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15 Years of Border Surveillance

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the henceforth unprotected border has been a temptation for many to get to the "Golden West”. Soon the law-enforcement agencies of the Federal Ministry of the Interior have no longer been able to cope with the on-rush. Upon request, the Austrian Armed Forces (AAF) started an assistance operation at the eastern border, which was originally limited to ten weeks but is still going on today.

Framework Conditions

In 1989 the Iron Curtain fell. In spring and summer 1990, the henceforth virtually open border led to a dramatic increase in illegal border crossings of Eastern and South-Eastern European people. Customs officials and gendarmerie were no longer able to cope with the massive on-rush alone, amounting to more than 1,000 illegal border crossings per week. Aside from to the ever increasing number of immigrants, it was, above all, the rapid growth of trans-border crime that prompted the Federal Government to take quick counter-measures.

This border operation was not all that inconvenient for the AAF, either. Once the so-called threat from the East was gone, there were tendencies in politics and the media to dissolve the AAF in their existing structure and organization. With the call for an "AAF light" version the politicians obviously expected to attract more voters and the media an increase in public interest. In addition, there was a campaign against the procurement and stationing of "Draken” fighter aircraft, which the AAF - and in particular the then Minister of Defence Robert Lichal - had to withstand. Therefore, protecting the border was certainly also a welcome opportunity for the AAF to improve their public acceptance.

Beginning and Development of the Assistance Operation

Initial concrete planning of a possible operation set in as early as 31 August 1990. Pending a Council of Ministers decision, the Army Command had ordered the Military Provincial Command of Burgenland to plan the border oper-ation. These plans were based on the following intention of the Army Command: "To conduct an assistance operation at the national border for several weeks, in the form of a border sur-veillance operation, initially between Deutsch Jahrndorf and Lockenhaus, with two assistance battalions totalling roughly 2,000 and to keep a battalion-size reserve in the south, in order to prevent illegal border crossings there”.

On 4 September 1990, the Council of Ministers unanimously decided that the AAF were to survey the national border between the official border crossings of Jahrndorf and Lockenhaus for a maximum of ten weeks. Implementing the Council of Ministers decision, the Army Command ordered the Military Provincial Command of Burgenland - on the basis of the planning already conducted - as follows: "The Military Provincial Command of Burgenland, in close cooperation with gendarmerie and customs, will conduct an assistance operation with deployed forces in assigned border sectors and in order to prevent illegal border crossings.” The Army Command ordered light air support for the ground troops. It was in essence a matter of demonstrating the rapid reaction capability of the AAF by quickly getting established at the national border and subsequently achieving a substantial reduction of illegal border crossings through optimum surveillance of the assigned border sections.

As early as 4 September, immediately after receiving the mission order, the Military Provincial Command of Burgenland issued orders for the three battalion commanders - Maj Albel/Section "North”, Maj Berktold/Section "Centre”, and LTC Halder/Section "South”. At 1900 hrs on 5 September, the Assistance Battalions "North” (district of Neusiedl) and "Centre” (districts of Eisenstadt Surroundings, Mattersburg, and Oberpullendorf) reported operational readiness at the border. Assistance Battalion "South” was on standby readiness in the assembly area and conducted training in their barracks in southern Burgenland. Soon, however, reinforcement companies and platoons had to be employed in the north, so that the battalion command "South” had to be dissolved on 11 September.

The border surveillance soon proved to be successful. The number of illegal border crossings rapidly decreased in the sections surveyed by the AAF. But, as was to be expected, the illegal border crossers moved up further north. On 17 September, the Council of Ministers, therefore, extended the area of operation to the north until the Danube River, stretching into the Province of Lower Austria, i. e. as far as the Austrian-Slovak border. Roughly after six weeks of the operation, it became clear that the extent of illegal border crossings could not be stemmed within the given time frame. The Federal Government, therefore, ordered the assistance operation to be continued.

By the end of 1990, within a period of only four months, soldiers of the AAF had apprehended over 1,500 illegal border crossers, thereby contributing substantially to security in the border region.

Since 1991, the assistance operation has been extended year after year. Originally, the contingents, made up of troops from all branches, deployed from anywhere in Austria, were relieved after four weeks.

In October 1991 illegal border crossings went up in the southern border section, which had not been monitored by the AAF. The Army Command reacted by installing an Assistance Battalion "South" in the area between Lockenhaus und Mogersdorf-Weichselbaum.

According to the 1991 end-of-year statistics, 8,000 illegal border crossers had been apprehended. In the following years, however, the number dropped again, so that in April 1994 the Assistance Command "Centre” could be dissolved. Since then, the two remaining assistance commands led three assistance companies each. When the number of illegal border crossings started to rise again, the AAF reinforced their surveillance at the Austrian-Hungarian border in February 1997 by deploying 400 additional soldiers. In compliance with a Federal Government decision and a request filed by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, troop strength was augmented to approximately 2,000. Increased AAF surveillance of the Austrian-Hungarian border also was to enable Austria to fulfil its requirements of the Schengen Agreement.

Because of these intensified efforts, human trafficking organizations moved to the southern and northern borders of Austria. Although the border gendarmerie of Lower Austria were fully alerted illegal crossings, particularly in the area of the March river, were continuously on the rise. The politicians of Lower Austria, especially the Provincial Governor, insisted that an AAF border operation be carried out also in Lower Austria. This demand was met when on 21 December 1999 AAF border surveillance was extended into the area of Hohenau by deploying another company of 200 troops. Since then, approximately 2,200 soldiers have been permanently deployed in this operation. In order to have the necessary number of soldiers available, despite decreasing recruitment figures, and to avoid that training units were deployed to the border twice within the recruits’ national service term, the rotation period was prolonged to six weeks as of mid-2000.

Over the time, the originally make-shift arrangement has developed into a measure indispensable for Austria to secure the outer Schengen border of the EU.

Local Population and Soldiers of the Assistance Operation

From the start, the relationship between the local population and the soldiers was exceptionally good. Particularly in the beginning, the operation was received with great enthusiasm. The soldiers gave the population the feeling of security, which was much appreciated. And even today, 15 years later, the soldiers are still welcome. Their presence offers additional protection against petty crime, such as theft and burglary and is particularly missed when a platoon command post set up in a village, fails to be manned for one rotation.


Mission and Distribution of Responsibilities

Under section 2 para 1 subpara b of the Defence Act, the Austrian Armed Forces are providing assistance in this area of operation. Being an official authority, the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) requests the MoD to render such assistance. To have its tasks carried out, the MoI works through the Security Directorates of the Provinces of Burgenland and Lower Austria as well as the relevant District Authorities. While the operation’s objectives are specified by the civil authority, the military commanders are responsible for operational planning in the sense of mission accomplishment as well as for all measures of execution. Within the framework of border surveillance, the law-enforcement agencies and the AAF are on equal footing, both having clearly defined and separate tasks. The former gendarmerie (until 30 April 2004 together with the customs authorities) - as of 1 July 2005 converted into one single police force - controls the in-and-out traffic at the border check points and carries out tasks in the depth of the national territory. The AAF monitor the green and blue (i. e. water) borders off the official border crossings. The respective district authorities are responsible for coordination with the commanders of both organizations on the ground.

Assistance Operation Tasks

The assistance forces have to survey the border at a length of 470 km (113 km along Slovakia and 357 km along Hungary).

The objectives of the operation include: - preventing illegal border crossings, - apprehending illegal border crossers already on Austrian territory, as closely as possible to the border, and handing them over to security in order to prevent them from moving freely on Austrian national territory, and - heightening the feeling of security of the population in the border region by conducting this operation.

Powers of the Assistance Force

Every soldier of the assistance force serving in the framework of border surveillance has the same rights and duties as the security organs of the law-enforcement agencies since he/she carries out the same job.

In particular, these rights are: - the right to apprehend persons, - the right to establish a person’s identity, - the right to search persons, personal effects, and vehicles as well as - the right to arrest.

The use of fire arms is only permitted for self-defense and rendering emergency assistance.

The regulations concerning the rights and duties of soldiers are put forth in detail in a directive issued by the Federal Ministry of the Interior.

Command Structure and Organization

Until 2002 the assistance operation force was under the direct command and control of the Federal Ministry of Defence. The Operations Division at the MoD was responsible for the coordination within the MoD and with the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Ministry of Finance (Customs). Once the Land Force Command was set up, it assumed responsibility for the routine tasks of planning and command and control. It also plans deployments and issues deployment orders. In that respect, the other AAF commands and offices are in direct support of the Land Force Command.

The Military Provincial Command of Burgenland is subordinated to the Land Force Command and directly responsible for command and control in the area of operation. It is also responsible for the coordination with the Security Directorates and the Provincial Gendarmerie Commands - as of 1 July 2005 Provincial Police Commands. To ensure command and control capability, the Military Provincial Command of Burgenland set up an operations staff on the basis of continuous shift rotations.

At present, the forces deployed are organized as follows: - Assistance Battalion "North” in Neusiedl with four assistance companies; - Assistance Battalion "South” on Geschriebenstein with five assistance companies.

The assistance battalions are referred to as assistance commands. The assistance companies have different strengths, determined on the basis of the conditions in the area and the terrain to be surveyed. The assistance platoon is standardized. It consists of a platoon team and four assistance squads totalling 42 soldiers.

Altogether there are 39 assistance platoons deployed.

Service at the Border - Operational Command and Control

Service Times and Duration of Deployment

The forces deployed serve for a period of six weeks. As a principle, assistance service works on a four-day rhythm, alternating direct border duty, on-call duty in the vicinity of the living quarters, and 24-hour periods of unspecified service.

Armament, Equipment, and Dress

Assistance soldiers are armed with the StG77 assault rifle with a magazine of 30 rounds. They wear the Field Dress 75 with harness, magazine pouches, water bottle, and field pack. Helmet and NBC protective mask are not carried along. Due to the specific circumstances of the operation, in addition the soldiers are equipped with thermal imaging devices, night vision binoculars and goggles, as well as special flashlights. To be recognized as such, assistance soldiers wear a red-white-red armband around the left upper arm.

Supply and Accommodation

The preservation of combat power is essential. This also includes the soldiers’ housing, either in adapted private homes or in container camps set up by the AAF as well as in barracks. Apart from adequate housing, welfare is essential for preserving the morale. Every fourth day the soldiers can take advantage of a recreation programme and recover. Among the activities offered are the use of public pools and cinemas free of charge as well as the use of many sports and leisure facilities.

Not least because of being confronted with the burden of these illegal border crossers, serving at the border requires all soldierly virtues. Permanent availability of military pastoral care also plays an important role in this context.

Execution of Border Surveillance

The assistance platoon is the main border surveillance element. It is assigned an area of responsibility on the basis of the amount of illegal border crossings (main effort) and the possibilities of surveying the area. The assistance platoons provides 2-man teams, used as standing patrols, contact patrols on foot, and bicycle patrols. The standing patrols sometimes use outpost positions which offer limited weather protection. As most illegal border crossings occur during the night, every platoon, as a principle, deploys two squads during the night and one squad during the day. In the entire border section there are up to 150 teams available during day time and up to 310 teams during night hours. In main effort areas surveillance is additionally augmented by elements both from company headquarters and HQ companies.

Peculiarities are the boat patrols on the March River and AAF pack-animal elements used as a mounted reconnaissance platoon. The boat patrols reconnoitre river crossing points in order to take appropriate counter-measures on the Austrian side. However, official actions on the river, such as the apprehension or rejection of persons are not foreseen. The mounted reconnaissance platoon used for border surveillance mainly operates during day-time. In doing so, it makes use of the horses’ advantages, their high mobility in difficult terrain, and the better observation possibilities when being mounted on the horse.

Operational Procedures and Battle Drill

The operational procedures of border surveillance have been permanently adapted to the situation and have, therefore, changed over the years. The use of optimal techniques and tactics for border surveillance has always been based on military command and control procedures. The decisive framework conditions in this context are the authority directives, the concrete behaviour of illegal border crossers and human trafficking organizations, the surrounding conditions (season, infrastructure), own possibilities (strength of forces deployed, technical surveillance aids, such as night-vision and thermal imaging devices) as well as the cooperation with the police and the Slovak and Hungarian boarder guard authorities.

At the beginning of the assistance operation, the illegal border crossers entered Austrian territory without the help of organizations and often ran directly into the hands of posts and patrols. However, they quickly adjusted to the new situation. Within a short time, organized crime established human trafficking organizations, acting with increasing professionalism and success-orientedness. They reconnoitred AAF units by means of modern technical equipment, tapped radio and cell-phone communications, observed platoon command posts and tried to distract information from soldiers. They used, and still are using, those tools for selecting the most promising crossing point.

The AAF responds by operating as flexibly as possible.

Depending on the situation, the forces deployed either show visible presence or are used tactically for concealment and deception.

Modern equipment, such as thermal imaging cameras and tap-proof radios are necessary. Targeted use of thermal imaging devices and, as of 2002, intensive cooperation with the Hungarian boarder guard and the Slovak alien and border police made it possible to effectively fulfil the main task of the assistance operation, i. e. "prevent attempts of illegal border crossings”. Border crossings are prevented by identifying persons approaching the national border early, with the help of thermal imaging devices, and informing the Slovak or Hungarian border authorities. These can then become active on their national territories and prevent the crossing, or arrest the persons apprehended at the border. This procedure is known as rejection. Since the introduction of thermal imaging devices in summer 2002, the number of rejections went up to more than 2,500 a year.


Training Preconditions

The operation at the border is not merely guard duty but rather requires comprehensive military training. Therefore, careful preparation of the soldiers is of great importance, not least because most conscripts have to do their duty at the border independently and self-responsibly. The demands made on the assistance forces require special training of soldiers and commanding officers, with regard to battle drill and tactics.

The units are responsible for the battle drill of all soldiers. The soldiers are trained under near operational conditions during day and night in various standard situations. These include stopping illegal border crossers, self-defence, close combat, self and buddy aid, blocking and sweeping terrain sections, and transport of illegal border crossers. Guard training alone, including identity and vehicle checks, is not enough for this kind of operation. Aside from these combat training objectives, weapons training and basic signals training are of greatest importance in this context. Upon arrival in the area of operation the commanding officers receive their final tactical briefing from the Military Provincial Command of Burgenland.

Gain or Loss of Training Time?

During the first years, there were repeated complaints that the assistance operation took away valuable training time. A report of the Federal Court of Audit critically stated that the assistance operation would cause severe training deficits, weakening AAF defense readiness to an irresponsible extent. The internal and external criticism was, and still is, partly justified. Of course, serving six weeks in the assistance operation leads to training deficits in certain other areas. On the other hand, the assistance operation not only requires solid training on all command echelons, it is also a practical application of skills acquired in prior training. In the assistance operation soldiers carry out activities and tasks over a longer period of time, thus acquiring skills also needed in operations of higher intensity. Observing and reporting, radio communications duty, reconnaissance patrol behaviour, daily handling of a half-loaded weapon, regular weapons training etc. considerably improve these general military skills. Commanding officers and their staffs benefit a lot from the assistance operation: Over a six-week period, military command and control procedures have to be permanently applied. Where else, if not in such a continuous operation, can the units’ rules of procedures be better tested, with respect to their usefulness? In no exercise can commanding officers test and improve their personal command and control behaviour under operational conditions over such a long period of time. Another important aspect is the positive feedback from soldiers who were deployed there. The majority of them consider the operation being tough but making sense, as it fosters comradeship and allows the practical application of skills acquired during training.


Since the beginning of the assistance operation, approximately 300,000 soldiers from all over Austria have served at the borders to Slovakia and Hungary. So far, they have apprehended more than 82,000 illegal border crossers from 110 states and handed them over to security as well as rejected more than 10,000 persons.

The assistance operation is currently the most important domestic task of the AAF. Career soldiers, officers, and NCOs participated in this operation in all functions ranging from border guard to HQ section commander, from platoon leader to battalion commander. And this has left its imprint. The experience they gained there has been successfully used in other AAF operations abroad. A point in case, which was recognized even by highest KFOR authorities, was the 2001 operation of Austrian companies in southern Kosovo at Dragas, surveying the Macedonian border.

___________________________________ __________________________________ By: Major Wolfgang Gröbming, MSD, PIO Military Provincial Command of Burgenland

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