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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
The death of conscription
President Jacques Chirac
President Chirac announced an early end to 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.

Conscription in Europe
Professional army by 2002
Current military service: 9 months
Professional army by 2001
Current military service: 10 months
Professional army by 2006
Current military service: 10 months
Conscription to be reduced to 9 months
Current military service: 10 months

Source: European Council of Conscripts Organisations
By the end of the year, France will have a purely professional army, joining the growing numbers of western European countries to end conscription.

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.

Recruits arrive in Spain
South American recruits step off the boat into Spain
He suggested that with ever-decreasing defence budgets, the French could not afford both to recruit a professional army from scratch and to carry on with conscription.

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.

The people you really want are pretty well educated and conversant with information technology

Charles Haymen
Jane's World Armies
A revolution in military affairs means soldiers face increasingly demanding challenges and they must be highly trained in complex military technology.

"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.

Norwegian UN soldiers in Iraq
Norway successfully recruits ex-conscripts to peacekeeping missions
It launched a massive campaign in South America, sending tens of thousands of letters to descendants of Spanish migrants. The first of 300 recruits arrived in Spain in June - many had never set foot on mainland Europe before.

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.

There is an awareness that we can't do away with history but it is not that constricting anymore

Dr Ingo Peters
Freie Universitaet Berlin
He rejects suggestions that conscription means Norway's armed forces cannot keep up with their professional counterparts.

"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.

German KFor soldier
Attitudes in Germany have changed since the deployment in the Balkans
Overshadowed by its Second World War legacy, Germany places emphasis on having a citizens' army as a safety measure against an army which threatens the nation.

"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.

In today's world where we have highly politicised peacekeeping situations we need highly professional armies

Charles Haymen
Jane's World Armies
But while Germany does not yet plan to end conscription, it faces the same financial difficulties as other western nations and does intend to reduce it - a matter which has stirred a lively debate.

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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See also:

16 Nov 00 | Europe
Spanish army goes professional
23 May 00 | Europe
Battle over German army
30 Apr 01 | Euro-glossary
Rapid reaction force
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