The United States and Britain swiftly won the war in Iraq. Baghdad's military equipment was no match for the advanced technologies used by the U.S.-led coalition. The conflict illustrated not only the superiority of modern technology but also the advantages of professional forces over conscript armies, RFE/RL reports.
Prague, 18 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led coalition won a swift victory in Iraq, but not only because of better military hardware. More important than military equipment, analysts say, was the professionalism of U.S. and British troops. These analysts say the era of conscript troops is in the past.
Marius Vahl, an analyst with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, told RFE/RL that modern weaponry can only be effectively used by professional soldiers, not conscript soldiers who may serve for one year or less.
"The technology factor is very, very important -- why conscripts are not a good idea. Another thing, of course, is that armies are less and less about -- in Europe, at least -- the defense of home territory and are more for international operations," Vahl said.
Ian Kemp, news editor of the British-based "Jane's Intelligence Weekly" told RFE/RL that because of this, many European armies are already professional. "France was probably the most surprising nation because, as you are aware, it has a very long history of conscription dating back to the Napoleonic era and that was considered to be central to French society. But France moved last year and completed the transition to all-volunteer forces. The Netherlands has moved to all-volunteer forces, as has Belgium. Spain has completed the move to all-volunteer forces. Italy is doing the same."
However, Kemp said professional armies are costly and that, because of this, some West European countries have difficulty making the move. Kemp said Norway and Denmark have found it almost impossible to pay for a volunteer force of sufficient size and continue to rely on conscription.
Another major exception in Western Europe is Germany. According to Vahl, Germany had historic reasons to have a conscript force. "In many of the countries that still have conscription, it plays a very important political role, perhaps particularly in Germany, where it is a symbol of civilian control over the military and avoiding a kind of detachment between the military and the rest of society," Vahl said.
Since World War II, Germany has cultivated the image of its military as being "civilians in uniform." The goal was to do away with the image of the military and its senior officers as being the power behind the government.
However, the government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is seeking to diminish the role of conscripts. The Defense Ministry is considering cutting the period of conscription to six months, but no decision has been made yet. Germany today has some 290,000 soldiers, with 83,000 of those being conscripts.
Many Central and Eastern European countries are also moving toward professional troops. Kemp from "Jane's Intelligence Weekly" said it is a trend clearly observed in all of Central Europe.
"The same is true of the seven new nations who've been invited to join. Romania, for instance, you know, is increasing the proportion of regular personnel that it has within its armed forces. So, generally speaking, that's a trend throughout NATO and those countries that have been invited to join NATO," Kemp said.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in 1999. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia are due to officially join the alliance in May 2004.
Recently, the defense ministries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia announced plans to end compulsory military service by 2005. Czech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik has announced plans to recruit 2,500 professional soldiers in 2005 and fully transform the army into a professional force. The Slovak Defense Ministry has announced plans to transform the country's army into a professional organization in 2006.
Russia also has ambitions to go professional.
Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Russia should radically reduce its forces and reform its officer corps. He said the main problem is not bad soldiers but bad officers. Officers are poorly paid, have no social guarantees, and have Soviet military training, he said.
According to Felgenhauer, Russia already has contract soldiers -- professionals paid for service. However, without competent officers, he said, these soldiers only make things worse.
"Everything [in the Russian army] has fallen apart. It makes no sense to introduce professional soldiers now. It will improve nothing. It can even make things worse because in the situation when there are no professional lower-rank officers, the contract soldiers will turn into a drunken mob. I am sorry, but it will not be a military force but an armed drunken gang. It has already happened several times in the past. Some units were staffed completely with contract soldiers in Chechnya. Now it is clear that such units are worse that those staffed with conscripts," he said.
Felgenhauer also said that the war in Iraq illustrates how backward Russian armed forces are. "The main lesson [from the war in Iraq] is that our military forces are good for nothing. We must create something like the American and British forces. Even the Australians have managed to interact not badly with [the United States and Britain]. We have an army which belongs to the last century."
In 1991, Felgenhauer said, Russia deployed nearly 120,000 troops in Chechnya. It took two months for them to travel 40 kilometers to the Chechen capital, Grozny, and another two months to take the city.
It took about three weeks for U.S.-led troops to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.
(NCA correspondent Roland Eggleston contributed to this report.)