Bundeswehr Reform: Operation Accomplished! But is the Patient Dead?

“We’ve taken on a lot: The reworking of the Bundeswehr and the defense ministry is like open-heart surgery while the patient walks around on the street,” said Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière on May 18, when he presented his plans for the realignment of the German forces and announced one of the biggest shake-ups in decades for the German military.

Presenting an eight-point revision of sweeping Bundeswehr reforms, de Maizière describes the current organization and structure of the armed forces as “inadequate” for dealing with current and future missions. Therefore he unveiled plans to reduce troop numbers, cut bureaucracy, and eliminate duplication inside a ministry known for its conservative and cumbersome structures. “We have too many staffs and too many generals,” he said. “Too much responsibility is being shifted upwards from below.” The plan he presented proposed firing generals – “too much supervision of too little work” – and widespread closure of army bases.

Under the new plan, Germany will have a solely professional force of about 170,000 soldiers, down from 250,000, along with 5,000 to 15,000 short-term volunteer recruits. The reform, first unveiled in August 2010 by then-defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, takes into account the end of conscription approved by parliament in March. Germany´s armed forces, comprised of the army, navy, air force, joint supply and joint medical corps, will shrink by a fifth in the coming years as budget cuts and an end to conscription transform the country’s 56-year-old Bundeswehr. In addition, the number of civilians working for the armed forces will be cut from 76,000 to 55,000 – with numbers reduced from 3,500 to 2,000 at the defense ministry. The general-inspector of the armed forces, the highest military rank, will effectively become chief-of-staff and principal military advisor to the government. Not yet decided is which of the 400 military bases would be closed – a sensitive issue because any closures could damage Chancellor Merkel’s conservative bloc during the 2013 federal election campaign.

The changes are to occur within the next six to eight years, adding that the bulk of major alterations would take place over the next two years. The cuts are to be deeper than those proposed last year by zu Guttenberg, who resigned March 1 in disgrace over revelations that he cheated to obtain a university degree. De Maizière put his predecessor’s reforms on hold when he took office.

Despite all cutbacks de Maizière stressed that Germany would not reduce participation in overseas operations. On the contrary, Germany will commit even more troops to U.N. missions in future, even when it has no direct interest in the situation.

This new approach of future German military actions within the NATO requests – taking over responsibilities, even if there is no immediate threat for Germany, which has been quite substantial in decision making to send out German troops in the past – is a very interesting new discussion de Mazière has launched with his reform proposals. It will be very interesting, especially politically, to see how the implementation of new strategies for our alliances within this reform will actually take place.

The number of troops serving in missions abroad would be increased to 10,000, from 7,000, a decision that is expected to win praise from the United States and Germany’s NATO allies.

The announcements sound promising, but de Maizière is facing a dilemma and probably has not taken the most important person into account – the German finance minister. The defense minister must find savings of more than €8 billion by 2015 as part of the government’s €80 billion austerity package, which it pushed through in 2010. Mr. de Maizière – who from 2005 to 2009 was Mrs. Merkel’s chief of staff and once served as interior minister – questioned himself whether such savings could be achieved under his reform plans.

He believes that the Bundeswehr was underfunded, given the growing burden of its international responsibilities in Afghanistan, where Germany currently has 5,000 soldiers posted. He declined to say whether he would press ahead with the €8.3 billion in defense cuts by 2015. Details of the reductions will be negotiated by coalition lawmakers in July, the minister said. The cost-saving cutbacks are likely to be welcomed by a largely pacifist electorate, but may disappoint allies that have asked Berlin to send its well-equipped forces to world trouble spots.

In the face of the budgetary situation de Maizière must answer two key questions:

First of all, some 15,000 draftees are currently performing their military service, the last of their breed before conscription is set aside. The defense minister hopes the armed forces can in the future attract 5,000 young recruits annually on a voluntary basis. However it is doubtful that the army is a sufficiently attractive employer.

Salaries for new recruits start at €780 a month, rising to €1,146. Despite a €5 million promotion campaign in the first quarter, just 433 young men and women signed up voluntarily for the Bundeswehr, far short of the forecast 5,000. Even before the abolition of conscription, numbers had been in decline for years. On average some 60 percent of young Germans declined military service in favor of “civil service” placements in hospitals and care facilities.

Given widespread pacifism in Germany, observers are skeptical about Berlin’s optimism that it can attract enough volunteers and professional soldiers to meet its NATO obligations. The changes will require making a career in the military more attractive in a country whose population is skeptical of military interventions.

Second, in recent months, many of Germany’s closest allies have questioned the reliability of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition after it abstained from a UN resolution paving the way for military action against the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Even if Germany’s defense minister were to assure that his country would be prepared to pull its weight militarily abroad, taking part in international operations “even when Berlin’s interests are not directly at stake,” does not mean that the foreign minister will agree.

Unlike France, Britain and the United States, Germany does not have a coherent national security strategy or guideline. The new security guidelines issued by de Maizière do not commit the whole government. As German foreign policy is largely determined by domestic political issues and sensitivities and military interventions have been unpopular with the German public, it remains to be seen how the patient´s treatment will facilitate his symptoms.

Dr. Uwe Brinkmann teaches law at the Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr in Hamburg and was a Visiting Fellow at AGI from April-May 2011.

This essay appeared in the May 20, 2011, AGI Advisor.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.