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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
The death of conscription
By BBC News Online's Catherine Miller
Two hundred thousand young Frenchmen were granted a reprieve this week when France announced that military service would end 18 months ahead of schedule, sparing the last of the potential conscripts from a 10-month stint in the forces.
Italy aims to have a professional army by 2006, Portugal by 2003 and Spain by 2002.
Austria and Greece have also begun discussions about phasing out conscription, though Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries plan to continue the practice.
France's forces are expected to be comprised of 92,500 professionals with another 27,000 participating as national service volunteers by the end of next year.
Defence Minister Alain Richard said it was possible to end conscription earlier than planned because of major successes recruiting professional soldiers.
But Charles Haymen, editor of Jane's World Armies, was sceptical.
"I don't believe they have recruited like they say they have," he told BBC News Online.
While conscripts are not paid very much, they are expensive to call up and then feed, clothe, house and train. And despite the investment, Mr Haymen says, they are of little use in a modern fighting force.
"You can't expect a conscript to do that when he doesn't want to be there in the first place," says Mr Haymen.
"The people you really want are pretty well educated and conversant with information technology," he says
But getting these people is not always easy - particularly when defence budgets cannot always afford to pay for these skills.
Spain, which called up the last of its conscripts last year, discovered it had a huge shortfall in recruitment.
But the practice is not a new one. The British army - which ended national service in the 1950s - includes the Nepalese Gurkha regiment and has regular recruiting drives in Fiji.
Bucking the trend for phasing out conscription, Germany, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries have no plans to end the call up system.
All Norwegians currently serve between six and 12 months in the armed forces with only 2-3% opting for a civilian service on medical or ideological grounds.
Commander Per Hoiby from the Norwegian High Command says conscription is the only feasible way for Norway to man its Home Guard which is posted all over Norway's territory.
"Norwegian soldiers are doing quite well within the Nato system if one considers the work they have been doing in peacekeeping forces," he told BBC News Online.
Norway has special provisions for peacekeeping, placing newspaper adverts to recruit for specific missions or offering newly graduated conscripts a six-month peacekeeping commitment immediately after their service.
Germany has also so far ruled out an end to conscription, though for different reasons.
"Conscription was meant to be a mechanism to guarantee that the army is deeply rooted in society," says Dr Ingo Peters, associate professor at the Freie Universitaet Berlin.
However, the alternative, non-military service which 30% of Germans choose to carry out has also become an argument for maintaining conscription.
An average of 124,000 young Germans undertake social work in hospitals and old folks homes every year, leaving a potentially massive hole in Germany's public services should the system be phased out.
But attitudes towards the army are changing, particularly since Germany took the plunge and deployed troops in the Balkans - something which had for a long time been an absolute taboo.
"There is an awareness that we can't do away with history but it is not that constricting anymore," says Dr Peters.
"It is not so much a question if this is an appropriate job to do or not but whether we fulfil the expectations of Germany as a reliable alliance partner," he says of the recent discussions over Nato deployment in Macedonia.
Charles Haymen says Germany is creating a two-tier fighting force to allow it both to continue its commitment to conscription and create a modern army. It has a number of highly trained units, comprising a greater percentage of professionals, while conscripts form the majority in the less-demanding roles.
Scaled down conscription means, in effect, a lottery decides which men will be called up. "There are legal doubts that this can be justified if only around 10% are drafted," says Dr Peters.
He expects the problem to come to a head during next year's budget as Germany faces up to its increasing defence commitments - particularly in view of the planned European defence force.
But despite some countries' continuing commitment to the draft, Charles Haymen is convinced that the days of conscription are over.
"In today's world where we have highly politicised peacekeeping situation we need highly professional army," he says.
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