The Karakal Battalion during its first winter training session, held in an open area in Southern Israel, November 13, 2007.
Israel Defense Forces

Earlier this year, an expert commission that the Swiss government had charged with reviewing the country’s conscription system delivered its final report. The committee’s conclusion: Switzerland should extend its military draft to women. 

“Our armed forces need 18,000 new soldiers each year, and it’s getting harder and harder to reach this number,” Major Daniel Slongo told me. Slongo, the secretary-general of the Swiss military officers’ association, is a member of the commission and has concluded that extending the draft to women is the best way of filling the armed forces’ ranks. “Today we can’t fill some of our positions,” he explained. “If we get access to women for the draft, suddenly our conscript pool will be twice as large.” 

Staffing the military is more important than ever. Growing tension in Europe is making territorial defense—which requires large numbers of soldiers—a priority. Yet soldiers are not easy to come by. In many countries, military service doesn’t bring advantages on the labor market, which means that talented potential soldiers often try to get out of it. Defense officials are also concerned about declining fitness among potential recruits. In the United States, for example, a recent study showed that one-third of young adults are too fat to enlist. Such figures are making defense officials consider drafting women, who form a largely untapped talent pool.

Estonia, for one, will most likely need to grow its defense forces, which currently number around 6,000 (including some 3,000 conscripts), although the Ministry of Defense hasn’t yet determined how many additional soldiers it needs. But because professional soldiers are expensive, the country is likely to opt for more conscripts. “The physical condition of many conscripts is certainly a challenge,” says Peeter Kuimet, the director of the Estonian Defense Ministry’s Defense Service Department. “We would certainly welcome more voluntary female conscripts into the defense forces.” Kuimet doesn’t believe women to be, on average, fitter than men, but his approach makes sense: if the armed forces run out of suitable and motivated men, they need to tap into the female part of the population. The future setup of the conscription system and the precise number of conscripts Estonia needs will be hashed out in the next national defense development plan, to be published this autumn. Although women are currently allowed to undertake military service on a voluntary basis, only 20 to 30 do so each year. 

Finnish women serving voluntary military service giving their military oath with male conscripts, August 2005.
Finnish women serving voluntary military service giving their military oath with male conscripts, August 2005.
Karri Huhtanen / Flickr
Similar discussions are taking place in Austria. “We are running out of young men,” said Norbert Darabos, who was defense minister at the time and is now secretary-general of the Social Democratic Party, ahead of the country’s referendum on the draft three years ago. The population voted to keep the draft.  Sweden abolished the draft six years ago, but the armed forces are struggling with recruitment. Last year, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist launched a manpower review and called for gender-neutral mandatory conscription to supplement the professional soldiers and officers.

In Denmark, the director of the governing staff for the Ministry of Defense Laila Reenberg has come to the conclusion that her country likewise needs a gender-neutral draft. “The question of conscription for women is of course a political one,” she told me. “But my own personal opinion is that conscription should be equal. Right now we're sending the signal that we’re more interested in recruiting men than women and that military service is something that women can do for a few months after high school, like going to the Himalayas for a few months.” 

Besides, she added, the armed forces need female soldiers. Women currently make up some ten percent of the country’s professional soldiers and officers, but they are more likely to leave. “Our problem right now is that many of our female conscripts don't stay on for a professional career in the armed forces,” she explained. “We'd like to have at least one-third women. Then they don't feel like a minority.”  

By definition, mandatory conscription for women also makes the military a more obvious career option for women. In the Israel Defense Forces, women make up 33 percent of soldiers and officers; since 1999, the share of women among officers with the rank of lieutenant colonel or higher has grown from 7.3 percent to 12.5 percent.

The same thing could happen in Switzerland. Female conscription could also help the armed forces fill their professional gaps, Slongo told me: “Today many of our doctor positions, for example, are vacant, and in civilian life, half of medicine graduates are women. If we had female conscription, we could make the draft more attractive by allowing conscripts [of both genders] to complete some of their medical studies in the armed forces and then serve as doctors here.” 

In this, the armed forces in Switzerland and beyond have a good example to look to. This year Norway, which already introduced the world's first all-female Special Forces unit, became the first NATO country to draft women for military service. By the end of the year, 845 women born in 1997 will report for duty as drafted conscripts, joining a smaller number of female soldiers serving as professional soldiers in the Norwegian Armed Forces. Over 1,700 male Norwegians born in 1997 have also been drafted this year, according to figures provided by the Norwegian Armed Forces. The armed forces still draft the same total number of conscripts each year, but as of this year, some of the conscripts will be women. The armed forces’ only criterion is ability. 

Indeed, Norway, which is governed by a female prime minister and a parliament consisting of 40 percent women, extended its mandatory military service not for feminist reasons but because it wanted the best and fittest soldiers. “Today’s average teenagers are less fit than they were a generation ago,” Per-Thomas Bøe, the armed forces’ project manager for the gender-neutral draft, told me earlier this year. “There are larger differences between young men who are fit and those who are not than between our enlisted men and women, because teenagers who exercise are very fit.” 

Back in Switzerland, Slongo sees value in Norway’s highly selective draft. With only some 15 percent of men and women being called up for military service in Norway (compared with some 65 percent in Switzerland), the Norwegian Armed Forces get the country’s best and most motivated 19-year-olds. “We don’t need as many soldiers as possible, but the best ones,” Slongo explained. “And for that we need a bigger pool.” The Swiss government will now consider the expert committee’s recommendations and is likely to include them in a legislative proposal.

As European countries move their focus from international operations back to territorial defense, they will find women an increasingly useful talent pool. But should the centuries-old tradition of drafting only men be scrapped? No wonder countries are watching Norway to see if the country has found a superior answer.

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  • ELISABETH BRAW is a London-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
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