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The Battle Over German Armed Forces Reform

5:45 PM, Sep 1, 2010 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Just a few days ago, German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg presented five different reform proposals to restructure the country’s armed forces. Declining defense budgets coupled with increasing expeditionary demands on Bundeswehr forces around the world underline the case for fundamental reform of an institution which, in the minister’s own words, is “still breathing the air of the Cold War.” In essence, the proposed reforms center on two core issues: First, at the quantitative level, how many active soldiers should the Bundeswehr have in the future? And second, at the qualitative level, what should be the armed forces’ composition in terms of professional soldiers, volunteer personnel, as well as drafted conscripts?

The Battle Over German Armed Forces Reform

Today, the Bundeswehr has about 247,000 active duty soldiers – 187,000 are either professional soldiers or “temporary” volunteers (the former are life-long members of the armed forces while the latter serve only between two and 15 years); the remaining 60,000 troops are conscripts who usually serve nine months. Minister zu Guttenberg’s preferred reform proposal (“model 4”) would cut the Bundeswehr’s overall strength to 165,000 soldiers, including 7,500 “volunteers” who would serve between 6 and 23 months. Importantly, zu Guttenberg would also like to suspend the draft, which was introduced in 1956 and later enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law, by mid-2011.

The rationale behind this bold yet highly controversial push to suspend the draft is two-fold. First, the Bundeswehr needs far less conscripts than are theoretically required to serve in the armed forces, thus raising serious concerns about a lack of “Wehrgerechtigkeit” (“draft equity”). After all, how can the government justify drafting tens of thousands of young men for a nine-month military service while simply letting many of their friends off the hook? Second, the Bundeswehr’s conscription-based system is not only more expensive than a purely professional/volunteer force, but has also proven to be ill-equipped to deal with the growing demand for expeditionary military action in countries ranging from Afghanistan and Sudan to the coast of Lebanon.

In its current shape, the Bundeswehr can only deploy a maximum of 7,000-8,000 soldiers for military operations abroad at any given time. For defense minister zu Guttenberg, that relatively low number is simply not good enough as Germany’s armed forces should be expected to do more in general and also in comparison to their NATO allies. With the proposed reforms, the minister argues, “We will have fewer soldiers than today, but they will be better and more effective.”

However, for zu Guttenberg – an eloquent 38-year-old shooting star from Bavaria’s conservative CSU party who ranks as Germany’s most popular politician – this strong push for fundamental Bundeswehr reforms is also fraught with risk and uncertainty. While the suspension of the draft is welcomed by the entire left-wing opposition as well as the ruling free-market FDP coalition partner, zu Guttenberg faces considerable opposition from within the governing center-right CDU/CSU camp. For more than five decades, the CDU/CSU parties have been Germany’s staunchest supporters of the draft, arguing over and over again that it fostered strong, organic links between the armed forces and society at large (based on the notion that Bundeswehr soldiers are “citizens in uniforms”).

Abandoning the Cold-War era draft in the face of a dramatically changed security and defense environment – i.e., the Bundeswehr is no longer called to defend the Fulda Gap against a massive Soviet conventional attack but is now engaged in various stability and combat operations around the world that require highly trained specialists rather than hundreds of thousands of conscripts and reservists – is therefore proving to be politically very difficult. A number of prominent conservative leaders, including the minister-presidents of Bavaria and Lower Saxony, Horst Seehofer (CSU), and David McAllister (CDU), have come out strongly in favor of the draft, not least because there is a lot of push-back from constituents at the local level who fear the economic fall-out resulting from troop reductions and base closures. Draft proponents within the CDU/CSU tend to favor the ministry of defense’s proposed “model 5,” which foresees an overall Bundeswehr strength of 210,000, including 30,000 conscripts.

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