On November 4, 2004 the Czech Senate approved legislation to end compulsory military service in the Czech Republic. It led to the full professionalization of the armed forces, but also marked the end of a tradition that stretched as far back as the times of Austria-Hungary. Although it has been 15 years since the country’s young men were freed from service, the debate about whether it should be reinstated seems very much alive.
Many saw it as a step towards the modernisation of the Czech armed forces. Some even regarded it as the end of a system that brought back memories of the totalitarian state that had existed pre-1989.
One of those born too early to escape the service was Pavel Knězů, who served in the engineer corps during the last years of the Cold War.
“I served my military service in 1985 for two years until 1987. I was 19 at the time. It was very different from what the army is like today.
“One of the things that were very tough was the fact that it moved you far away from the town where you lived and you were not allowed to leave the military area.
“We were granted two weeks of leave every year and we were not able to leave the area without a special permit. During the first six months of service I only got out three times for three hours.”
Many of his friends were able to avoid the draft by securing what was commonly known as “blue books” – certificates from a doctor that they were unfit for service. Mr. Knězů, on the other hand, received his call-up six weeks after he chose to quit his studies at university.
Not all about the experience was bad he says.
“I think that there are benefits. In a way there is a boy who enters the military service and a man who comes out of it. You are on your own and you have to rely on yourself, manage everything. That is a very good start in life because you are very independent know you are on your own.
“Another positive is that you meet people from all sorts of backgrounds. There is a large variety and you have to find a way how to deal with everyone. I was very surprised how much we only meet with people from our own social group in civilian life.”
Overall however, he says that two years was too long a time and that he is happy his son does not have to serve.
After the Velvet Revolution another option for those unwilling to spend time in the barracks was added, that of civilian service, for example in the medical sector.
One of those who chose this route was the current MP for the Christian Democrats Jan Bartošek.
“I was supposed to serve after finishing my university studies in 1995. Back then the army was going through a transformation and my friends who had served told me the army was a waste of time, so I decided to do civilian service at a military hospital and help people. I thought it was more fulfilling back then.”
Today it seems that military service is no longer seen as a useless institution.
Various polls in recent years have suggested that at least 50 percent of the population would welcome its reintroduction. This week, in a public questionnaire on the country’s most popular news site Novinky.cz, 64 percent of the 20,000 people who replied said they were in favour of the move.
Furthermore, the number of Czechs who support military spending and believe that their country’s security is not just in the hands of great powers but should be taken into consideration, has also been growing in recent years, according to annual polling results from the Public Opinion Research Centre.
It seems that it is not just the Czechs who have shifted their opinion, but their large neighbour to West as well. In a 2018 public survey conducted by the German television station ZDF more than two-thirds of that country’s eligible voters said they would support compulsory service available in the military or civilian sector. In France voluntary national conscription was reintroduced this year and Sweden recently brought back conscription.
Last year, in an interview with Novinky.cz, Defence Minister Lubomír Metnar went as far as to say that there was a general trend towards the reinstatement of military service across Europe and that he himself would be in favour of it.
However, he also said that logistical circumstances prevent it from becoming a realistic option in the near future.
Asked about the financial costs of reinstating military service, Jakub Fajnor from the press department of the Defence Ministry provides the following details on logistical costs that would have to be considered.
“We have estimated it would cost roughly CZK 20 billion. That is only a calculation of the initial investment without taking further measures and maintenance into consideration.
“At the end of the day it means that salaries for instructors, accommodation, food supplies, recruitment management and the reintroduction of civilian and alternative military service variants would need to be calculated as well.”
As of this year, the Ministry of Defence has an approved budget of CZK 66.7 billion. If its current capacities were kept, the initial stage of reinstating military service would therefore require a budget increase of nearly 30 percent.
It should be noted that military expenditure currently only makes up 1.2 percent of the country’s GDP and is therefore in need of a 40 percent increase in order to meet NATO’s 2 percent threshold.
However, it is also undergoing a long-term modernisation process, with some of the country’s largest defence procurements currently being negotiated. A reinstatement of military service is not a part of the long-term plan to meet the 2 percent of GDP expenditure by 2024.
Asked about what are the benefits of a professional army, the Defence Ministry said that it gives the Czech Army the ability to be an equal partner in foreign contingents, whether under the EU, NATO or UN banner. The complexity of technologies in modern warfare is another argument put forward.
“Introducing the professional army was a necessary measure and at the same time a useful one.
“One of the main reasons is the evolution of military technologies and the growing sophistication of hardware and software that soldiers need to get familiar with. It probably would probably not be possible to train a civilian in a particular field in a year’s time, which was the length of conscription at the time of its abolition.”
In respect to this last point it is interesting that the Swiss Army, which rigorously maintains its concept of a “militia-army” based around the repeated annual service of its citizens, gives the opposite point.
There commanders often stress to recruits that it is its ability to call on the abilities of the best specialists who have acquired their skills through education and work in the civilian sphere, that makes the Swiss soldier stand above their professional, but rigidly trained counterparts.
The Czech Republic, whose professional army base could be compared to a small town in size, at around 20,000 personnel, does have a growing manpower reserve however, in the form of so-called “active reservists”.
This is a role open to Czech citizens, who do not wish to become professional soldiers, but choose to take part in a six-week basic training course and are then made available for drafting in case of military need. Currently there are 14 such companies in the country and, since 2016, can be drafted to serve in overseas missions.
Mr. Fajnor from the defence ministry stresses that the voluntary nature of this system provides patriotic reservists, who have a strong willingness to defend the country in case of a crisis or another emerging threat. There seem to be many such individuals in the country for he also says that reservist numbers are growing fast.
“Right now we are happy that Czechs are very much interested in joining the active reserves, both men and women. In fact their numbers are growing at a faster pace, percent wise, then the numbers of professional soldiers among whom we record a net increment of almost 1,000 men and women a year.
“When it comes to active reservists, we can say that we are currently two years ahead of our conceptual plans. There are more than 3,000 of them. If the trend stays the same we will easily be able to fulfil our goal which is to have 10,000 reservists by the year 2030.”
One of the most common arguments in favour of compulsory military service, however, is the fact that in the case of any major war a mass draft would probably have to be reinstated. In this respect 10,000 reservists would be nowhere near enough.
It should be noted however, that while the Czech Republic no longer has a compulsory military service system, where men of a certain age have to undergo basic training, the country never got rid of its Defence Obligation Act (branná povinnost), which means that in times of grave danger every Czech citizen between the ages of 18 to 60 have to be available to help in the defence of the state and can be eligible for the draft.
Currently there are still hundreds of thousands of men who underwent military service before 2005, but are below the age of 60, and therefore could technically be drafted with some basic military skills in the event of a major war.
However, these are gradually passing the upper age limit and the masses from the younger generation would have to be either retrained something that would be very difficult to do in a moment of imminent danger.
What such a “great” war would look like today we do not know and it is therefore impossible to pass clear judgement on whether such a move would be better than the current system of more elite, well-equipped and combat ready troops.
It is the Defence Obligation Act, which Mr. Bartošek, who is a sits in the Security Commission in the Chamber of Deputies, reverts to when asked about the prospect of a return to compulsory military service.
Yet, while he says that bringing back mass recruitment is not a theme in the commission, he does believe that improvements could be made in relation to the specialists that the state is allowed to draft according to the Defence Obligation Act.
“Right now, the reintroduction of military service is not a theme [for us]. The Defence Obligation Act is still present. What I think would be good in the future, is if the state mapped out who would be able to be drafted in case the state were under threat.”
This would perhaps enable Czechia to move towards the ability Switzerland claims to possess – to immediately enlist the best experts in the event of a major threat.