Europe will not be able to fight the return of conscription

Dr Oliver Hartwich
30 April, 2024

More than two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the continent’s illusion of perpetual peace, Europe finds itself confronting a once-unthinkable question: is it time to bring back the draft?

For decades, conscription seemed like a relic of a bygone era. As the Cold War faded into history, countries across Europe eagerly embraced the model of all-volunteer, professional militaries. Compulsory service was consigned to the history books.

But Russia’s war has ended the assumptions on which this approach rests. With the war grinding on, the limitations of Europe’s post-Cold War militaries have been laid bare. Suddenly, the idea of a large-scale conventional war on European soil no longer seems far-fetched – and many are questioning whether the continent’s downsized, specialised forces are fit for that purpose.

Nowhere is this dilemma more acute than in Germany. Towards the end of the Cold War, West Germany maintained a conscript army nearly half a million strong. But by the time the Berlin Wall fell, the Bundeswehr’s draft had become deeply unpopular. It was seen as an unfair and onerous burden. Those with savvy found ways to dodge it, usually through medical exemptions.

As Germany’s army then shrank in the years after reunification, conscription became increasingly untenable. With a smaller force and more technical roles, the Bundeswehr could no longer absorb the full cohort of draft-eligible youth. The draft became a game of chance.

When Germany finally suspended the draft in 2011, few mourned its passing. It seemed a logical, necessary step toward building a more agile, deployable military for a new era.

But Russia’s aggression has exposed the shortcomings of this approach. Today’s Bundeswehr, at just over 180,000 personnel, is a pale shadow of its former self. It is plagued by equipment shortages, recruitment woes and a crisis of readiness. It could not effectively defend the country. Increasingly, there are calls for a reappraisal of conscription.

Similar debates are playing out across the continent. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has floated the idea of a mandatory “universal national service” that would include limited military components. While stopping well short of full conscription, the proposal reflects a recognition that France’s professional military, stretched thin by counter-terrorism operations in Africa and the Middle East, may need a broader base of recruitment and public support.

In Sweden, meanwhile, conscription has already made a comeback. After suspending the draft in 2010, Sweden reactivated it in 2017 as tensions with Russia grew in the Baltic Sea. But the new Swedish model is highly selective, with only a small fraction of each age cohort called up for intensive training. The aim is to create a hybrid system that combines the benefits of conscription – a wider recruitment pool, stronger societal bonds – with the professionalism of a volunteer force.

Even in countries in which conscription has long been the norm, the model is evolving. Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, has maintained mandatory military service for men even as other European countries have abandoned it. But in recent years, Finland has moved to make its conscription system more flexible and individualised, with options for alternative civilian service.

At the other end of the spectrum, some countries are doubling down on the all-volunteer model. In the UK, the armed forces have been fully professional since 1963, and there is little appetite to change course. Instead, the focus is on improving recruitment and retention in the face of demographic challenges and competition from the private sector. The British Army has struggled to maintain its strength, with numbers dipping below 80,000 – the lowest since the Napoleonic Wars.

Similar challenges confront other European militaries that have transitioned away from conscription.  Spain ended mandatory service in 2001. Its armed forces have struggled to attract and keep talent, especially in technical fields. In Italy, which suspended conscription in 2005, the military has grappled with an ageing workforce and a top-heavy rank structure.

Despite these difficulties, a wholesale return to mass conscription seems unlikely in most of Western Europe. The political, economic, and social barriers are simply too high.

Compelling young people to serve would be a tough sell in today’s individualistic and atomised societies. Also, in ageing populations, taking youth out of the workforce for extended periods would be problematic. And in today’s era of high-tech warfare, turning raw conscripts into effective soldiers would be a challenge.

If full-scale conscription is off the table, more targeted forms of mandatory service may gain traction. The Swedish model of selective (and essentially voluntary) conscription, with its emphasis on quality over quantity, could be attractive to countries seeking to balance military needs with social and economic realities.

Ultimately, however, Europe’s defence dilemma goes beyond the narrow question of how to fill the ranks. The deeper challenge will be mustering the political will and committing the necessary resources to build serious military capacity. Europe has not had to do that since the end of the Cold War because American power provided a free security blanket. That will need to change, regardless of the recruitment model.

For Europe’s youth, the implications of this shift are profound. The post-Cold War generation grew up with the blessings of peace – the freedom to travel, study and never having worry about their countries’ security. But that era is over.

Young Europeans may soon find themselves donning uniforms and learning the soldier’s trade – marching in formation, maintaining equipment and cleaning their guns. In an optimistic scenario, the deterrence power of reinvigorated European military capability may then stave off war.

But in a bleaker future, they may be called upon to put those skills to the test. And they will not see it coming, just as their Ukrainian contemporaries did not.

As depressing as this scenario is, the best way to prevent it is deterrence. And for Europe, conscription, which no-one likes, may be a part of it.

To read the article in the Newsroom website, click here.

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