, fully three-quarters of those eligible for military duty now choose this option.

These factors prompted Spain to announce the abolishing of conscription less than two months ago. The country's last draftees will be released from duty by the end of the year. France is to follow the same course and end conscription by November 2001. Italy will abandon its draft by the end of 2005. France's northern neighbors Belgium and the Netherlands ended compulsory service in 1992 and 1996 respectively. They in turn followed Britain's lead, which abolished conscription back in 1962. The world's leading military superpower, the United States, ended its call-up in 1973.

The Czechs, it seems, have joined a well-established trend. In Western Europe, only Germany has stayed on the sidelines of the conscription debate, continuing to see the call-up as an important element of its inclusive, democratic ethos.

Among the former Warsaw Pact states, the Czechs -- who are now full-fledged NATO members -- are the first to announce a definitive end to conscription.

But Timothy Edmunds, a military expert at King's College in London, is not sure the Czech reform is the right course to follow.

Edmunds says that NATO has been trying to sell a "one-size-fits-all" model of military reform to Central and Eastern European countries. And the post-communist states, driven by a desire to join the alliance, have been eager to be seen to comply.

"NATO, or the West in general, has a very particular model of what modern armed forces should look like and they are all-volunteer, they are professional, they are flexible, they are expeditionary, and so on. And they've promoted this model very, very strongly in Central and Eastern Europe. Now, I would argue that actually, in doing so, they've not really considered the drivers and implications of change in the Central and East European region and that they've not necessarily got to grips with the facts that perhaps Central European security and defense demands are quite different to those pressures facing the U.K. or the United States."

Although experts generally agree that in the long run having an all-professional military ends up being cheaper than a conscript army, the switch-over is costly.

Edmunds says budget-conscious Central and East European states cannot meet those costs. Instead, in their attempt to meet NATO's criteria, the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Baltic states, and others have created hybrid militaries, consisting of a few professional elite units that are sent on prestige peacekeeping missions abroad, while the bulk of the military, made up of conscripts, suffers from under-funding. Edmunds says the Czechs' announcement that they will fully switch over to the Western, all-professional model is to a large extent driven by politics rather than military or budget considerations.

"Military reform has been driven by foreign policy rather than by defense policy, so to an extent you see all the military reform budget go into elite cadres that fulfill this NATO idea of what a military should look like, almost as a sort of down payment on NATO accession and I would argue to the detriment of the ability of the military to provide a national defense role."

In both Eastern and Western Europe, Edmunds says there has been too little fundamental debate about what role a country's military should perform in the post-Cold-War era. The post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, because of budget constraints, may have to choose between training only rapid reaction professional units, that could be farmed out to NATO for specific missions but could not assure full territorial defense, or maintaining a standing conscript army capable only of territorial defense. They will likely not be able to afford the luxury of both.

Edmunds says the rapid reaction model could work, but it would require a major rethink by the alliance, whose generals, while promoting the rapid reaction model, remain wary of forsaking territorial armies.

"There is beginning to be a discussion in NATO about appropriate military reform and in doing so, role specialization among the Central and East Europeans. So rather than trying to provide a traditional national army that does everything, because of shrinking defense budgets and so on, [the idea is] to try to provide a military structure and a set of military institutions that can fulfill particular roles within NATO very well and particular alliance roles very well. But I think there's still a great deal of discomfort, both within the military itself and within NATO about the idea of giving up traditional military roles."

Charles Heyman, of "Jane's World Armies," notes that all countries moving to smaller all-professional forces must bear in mind that in times of crisis, it is essential to be able to call on reserves.

"The Czechs always have to remember that you have to have the ability to expand your army, overnight, in a crisis, in an emergency."

In earlier days, the major crisis never came, but both sides were theoretically prepared for it. Now, small-time emergencies seem to crop up with increasing frequency but they are less predictable. And national interests have become murkier to define -- a tough brief for any military planner.

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