The Austrian armed forces consist of only one branch, the Bundesheer (Federal Army), of which the air force (Fliegerdivision) is a component. There is no navy. With the State Treaty of 1955 Austria re-gained sovereignty and independence after World War II. The strategic options for a small country, which was situated along the Iron Curtain, seemed to be very limited. Austria's status as neutral country, following the paradigm of Switzerland, was not legally connected with the State Treaty of 1955, but was a logical step given agreements with the Allies. On October 26, 1955, the Austrian parliament agreed unanimously to the federal constitutional act, a Neutrality Act.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the territory occupied by present-day Austria had been ruled by the Habsburg Dynasty for more than 600 years. This territory was the core of an empire that at its height in the sixteenth century included Spain and its colonies in the New World, and much of Italy and the Low Countries. Although a military defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866 had weakened Emperor Franz Joseph I (r. 1848-1916) and had obliged him to make such significant concessions to his Hungarian subjects the following year that the lands he ruled came to be known as Austria-Hungary (also seen as the Austro- Hungarian Empire), his empire remained one of Europe's great powers. The new Austrian state was only one-fourth as large as the empire. In the eyes of many of its citizens, it was a mere "rump state" and was neither economically nor socially viable. Many argued that it logically should be part of Germany.
For centuries Austria stood at the center of European traffic between east and west along the great Danubian trade route and between north and south through the Alpine passes. The Austria of today is a relatively small nation, slightly smaller than the state of Maine, with a population of about 7.5 million. Although modern Austria is only a small remnant of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, it still occupies a strategic position in central and eastern Europe.
Austria hastened ahead of Europe at almost dizzying speed. While Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany left the world stage only slowly and under diverse conditions, Austria - the fifth great power in the 19th century - beat its comrades in fate in 1918, exiting the stage of world history to sink into small-state insignificance. Austria resurfaced from the rubble of the second 30-year war (1914-1945). It was not only a question of maintaining continuity but also of reestablishing republican structures.
Weapons of mass destruction and guided missiles were prohibited under the State Treaty of 1955. Also in 1955, parliament enacted a constitutional law prohibiting participation in any military alliance and specifying that the armed forces were to be used only for the defense of the country. However, neutrality, according to the Austrian interpretation, did not preclude contributing to peacekeeping operations under United Nations (UN) auspices. As of 1993, Austria had battalion units serving the UN in Cyprus and on the Golan Heights in Syria. Austria did not, however, participate in the UN-supported coalition against Iraq after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The withdrawal of the Allied forces as a result of the State Treaty of 1955 dramatically affected the general strategic situation in Central Europe. The presence of two neutral countries--Switzerland and Austria--in effect split the defenses of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into northern and southern tiers. Links between NATO forces in southern Germany and northern Italy had to be routed through France. Moreover, if Warsaw Pact forces had chosen to violate Austrian neutrality by driving westward through the Danube Basin, they would have been able to outflank strong NATO defenses on the central front and avoid a contested Danube River crossing in Bavaria. A second line of potential Warsaw Pact attack ran along the southern flanks of the main Alpine range from the Hungarian Plain leading into northern Italy.
The early years of the Bundesheer were directed by military leaders whose experience reflected their service as mid-level officers in the German army, the Wehrmacht. The army's structure resembled that of European NATO powers but on a smaller scale. Its combat units were filled with permanent cadre and nine-month conscripts. It lacked sufficient manpower and air cover.
In 1956 the Bundesheer was called on to handle the first of two border crises. It was in that year that the Hungarian uprising was crushed by the Soviet Union, and 170,000 Hungarians fled into Austria. The second was in 1968 when Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Austria's experiences during the Hungarian and Czechoslovak crises helped clarify the nature of the potential threat to the nation's neutrality and led to a reorientation of defense policy and a revised definition of the military's mission.
After 1970, under the influence of a majority of the Socialist Party of Austria (Sozialistische Partei Österreichs-- SP? in parliament, military service was deemphasized and conscription reduced to six months. However, with the system of refresher training for former conscripts, the basis for a large militia program was established, and there was more total manpower available. The example of Switzerland's reliance on mobilization units to uphold its neutrality provided a useful lesson. However, strict budgetary limits continued to delay the acquisition of modern supersonic combat aircraft until the late 1980s.
The Austrian Armed Forces and neutrality stood side by side at the cradle of Austria’s freedom and independence. But since neither of the two factors could guarantee Austria’s security directly, Austria decided to pursue a passive military niche-neutrality during the time of the Cold War. This phase lasted roughly until 1975 and was replaced by the active political intervention neutrality during the détente era until 1995. Austria acted very sensitively to its security-political environment which was marked by détente, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, today’s OSCE, and the Charta 77. During this second phase of the period in question Austria reacted by transforming its military from a territorial defense force into an at least structurally intervention capable force ("Blue Helmet?missions). Also with that phase Austria was ahead of Europe, as for the Austrian Armed Forces Petersberg only represented a structural and mental continuation of the 1970s and 1980s with different means, while other Central-European armies are experiencing severe transformation difficulties.
The ensuing third phase Austria entered into with its accession to the EU in 1995 is marked by non-alignment within the framework of European political integration. Thereby the tracks were switched from nation-state neutrality (20th century model) to European solidarity (21st century model). Also the latest concepts of the Austrian Armed Forces Reform Commission (AAF 2010) have to be seen under this aspect - possibly the last nationally necessary reform of the Austrian Armed Forces.
In the early 1990s the Austrian military was restructured, from a force intended to defend Austria's territory against threats arising from hostilities between North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Warsaw Pact countries to a force that could react rapidly to local crises. Under the restructuring plan, both the standing army and reserves were scaled back but maintained individual units in a rapid-response status, enabling the army to intervene quickly with appropriate forces to prevent instability in Austria's border areas. In view of the civil warfare in the former Yugoslavia and the breakup of Czechoslovakia into two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as the possibility of overwhelming movements of refugees fleeing violence in nearby states, Austria considered itself to be in a highly exposed position in spite of the end of East-West confrontation in Europe. The intervention of the Yugoslav army in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 prompted the largest mobilization of the Austrian army since it was reconstituted in 1956.
Driven by a desire to win domestic political standing and to keep Austria engaged in the development of European security structures (other than NATO proper), by 2008 Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos both supported and compelled a re-orientation of his Ministry's mission. This reorientation started from two premises. Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos both supported and compelled a re-orientation of his Ministry's mission. This reorientation starts from two premises. One is that territorial military defense is not now relevant for Austria or western Europe. Thus, heavy and costly structures for territorial defense can be substantially reduced. Second, Austria should, in a multilateral context, be an active participant in European security structures and international missions. In a November 2007 speech to the Attache Corps, Darabos said, "the new orientation of Austrian security policy undoubtedly and above all means Europeanisation. As a middle-sized EU member state we have, in view of the changed security landscape, no alternative to putting our entire security structure in a European context."
In the current transformation phase, the Reform Commission Report is orientation frame for Austria’s future positioning within the framework of a European security architecture. The Armed Forces Reform Commission recommended giving the Forces a new, more modern and highly professional shape in order to increase their capabilities for international cooperation, including rapid deployment and operational readiness, but still with a reservist component. This is a luxury that can probably only be afforded at a certain level of power-political marginality.
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