It is not all about the money. Strategic Adjustment and the End of Conscription in Italy

Guest Post by Andrea Locatelli*

Defence planning is no easy stuff. The goal is to define short- and long-term needs, match them with available resources (read: budget) and craft force, procurement, manpower and readiness plans consequently. Things were just a little easier if you worked at the Pentagon, where budget constraints were less severe and military superiority could compensate for blunders (but the good old times are gone even in Washington). If you move from the US to Italy, the challenge can be paramount. Broadly speaking, the Italian defence policy since the end of the Cold War was marked by three main features: first, the lack of a clear political guidance over the years. Partially for the high volatility of governments and coalitions, partially for the lack of a strategic culture, defence circles enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy with respect to the executive and legislative bodies. Second, even before the ongoing economic crisis, defence policies have been hindered by severe constraints in the defence budget. Third, like its partners in Europe and overseas, Italy needed to adjust to (and indeed understand) the new security context originating from the demise of the Soviet Union.

Following these considerations, one may be tempted to paint a gloomy picture of the Italian defence policy in the past 25 years. Being planning so difficult, we would expect either an erratic or an overly conservative course. However, just a cursory look at the main features of manpower planning would show that Italy’s action in this issue area, while not entirely successful, was driven by strategic calculations. This is not to say that it is always sunny in Rome. As we will see, a number of problems remains as a legacy of the past, and it is likely to remain unsolved for the foreseeable future. However, contrary to common wisdom, we can argue that the Italian Armed forces embarked on a painstaking reform process aimed at adjusting the country’s military posture to the contemporary security scenario.

The departing point is the 1991 Gulf War. During Desert Storm Italy found itself unprepared and in many respects with an obsolete army. In fact, being based on low-skilled, poorly equipped mass conscripts, the Italian army could serve a purpose in defending national borders from an eventual Soviet invasion, but not in the emerging new scenario. To meet this challenge, the Armed Forces needed to adjust either its missions, military posture and structure.

In terms of manpower, the main initiative was the so called “New Defence Model”. Initially conceived in 1995, it was aimed at replacing the existing system with one based on a mix of conscripts and volunteers. After a series of Legislative Decrees, the implementation phase started on 20 January 1998: at that stage the goal was fixed in a 230.000 strong force, made by 64.000 volunteers and 72.000 conscripts. Two years later, a second phase was implemented aimed at transforming the Armed Forces into an all-professional force. Even if the time horizon for the completion of the reform was planned to 2020, the early 2000s already witnessed unexpected problems in terms of recruiting and force structure. All this led to a new Law (No. 226, 23 August 2004) that provided better career opportunities for volunteers and accelerated the end of conscription to 2005 instead of 2007.

Even before the switch to a professional army was implemented, Italy experienced a significant reduction in the number of personnel. From 1998 to 2004, for instance, the total figure dropped from 384.600 to 207.200, equal to a 53.8% decrease. This was partially due to domestic reasons (shrinking youth population, conscientious objection to military service and other exemption provisions), but strategic considerations also played an important role: since conscripts cannot be deployed on the battlefield, they grew increasingly unnecessary and burdensome. Italian policymakers acknowledged that the cold-war mass army based on conscripts had suddenly become obsolete and useless in the altered strategic context. Apart from strategic adjustment, such reform was also made with an eye on tight defence budgets.

It is in this second respect that the effort proved far from successful: despite cuts in personnel, resource allocation remain inefficient. According to EDA, 71% of the 2008 budget was devoted to personnel spending, while Operation and Maintenance and Investment equalled just 9% and 15% respectively (in 2013 things were just slightly better, as personnel costs weighted for 66%, Maintenance for 9% and Investment for 25%). This made of Italy one of the least efficient European states in military spending. In order to address the issue, in 2012 then Ministry of Defence Giampaolo di Paola launched a reform aimed at slashing in the next ten years the number of civilian and military personnel from 183 to 150 thousands. Most importantly, the whole structure of the Armed forces was remodelled, with a significant reduction of the highest echelons (-25% generals and admirals).

It is too early to say whether this move is in the right direction or not. The point worth stressing however is that, regardless of the many hurdles and constraints that come from the political and economic environment, the Italian Armed Forces steadily embarked in this reform process. They faced the challenge and quickly shunned the temptation to follow a conservative course of action. It may seem a little accomplishment, but for defence planners this is the first step for a successful strategy.


*Andrea Locatelli is Assisant Professor at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Milan), where he teaches Strategic Studies and Introduction to Political Science.

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