Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Germany, France, Italy…: Should Europeans abandon the professional army?

Faced with the rise in international tensions, the challenge posed by certain major military powers and the recruitment difficulties encountered, is the majority professional army format in Europe the most suitable?

Following the Second World War, with the emergence of the East-West confrontation and the NATO and Warsaw Pact framework entities, the European countries of both camps relied on armies composed mainly of conscripts carrying out military service. compulsory military service, and supervised by professional soldiers.

Certain countries, such as France or Great Britain, exposed beyond the European theater, maintained exclusively professional units, more suited to external operations as well as wars of decolonization. Due to its insular nature and its military history, London abandoned compulsory conscription in 1960 to only implement professional armies supported by a voluntary reserve.

For other European countries, however, it was necessary to wait for the end of the Cold War and the Soviet threat. Thus, France suspended conscription in 2001 , followed in 2004 by Italy, and in 2011 by Germany. Before the return of military crises on European soil, only a few countries maintained a conscription army, including Finland, Denmark, Austria, Greece, Estonia and Switzerland.

Since then, other countries have reinitiated conscription, including Lithuania and Latvia, as well as Sweden and Norway, with the particularity for these two Scandinavian countries of conscription applied to both men and women. The others remain today protected by professional armies, very often of reduced size.

the British army in the Falklands demonstrated the effectiveness of a professional army
During the Falklands War, the British expeditionary force, composed exclusively of professional soldiers, proved considerably more effective than the Argentine conscript units deployed by Buenos Aires to protect the archipelago.

Only a few months ago, it seemed certain that the model of a professional army supported by volunteer reservists was the most efficient and best suited to the operational needs of the moment. Indeed, due to the increasing technological complexity of combat systems, it became difficult to effectively train conscripts over the duration of military service to eventually become effective soldiers.

In addition, the vast majority of engagement scenarios being located beyond the borders of European countries, the use of professional or voluntary forces was most often necessary. However, the example of the Ukrainian armies composed of conscripts, faced with the Russian forces composed, according to Moscow, exclusively of professionals, at least at the start of the aggression, tends to refute many certainties in this area.

Today, it is possible to break down army models into 3 main categories. The first, and today the most widespread in Europe, relies on forces exclusively trained by professionals and supported by volunteer reservists. This is the case of France, Great Britain, Germany but also the United States.

The second, conversely, is mainly composed of conscripts performing military service, supervised by professional soldiers but also selected conscripts, and forming a large reserve that can be mobilized beyond the conscription period. This is the case of Switzerland, Finland but also Ukraine.

The third, finally, is based on a mixed model, with units made up of conscripts on the one hand, and exclusively professional units on the other. This is the case for Russia, but also for China.

In this article, we will study the strengths and constraints of each of these models, in order to establish which would be the most adapted to the geopolitical reality for Europeans today.

The Professional Army: an overpowering and flexible but expensive force

Following the disappearance of the Soviet threat at the beginning of the 1990s, but also the lessons of deported conflicts, first in Kuwait, then in the former Yugoslavia, the majority of European armies abandoned the conscription or conscription army model. mixed army.

Indeed, between the risk then removed of having to confront some 140 Soviet divisions in Eastern Europe, and the difficulties encountered by a number of European armies in deploying exclusively professional forces within the framework of coalition actions, the model of professional army became obvious to most staffs on the old continent. It must be said that this one does not lack the trappings to seduce military personnel and political decision-makers.

The French armies are today composed exclusively of professional soldiers and volunteer reservists.

Firstly, it makes it possible to constitute a highly technical armed force, well trained and equipped, capable of implementing modern and sophisticated equipment, which perfectly responds to the evolution of weapons systems over the last 40 years.

Furthermore, the example of the American and British armies, both professional, and in particular their great efficiency during the Gulf War in 1991, but also in the Falklands a few years earlier, seemed to demonstrate that professional units were considerably more effective than the units formed of conscripts which had opposed them, even if they were numerically outclassed.

Finally, the difficulties encountered by certain European armies, including in France with the National Navy, in joining the coalition forces engaged with mixed crews, finally convinced us of the obsolescence of this model, perfectly adapted to external engagement scenarios to which the General Staffs had to respond.

However, the professional army model, even supported by a significant reserve, is not without imposing significant constraints, first and foremost a much higher cost for equal mass compared to a conscription army.

Thus, together with the professionalization of their workforce, the European armies experienced at the same time a sharp reduction in manpower, both in terms of men and equipment, without this being accompanied by a clear reduction in defense costs, due to more expensive balances, and equipment which is even more expensive due to its technological complexity.

On the other hand, the model is complex to implement, in particular to maintain a pyramid of ranks and ages respecting the needs of the armed forces. Recruitment and maintenance also became a very important problem for professional armies, which simultaneously lost the breeding ground of conscription to create vocations, while directly opposing the civilian labor market.

order greenhouse Army
Recruitment is today one of the greatest difficulties encountered by Western professional armies

The conjunction of these factors leads to the greatest weakness of a professional army, its lack of mass. Thus, a country of 69 million inhabitants with a GDP of €2,500 billion like France, only has an army of 200,000 professional soldiers, while the war in Ukraine demonstrated not only that a very high-level conflict intensity could last more than a few weeks, but also that attrition in men and equipment once again constituted a strategic constraint in the conduct of operations.

To remedy this, certain countries, such as the United States, rely on a powerful reserve with not only trained soldiers but high-performance equipment and even formed units that can be deployed if necessary, so as to create a supplementary mass but significantly less expensive than the professional armies which form the first line.

The Conscription Army: the ultimate defensive power with a reduced operational contract

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Fabrice Wolf
Fabrice Wolf
A former French naval aeronautics pilot, Fabrice is the editor and main author of the site. His areas of expertise are military aeronautics, defense economics, air and submarine warfare, and Akita inu.

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