The decision to cut military service from 24 to 14 months constitutes an upgrade of the National Guard’s effectiveness, Defence Minister Christophoros Fokaides said on Friday, as he sought to allay concerns expressed by opposition parties, which were taken by surprise by Thursday’s announcement.
Following a close-door briefing in parliament, the minister said procedures to hire 3,000 professional soldiers to cover the gap were already underway. The cost is expected to reach €33mln.
Males up to the age of 32 who have done their army service are eligible to join. They will be hired on a one-year trial basis before being offered three-year contracts with a salary of €1,100 per month.
The contracts can be renewed up to three times.
Political parties did not object to the decision but questioned the timing and censured the fact that they had not been informed of the government’s intentions.
The minister wondered why he should have informed parliament beforehand.
“About the minister’s intentions, his thoughts, his ideas?” he said. “Isn’t this the stuff that tired the people for 10 years now? Announcements on top of announcements with no decisions.”
Fokaides said he had told the House Defence Committee a long time ago that by the end of 2015 the ministry would submit a comprehensive plan for the reorganisation of the National Guard.
The plan was based on three pillars, he said, a new force structure, redeployment and modernisation, armament programmes for all three branches – army, navy, air force – and recruitment of professional soldiers that would enable the government to cut the service.
The reorganisation plan covers a 15-year timeframe with the most important phase expected to be carried out between 2016 and 2020.
The minister said no one knew what the cabinet’s final decision would be and it would have been irresponsible to inform the committee about something that had not been decided.
He said the force’s combat ability would improve since the conscripts would be replaced by professionals.
Though not having a say in the decision, parliament would have to approve the additional expenditure.
Committee chairman, EDEK MP, Giorgos Varnava, described the decision as hasty but made it clear that all parties were in favour of a reduction.
He said the parties were in favour provided that the conditions – the three pillars – were met.
Varnava said the National Guard’s reorganisation would take five years, as long as parliament released the necessary funds.
The EDEK MP said the 3,000 professionals would have to be hired and trained by September this year so that they would be ready to replace those discharged in December as part of the government decision.
The same went for equipment that had to be procured by December.
“I hope all this is done by December and I say cut the service to 10 months not 14,” Varnava said. “The matter is not who makes the announcement, raising people’s expectations, but the implementation.”
He also bemoaned the fact that parliament had not been informed with the excuse that the minister could not have known the cabinet’s decision.
“How does the minister know in advance what parliament’s decision would be when the necessary bills are submitted so that he can implement what he announced?” Varnava said.
Ruling DISY MP Andreas Michaelides said opposition parties were annoyed because while all administrations kept saying they planned to cut military service, this one did it.
“And now you’re bothered because you missed it. Well, you’re too late,” Michaelides said.
AKEL also criticised the fact that there had not been any consultation with the parties and also voiced concern over the financial aspect of the endeavour.