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New Era for Austrian Armed Forces

9. April 2024

For a neutral state with no military alliances such as Austria, a strong national defence is essential. In an interview with DIMENSIONS, Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner talks about robust democracy, billion-euro investments and rapid procurement – and how she intends to use these to quickly turn Austria’s armed forces into a state-of-the-art army.

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(Image: Bundesheer / Peter Lechner)

Klaudia Tanner,

born 1970, is Austria’s first female Federal Minister for National Defence. A lawyer and a politician (Austrian People’s Party), she has been in office since January 2020. Prior to this, she served for several years as the Director of the Lower Austrian Farmers’ Union and an MP in the Landtag of Lower Austria. She has been the Deputy Chairwoman of the Lower Austrian People’s Party since March 2017.

Madam Minister, may we begin the interview with a compliment?
(laughing) We’re in Vienna, who would object to that?

With its latest procurements, Austria has taken on a pioneering role within Europe in ground-based air defence. You’re way out in front. Are you aware of this role?
Yes, Austria has taken the lead in Europe in the procurement of the Skyranger system. And that makes us one of the first countries to address the capability shortfalls that exist in mobile air defence – that’s rather unique. As Austria’s first female Minister of Defence, I am very proud of this.

You are taking a comprehensive approach to the repositioning of your short-range air defence capabilities. You are modernising 35mm systems, procuring the Skyranger mobile air defence system, and you have a project for drone defence. What prompted this necessity? Was it the wars and crises currently so prevalent around the world?
One thing is clear: Conventional warfare has returned to the European continent. Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, a war that has now entered its third year, has changed many things in the world. There has been a shift in security policy around the world. The war in Israel has only confirmed this. Flashpoints that may have long been dormant in the background are flaring up again, as we keep seeing time and again with our neighbours in the Western Balkans, for example. The world has become less safe. It was clear to me from the outset that we have to make the Austrian armed forces a modern army again, and thereby play a role in shaping our robust democracy. Now more than ever.

No doubt you are monitoring events in Ukraine very closely …
Definitely. We are seeing the weapons being used in Ukraine: There has been a large number of drone attacks, extending to rocket attacks from the air. At the very least, this is where the focus has shifted to. And since an unmanned, six-tonne drone crashed in Croatia, our opinion that we have much to prepare for in these areas has been confirmed.

Twelve years ago, the German Bundeswehr disbanded its Heeresflugabwehrtruppe air defence force and gave up its anti-air capabilities. Austria has always held on to its own. No doubt you had your reasons?
As a neutral state with no military alliances, we have the important task of defending our sovereignty and our country with all available means. On land, in the air and at sea. Fulfilling this task requires well-equipped armed forces. The core task of the Austrian armed forces is military national defence, and we can only achieve this with state-of-the-art, contemporary equipment for our soldiers – to protect our neutrality.

I hear from my colleagues in Air Defence that you have been working very closely with your people at the conceptual level – that shared ideas have been developed and implemented. One can see that impressive solutions have been found. How do you rate the experience of working with Rheinmetall?
Looking back over the past few years, our collaboration has always gone smoothly and has always produced successful results, as shown by this Skyranger air defence turret. But it is mainly my experts, especially my Armaments Officer, who have been working with the companies. The feedback has been entirely positive to date.

Klaudia Tanner in conversation with Oliver Hoffmann, Head of Press and Public Relations at Rheinmetall, …
… and in a TV interview with Austrian media on the occasion of the commissioning of the Skyranger air defense turret from Rheinmetall.

For which applications and scenarios are systems being procured from Rheinmetall, i.e. the mobile 35mm air defence solutions and the Skyranger systems on Pandur APCs?
This system will be used to defend against drones, for example, but also against short-range attacks from helicopters and aircraft. Above all, this system protects against the threat posed by reconnaissance and attack drones, such as those we are currently seeing in Ukraine. And now that it has been installed on the Pandur, they can also handle air defence missions autonomously if necessary.

Air defence consists of a network of many components …
Yes. That includes the Goldhaube system that provides us with a situation overview, or the MISTRAL 3 air defence guided missile, which is also mounted on the tower, or the 35 mm fire units, for which we have also introduced an extended service life. And this is where the procurement of the air defence Pandur Evolution with the Skyranger system fits into this network – it is another milestone in the defence against threats from the air.

Austria has established its 2032+ development plan for the Austrian armed forces with a volume of EUR 18 billion. Your shopping list to date is quite impressive. Which projects have been implemented so far?
With an investment volume of EUR 560 million, 170 armoured vehicles in total will now be modernised by 2029. These are 58 Leopard 2 A4 battle tanks and 112 Ulan infantry vehicles. After the major investment package to procure 36 AW169 Lion helicopters for EUR 873 million, it is the next big step we have taken in achieving state-of-the-art armed forces. But the 1,300 logistics vehicles that we are procuring from Rheinmetall are also important to the mobility of our soldiers. Furthermore, as I have already said, we are modernising our current ‘35 mm air defence system’. It will be extensively modified in the next five years and optimised for future challenges. And now we have signed an agreement for a further 225 Pandur vehicles with an investment volume of EUR 1.8 billion, for twelve different versions, 36 of which will get the Skyranger tower.

What other key projects does the development plan include?
It is essential to focus on the modernisation of the armed forces. This includes the decision on the successor to the advanced jet trainer, the implementation of a two-fleet solution for helicopters and the signing of the contract for the successor to the Hercules. Moreover, plans are moving ahead for the modernisation of the tank fleet and implementation to protect and equip soldiers. Work is continuing on the European Sky Shield project as well.

It’s well known that personnel is another key area for you …
Yes, this is an essential success factor as well. We have to keep working on being an attractive employer. The fact is that we have to invest in a lot of areas, everything from personal equipment for our soldiers to military infrastructures, which we also want to make autonomous. There’s plenty to do.

In Germany, where there is a fund of EUR 100 billion for the armed forces, some are of the opinion that implementation is taking too long. How have you managed to get your projects signed and sealed so quickly?
We began increasing our defence budget back in 2020. So even before Russia’s invasion, it was clear to me that the Austrian armed forces had to be brought up to date. My goal was to do this with all the means available to me. No doubt that gave us a head start. Incidentally, it is also thanks to my staff, who have been very determined in tackling our common goals, i.e. moving forward with the modernisation of Austria’s armed forces.

In Germany, people are saying we are at a turning point. What did the security policy watershed of February 2022 trigger in Austria? What differences do you see?
We called it a turning point as well. I believe that there is no difference to be seen between the countries here. I think that the whole of Europe was given a jolt when this shift in security policy happened. It has changed something for all of us – focus switched to national defence and to the security and protection of our countries. And now we have to keep this going.

Austria has assumed neutrality, like Switzerland, for instance. What is the threat perception in your country? Is it different to that in other EU states, for instance?
As I have already said, we are monitoring the various flashpoints and wars just as critically and with the same sense of alarm as other countries. This can also be seen by our publication “Risk 2024 – World out of joint”. The difference lies in the precautions and preparations required of us as neutral states. And if we intend to protect the people of our country, then we also have to invest in our insurance, which in this case would be our Austrian armed forces. We have to invest in military national defence.

Austria joined the European Sky Shield Initiative last year. How do the three projects mentioned above relate to this initiative?
I think that we are making a significant contribution with our mobile air defence, which is what Skyranger is. Skyranger should be seen as an armed escort, according to the “defend the defender” principle, and it can and will certainly play a key part within the European Sky Shield Initiative. Because what this ground-based air defence can do is effectively protect extremely vulnerable systems at medium to long-range distances. “Skyranger” is also considered a game-changer in military drone defence.

Madam Minister, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Oliver Hoffmann.

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