Expand the Draft to Women

How Europe Is Beefing Up the Armed Forces

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

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