Why is Europe discussing mandatory military service again?

Read few comments.


1. There is a discussion in many European countries about mandatory military service or at least about a bigger involvement of public in armed forces. What role the international situation plays in this debate and do you think there is a case for introducing the mandatory service in Europe again as the most of the countries abandoned this model?

2. In general, what are pros and cons of mandatory military service?


Martin Zapfe, Head of the Global Security Team, Center for Security Studies (CSS)

1. We do indeed see a partial return of mandatory military service in Europe – or at least of discussions about it – and this is definitely linked to the changed security situation after 2014. With the annexation of Crimea and conflict in Eastern Ukraine, most European countries had to rethink their basic assumptions about territorial threats to their homelands and those of their allies. While there have been many differing motivations behind the past decisions of many nations towards all-volunteer forces, these decisions have all been taken at a time when conflict in Europe seemed a distant prospect and the primary task of European armies would be expeditionary operations: interventions and stabilization operations far from Europe. Those tasks, for various reasons, tend to be more suitable for a professional, all-volunteer force. With that changing, conscription re-enters the debate in some countries.

2. How conscription affects an army depends decisively on how it is implemented – so one has to be careful about drawing general lessons. Conscription has functional and ideological purposes.

Functionally, in very general terms, mandatory military service makes sure that an army has enough manpower. However, to make an army effective, the length of that military service has to be sufficient – if you compare the three years Israeli men have to serve with the 6 months their German counterparts faced shortly before conscription was suspended in Germany in 2011, the difference in quality of training and combat readiness becomes obvious. Thus, to make conscription effective, the state and its armed forces have to decide that they need conscripts, and make military service long enough to make sense – meaning making conscription the cornerstone of force generation, training and doctrine. Otherwise, an all-volunteer force makes more sense, and conscription just threatens to eat up resources. Combining both principles can make sense – like having all-volunteer forces for the line brigades and conscripts for a territorial army – but that depends on whether the threat really justifies the substantial costs of this.

Ideologically, then, the reason for conscription has traditionally been to let the citizens of the state defend the state of theirs – as the right and duty of every full citizen. It thus came into being during the French Revolution, before it was activated in other parts of Europe. This still resonates with many political forces inside Europe, from all sides of the political spectrum. Plus, many believe that conscription can make society more willing – by being a “school of the nation” – to defend that nation, and to bring society and the military closer. That is likely true, but that argument can quickly devolve into efforts to instigate a profane “martial spirit” in the population – a factor that could play in role in many current efforts to revive conscription in Europe.

In the end, it is about finding the right model to support your defensive needs, and to find the political consensus to deprive your young citizens of months and years in freedom and order them into the service of the state – a decision that is not easy, nor should it be, in a democracy.

Niklas I.M. Nováky, PhD Candidate in International Relations, University of Aberdeen

1. The current international situation has a strong influence on defence policy debates across Europe. Due to the problems in Ukraine, many European countries, especially in the East, have become more focused on traditional territorial defence rather than crisis management. Furthermore, in Finland and Sweden, which are EU member states but outside NATO, there have been increased debate over the possibility of applying for NATO membership at some point in the future.

With regards to reintroducing compulsory military service, I do not believe  there is a strong case for it across Europe, although this might vary from country to country. The reason for this is that, although compulsory military service produces large troop reserves, they are often not as highly trained and as usable as professional soldiers. However, maintaining large-enough professional military forces may be difficult for smaller countries due to their population size. This argument is often used in Finland for continuing the country’s compulsory military service.

In my opinion, European countries’ priority is to increase their defence spending and modernise their armed forces rather than reintroducing mass conscription. In 2015, only five NATO countries (Poland, US, UK, Greece,  Estonia) met the alliance’s target of spending 2% of their GDP on defence. This crucial for Europe’s ability to deal with the wide range of security threats that it currently faces, which range from terrorism to hybrid threats.

2. The benefits of compulsory military service would be the availability of large reserves of trained soldiers which countries could  use in emergency situations. In addition, it is often said that people who go throug military service gain a stronger sense of national identity. On the negative side, conscript armies tend not to be as highly trained and as usable as professional ones. Also, people who have to go through compulsory military service , who tend to be young adults, loose normally a year that they could spend working or gaining education instead.

Igor Merheim-Eyre, PhD Candidate in International Relations, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

That the current international situation is giving European leaders a rude wake-up calls from years of sleep-walking on security and defense is not new. Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, post-coup Turkey and deteriorating relations with Russia are providing new impetus. It is not that the years since the end of the Cold War have been particularly stable (wars in former Yugoslavia are but one example to testify to that), but rather we have become more acutely aware of the deficiencies in European states’ security and defense capabilities. As the liberal norms and principles upholding the world order are challenged, we also feel increasingly more insecure.

Military service is one issue discussed in this context. But let us not get confused, because such ‘compulsory’ service is understood differently by different people. For some, it may indeed mean a sort of levée en masse, or mass conscription in traditional sense, where thousands of young men are trained for a set period and can be called upon at any time. For example, in Turkey (NATO’s largest army), this means a 12-month service for those without a university degree, and 6 months for those with a university degree. In the case of Turkey, no conscientious objections are considered. On the other hand, Germany moved away from conscription in 2011 but, under its new civil defense strategy it is considering a form of ‘civilian service’. This, however, has completely different rationalities to mass conscription, as in the case of Turkey. Rather, the focus is being able to tap into a pool of civilians in emergencies to do things such as direct traffic, rather to be expected to fight on front lines.

Crucially, we should understand that in fact few people in Europe today call for a return to mass conscription, but rather discuss how best the human resources of each individual country can be deployed in cases of man-made or natural disasters. From a military perspective, there is little added value in mass conscription. Within NATO, drive towards standardization of equipment but also of training and quality of armed forces makes the use of conscripts increasingly useless. Conscript armies take longer time to deploy and modern technology requires specialists. Even Turkey is now decreasing the time required for conscripts required to spend in the army.

There have been some arguments that the on-going tensions with Russia gave added rationale to allow states draw upon a wider reserve of men and women in crisis situations. However, I do not see how this can be of any added value. Even in the case of the Baltic states, perhaps the most exposed flank of NATO, we would most likely see hybrid techniques employed, followed by a mass deployment of modern technology. A conscripted army, limited in terms of its ability for quick deployment or understanding of more complex crisis situations, is unlikely to provide an adequate response. We must remember that even during the Cold War, when millions of soldiers faced each other across the River Elbe, it was essentially the nuclear deterrent that stopped both sides from making any foolish moves.

In modern warfare, mass deployment of conscripts is obsolete. However, the ability to muster human resources, from volunteer fire fighters to traffic guards, to perform daily tasks and therefore ensure the state’s continued existence is of essence. That does not mean war-mongering, but it does mean having essential contingency plans for any form of natural or man-made disasters.

John R. Deni*, Research Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute

It’s a particularly important topic as NATO increasingly looks to whether and how it’s prepared to defend against a large scale Article 5 attack.

Beginning in the 1990s and continuing today, there’s been a clear shift within the alliance toward professional or contract troops and away from conscripts or draftees. This shift — on top of flat or decreasing defense budgets over the same time period — has by definition driven down the number of soldiers, airmen, and sailors in uniform. Conscripts are relatively cheap, but they are generally less effective in combined maneuver warfare against complex, adaptive enemies in crisis management scenarios. In contrast, professional soldiers are more expensive to attract, develop, and maintain, but they are far more effective in combat.

In 1990, of the 13 European NATO member states with military forces, only Luxembourg and the United Kingdom had all-volunteer militaries, with all others (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey) relying on conscription. By 2016, of the 25 European NATO Allies with military forces, only Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Norway, and Turkey maintained conscription — all the rest had moved to professional militaries.

The reasons for the shift toward professional military forces are varied, although the demise of the Soviet Union appears the most important factor across most of Europe. Regardless, smaller national forces have necessarily meant cuts in structure–there are significantly fewer corps, divisions (DIV), and brigades (BDE) today across the Alliance than there were years ago. In place of these larger formations, most European countries today field only smaller formations such as regiments (Rgmt), battalions (BN) and companies (COY).

This makes it increasingly difficult to field the mass of forces necessary to counter a large-scale territorial invasion, the kind that many in NATO fear Russia is capable of carrying out with little to no warning. If the alliance is going to focus on territorial defense – that is, collective defense – and forego expeditionary warfare or crisis management beyond member state territory, then a return to conscription may make sense. However, this is more than simply a question of changing policy. There are a whole array of additional factors to consider when expanding what we call end strength – that is, the number of troops in uniform. For example, where will conscripts be based and housed? Most European allies have shed facilities and land over the last quarter century and it would be difficult and expensive to re-acquire or re-build those facilities. Similarly, there are other critical questions, all with expensive answers – who will train the conscripts? Where will they be trained? With what will they be equipped?

It’s important to remember also that NATO has not declared that territorial defense is its only mission. At the Warsaw Summit in July the alliance reiterated its three-part mission, including collective (territorial) defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. Washington at least wants to ensure that NATO and its member states can walk and chew gum at the same time – that the alliance can both defend member state interests in Europe and beyond Europe.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.


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