Faced with the need to increase the mass of European armies, two models oppose each other: that of conscription and that of the national guard. Each of them offers their own advantages, but also significant constraints. In this article, we will study these two approaches, to try to determine which would be more effective in Europe, in the current security context.
If traditionally, European armies had almost all turned to Conscription during the Cold War, the majority of them chose professionalization in the 90s and 2000s.
It was then a question of responding simultaneously to the decline in tensions in Europe, and of adapting to the needs for power projection and distant engagement of these years, for which conscription armies were ill-suited.
The return of the risks of major conflict on the old continent, as well as in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, has considerably transformed the very nature of the missions that these armies will have to respond to in the years to come.
The return of the debate on conscription to increase the mass of armies
At the same time, the war in Ukraine has undermined the perception, although very deeply rooted, of the operational and doctrinal superiority of exclusively professional armies, which suffer from a deficit in mass and resilience, which we now know to be the most problematic, while conflicts can extend over time.
Increasing the size of professional armies, which could be considered the preferred solution to these needs, is very difficult to implement.
Not only would the costs for states be considerable, but the difficulties that Western armies encounter today in terms of recruitment and retention make this hypothesis obsolete.
It is therefore in no way surprising that the question of a return to conscription is once again entering the public and political debate. On this subject, the former French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, openly posed the subject as a potential pivot in the 2027 presidential election .
Surprisingly, the probable future candidate asked the question only from the point of view of defense issues, and dismissed political considerations which, however, often pollute the debate, by considering that conscription would be a fantasized remedy for social tensions in the country . .
Conscription having been the basis of European conventional deterrence, whether for Western European countries belonging to NATO, as well as Eastern European countries belonging to the Warsaw Pact, during the war cold, it is natural that the hypothesis is favored by politicians who have known and experienced it personally.
The National Guard, a successful model for strengthening the armies
However, there is a second model, designed to respond to the problems of mass and long-term commitment, implemented by none other than the most powerful military force on the planet, the United States.
Indeed, across the Atlantic, conscription has only very exceptionally been introduced, and always only partially. The American armies can, in fact, rely on a very powerful National Guard, an operational reserve force directed directly by the States, and coordinated by the federal armies.
Today, the US National Guard is one of the largest military forces on the planet, with almost 500,000 men, 8 infantry divisions, 62 support or specialized brigades, and tens of thousands of armored vehicles, helicopters and combat aircraft, including the most modern ones like the F-35A.
It is therefore appropriate, to have a comprehensive understanding of this problem which is facing all European armies today, to evaluate the characteristics, strengths and constraints of these two approaches, to determine which is best able to respond. to the defense challenges of the old continent in the years and decades to come.
National Guard vs Conscription: which model to choose?
It is probably in the area of operational capabilities that the two approaches differ most radically, as their nature and structure are so opposed.
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