Austrians vote on army: Keep conscription or go with European flow of career soldiers?

With no wars to fight and friends on every border, neutral Austria has little reason to feel threatened — which may explain why Sunday's referendum on the future of its army is being driven by concerns that seem to have nothing to do with how best to defend itself.

At issue in this placid nation of just over eight million people is whether to keep and reform the present system that relies heavily on conscripts, or to go with the European flow and create a professional army, as 21 of the EU's 26 other members have.

Austria's armed forces now consist of about 35,000 troops, with about 14,000 professionals and the rest conscripts who serve for six months as well as a 30,000-strong part-time militia. The proposed reform foresees 8,500 career soldiers, 7,000 who sign up for an average three years, 9,300 militia members and a cuts in hardware useless in fighting security threats that now focus more on terrorism and cyber-attacks than battlefield clashes.

"There is no direct threat, no Russian or Turkish armies at the gates of Vienna," said the city's mayor, Michael Haeupl, in arguing for what he sees is a quality professional army instead of a conscript force of quantity.

But debates leading up to the plebiscite have focused less on the army as a fighting force and more on topics as diverse as how keeping or changing the present system will affect community service, emergency relief or social responsibility.

Much of Austria's social sector has come to depend on conscientious objectors. They serve for nine months as ambulance drivers, attendants at senior citizens' homes and in other community jobs that are hard to fill because of poor pay. Backers of change suggest that's not the army's role and have come up with a model they say would entice people into the sector by paying them four times the basic monthly 301 euros ($400.)

With the army on call in case of civil emergencies, photos of conscripts shoveling out of village cellars after mud slides and filling sand-bags to prevent floods have also strengthened the image of a force whose main task is not necessarily defending the country. Conscripts by the hundreds cleared away major snowfalls this week in villages governed by the centrist People's Party — which backs the present system.

The party hopes to profit from the general Austrian attitude of don't fix it unless it's broken. In arguing for the present system, Vienna resident Dieter Zakel warns of "many unexpected and unsolvable problems" other countries making the change experienced and questions whether Austrian politicians have the expertise to meet such challenges.

But proponents of change say it's time to streamline the armed forces and move it into the 21st century.

"Our boys are exploited and badly paid in our present system," said Sybille Hofleitner, also from Vienna. "This has to change."

Backers of an army of professionals argue that:

— New and sophisticated national security risks call for career soldiers who can more effectively cooperate with other European professional armies.

— Austria is surrounded by EU allies and neutral Switzerland.

— Low birth rates and increased numbers opting for social instead of military service will soon leave the army short of conscripts.

— A well-paid professional army — and a separate civil service sector — will do both jobs better than a conscript army torn between trying to cover both tasks.

Those against say that:

— Neutral Austria does not need a professional army, unlike other EU countries that are NATO members.

— A shortage of personnel looms both for the army and the social service sector without conscription.

— A better-paid professional army and social-service sector will cost more than the present system.

— With natural disasters growing because of climate change, Austria needs its conscripts in case of a major catastrophe.

— Working in the social sector as a conscientious objector teaches civic responsibility.

Formally non-political, the debates have nonetheless turned into an informal pre-election campaign.

The Socialists and the People's Party that now form an uneasy government coalition are strongly divided on the issue, and a decision in Sunday's referendum is seen in some ways as also a test of their popularity ahead of general elections scheduled for September.

If so, the People's Party — which favors the present system — has reason to be optimistic. Polls just days ahead of the ballot showed over 50 percent of respondents backing the status quo.