Home / Europe / A Comparative Overview of European Neutral States’ Armed Forces: Part I – Comparing neutrality and ground-based assets

A Comparative Overview of European Neutral States’ Armed Forces: Part I – Comparing neutrality and ground-based assets

27 July, 2020

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

Part I: The Concept of neutrality

The law of neutrality was codified in 1907. Otherwise known as the Hague Convention, this document sets out the rights and responsibilities of neutral states. Since its writing, two World Wars and the Cold War have challenged neutral states to take steps and ensure their neutrality while giving them the chance to develop unique foreign policies.

In short, the convention dictates that belligerents in an armed conflict may not use the territory of a neutral state for a military purpose while the neutral state itself must ensure its territory is not abused by a belligerent. All belligerents must be treated equally and a neutral state may take steps to defend itself militarily.

Part II: Neutral European States

Europe’s history has seen the rise and fall of multiple neutral states. Three countries continue to exist as neutral states today; Switzerland, Austria and Ireland, with two others, Sweden and Finland, identifying as non-aligned. Several of the micro-states in Europe, such as Liechtenstein and Malta, also claim a neutral status. While Malta has a military, Liechtenstein does not, and as is often the case with micro-states, its sovereignty is tied with a neighbour. As a result, these states are unable to carry out the mediating and diplomatic capabilities sovereign neutrals can. And while the histories and practices of neutrality differ, all neutral states maintain a system of defense independent of military alliances.

The Swiss Confederation

Declaring itself neutral in 1515, after suffering a defeat at the Battle of Marignano, the Swiss Confederation’s neutrality was recognized formally by the international community at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In 1907 Switzerland signed the Hague Convention and now follows a policy of permanent, self-determined and armed neutrality. Armed is to say the Swiss Armed Forces guarantee the country’s neutrality, self-determined means the country can choose to give up the neutrality if it so chooses, and permanent signifies that as long as Switzerland is neutral, it shall abstain from involvement in armed conflicts.

The Republic of Austria

Coming out of World War Two, Austria chose in 1955 to pursue armed neutrality. The origin was the fear that emerging Cold War powers might attempt to merge their occupied zones into their military blocs. As a solution, Austrian neutrality was conditioned that it follow the Swiss model of neutrality with a promise not to join any military block. By late 1955 the Allies had withdrawn their troops from Austria, achieving Vienna’s goals of ending the occupation and preventing territorial division.

The Republic of Ireland

Ireland’s neutrality is self-defined as a military neutrality, meaning non-membership of military alliances. Unlike Switzerland and Austria, Irish neutrality is not enshrined in its constitution and is rather a government policy, as Ireland has not ratified the Hague Convention. Since the Second World War, Ireland has followed this policy of military neutrality, and despite its geographic isolation and close relationship with its larger neighbour, maintains an armed force as well.

Part III: Conventional ground-based assets

While a variety of vehicles exist in an armed force’s inventory for a range of purposes, for example recovery, engineering and command-and-control, for this overview only those with combat-oriented functions shall be compared in the following categories:

  • Main Battle Tank (MBT)
  • Artillery
  • Combat Vehicle (CV)
  • Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC)
  • Light Vehicle (LV) (selected examples)

Switzerland has long served as a buffer-zone between European powers. With centuries of warfare around it, Switzerland has traditionally supported a comparatively large military. While hundreds of fighter aircraft and combat vehicles were maintained alongside hundreds of thousands of militia soldiers during the Cold War, since the fall of the Berlin wall the Swiss Armed Forces has continuously evolved and adapted to better face modern security threats. The Swiss Army has been reduced in size from its height of 800,000 in the 1960s to 100,000 and is investing in emerging concepts such as cyber-defense and peace support to be a more mobile and modern force.

Plans to replace older vehicles point towards the preference of fewer basic models, and which instead are modular and come in multiple variants to allow them to fulfill capability requirements. This allows for inter-changeability and standardized maintenance resulting in higher cost-efficiency. Much of the Swiss Armed Forces’ ground-based inventory will reach its end-of-life by 2030, having been acquired during the Cold War.

The Austrian Armed Forces

The establishment of the Austrian Republic in 1955 also resulted in the formation of the Bundesheer. Similar to Switzerland, Austria’s defense policy was built on the concept of conscription and in October 1956 the first recruits were called up.

The height of the Austrian Armed Forces was in the 1970s, with manpower reaching 300,000 soldiers, with 225,000 by the end of the 80s and today with about 55,000. Currently Austria has some 14,000 professional soldiers at its core with some 25,000 militia troops. In terms of their ground-based hardware, there are similarities with Switzerland, including a tendency towards a reduction in quantity and increased focus on current and future security-threats.

Most recently, in June 2020, Austria’s defense minister made a surprise announcement presenting reforms which would further reduce the amount of heavy weaponry and potentially close some barracks, among other changes. This announcement received much criticism from multiple political parties and has put into question Austria’s neutrality. The defense minister then had to explain these proposals to parliament which now seem uncertain. Until any potential reforms are implemented, the below continue to be the Bundesheer’s ground-based arsenal.

The Irish Defense Forces

Founded in 1913, the Irish Defense Forces was initially known as the Irish Volunteers, a force which reached some 180,000 members in 1914. Some 15,000 Volunteers participated in the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921 and later became known as the Irish Republican Army. Following a Civil War in 1922/1923, the army was reorganized for peacetime and a volunteer force established in 1934. At the outbreak of World War Two, recruitment drives brought the number of troops from fewer than 20,000 up to 41,000 in 1943. After the war the number was reduced to some 12,500 soldiers.

At the core of the modern Irish military is the Permanent Defense Force. Small and professional, the military is authorized to have a maximum of 9,500 personnel, divided into the Army, with a ceiling of 7,519 personnel, the Air Corps, with 887 personnel, and the Naval Service, with 1,094 personnel. Complementing the standing force is the part-time Reserve Defense Force, authorized to have 4,169 members. In total, this amounts to about 13,500 military personnel though the true number fluctuates.

The Republic of Ireland operates no heavy assets in any branch. Their ground-based combat components are thus limited to light and mobile infantry, artillery and cavalry.

Putting neutrality into perspective

Defense policies vary and each is suited to their needs based on their own histories and foreign policies. Switzerland for instance, in comparison to Austria and Ireland, is not a member of the European Union and does not participate in EU Battlegroups while also having a relatively small number of military personnel deployed abroad on peace support operations. On the other hand, Switzerland has been able to grow as a diplomatic powerhouse – something Austria and Ireland have not been able to mirror to the same degree.

While Austria’s Armed Force is about half the size of Switzerland’s, Ireland’s is a fraction of both. However, Ireland’s is purely professional while Switzerland’s is nearly entirely based on a militia system, with Austria having something in between. Ireland is not host to a domestic defense industry but does have naval assets which demand resources. In the air this disparity continues and it is these differences in size and strength of armed forces that are determined by these states’ practices of neutrality.

Consequently, how a state practices its neutrality and how it has built up its armed force also has a significant impact on its foreign policy. This relationship between armed force, security policy in the form of neutrality and foreign policy, will be examined in a follow-up article.

Image: Irish soldiers of the Nordic Battle Group (Source: Irish Defence Force via CC BY 2.0)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.