Cyprus Mail

Government cuts army service (Update 2: adds party reactions)

In an historic move, the cabinet on Thursday decided to reduce mandatory army service for every adult Cypriot male to 14 months from the current 24, following years of election pledges and promises from successive governments.

Speaking after the cabinet session, Defence Minister Christoforos Fokaides said that conscripts who joined in the summer of 2015 will serve 18 months, while all service after that will be 14 months.

According to Fokaides, the decision is an important step toward the evolution of the National Guard into a modern semi-professional force with increase capabilities and equipment.

He added that the decision was part of a comprehensive plan to reorganise and modernise the National Guard in the next 15 years.

“With a sense of responsibility and after an in-depth analysis and evaluation of all data, on the basis of a study prepared by the National Guard headquarters […] we presented the cabinet with a comprehensive 15-year plan to reorganise and modernise the National Guard,” Fokaides said.

“The plan is based on three main points: a new organisational structure that calls for significant structural changes, in combination with the reorganisation of forces that will render the National Guard more efficient, more modern, more flexible, and capable of fulfilling its role and mission in the new security environment; new armament programmes, some of which are already underway, particularly with regard to the Navy and the Air Force, as well as specialised programmes for the Army, for which important weapons systems will be acquired in the next five years, in case the occupational status remains unchanged; and the hiring of professional soldiers on contract, so that the National Guard can be transformed into a modern semi-professional army.”

According to Fokaides, the third point is the one that allows for the reduction of the military service time.

“As I have pointed out repeatedly, reducing military service will not weaken the National Guard’s operational capability – on the contrary, it will strengthen it, because the specialisation and experience that professional soldiers can acquire enhances their combat skills and adds value to the use of modern weapon systems,” the defence minister said.

This is why the practice of professionalisation is being adopted by all modern armies, Fokaides added.

The defence minister sought to allay fears that slashing the mandatory military service might create gaps in covering the army’s needs.

“Not only will there not be gaps from the shorter service, but existing gaps will also be filled, through the equal replacement of the number of conscripts with professionals, especially considering the growing trend of avoiding army service and the anemic birth-rates,” he argued.

Since 2008, Greek Cypriot youth have had to serve 24 months in the National Guard. This had replaced an even longer service time, at 26 months, a regime that lasted from right after the Turkish invasion of 1974 to 2002, when one month was shaved off.

“I have already asked to meet with the leaders of parliamentary parties, and I also want to inform the House defence committee, before being in a position to say more,” Fokaides said. Although the decision does not require parliamentary approval, political consensus had traditionally been sought before amending the military service period.

According to unnamed sources cited by daily Politis, the annual net cost of hiring approximately 3,000 soldiers on contract has been estimated at €33 million.

This means that parliament will be called on to approve the budgeted expenditure.

The announcement was welcomed by opposition parties, but the timing was unanimously condemned as a tactical move ahead of May’s parliamentary elections.

“AKEL has always positioned itself in favour of reducing military service, in light of the economics and the defensive and operational needs of the National Guard,” political bureau member Stefanos Stefanou said.

“A study carried out when the late Costas Papacostas was defence minister had shown that, in order to reduce army service, the National Guard would have to be reorganised, and thousands of soldiers hired at a cost of tens of millions of euros. Suddenly, the government opted to announce the decision without consulting with or even informing political parties. At the same time, the Chief of the National Guard [on Thursday] told the House defence committee he knew nothing about it!”

We wonder, Stefanou added, what planning took place, and when was it carried out, enabling the government to press ahead with reducing the service period.

DIKO and EDEK both welcomed the decision, but expressed reservations as to the repercussions on the army’s operational capabilities.

“Securing the National Guard’s ability to fulfill its mission is of the utmost importance,” said DIKO’s Fytos Constantinou.

“Defence matters should be addressed through an inter-partisan spirit of national consensus. The fact that the government’s decision was made without any consultation with political parties does not help in this regard.”

Socialist EDEK said the government is merely trying to win votes for DISY in May’s election.

“It is patently obvious that the government’s announcement, two months before the legislative elections, aims at the partisan exploitation of the issue,” the party said.

“We expect the government, at least on national matters, to behave more seriously.”

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