The Battle Over German Armed Forces Reform

by Ulf Gartzke
Wednesday September 1, 2010

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?

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. Very importantly, zu Guttenberg would also like to suspend the draft, which was introduced in 1955 and is 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”): 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 convential 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.

Angela Merkel, for her part, has already welcomed zu Guttenberg’s “new thinking” on the Bundeswehr’s future size and composition. That being said, the Chancellor is adopting her trademark wait-and-see approach to determine how the CDU/CSU parties will ultimately come down on this crucially important issue before two party convention votes planned for later this fall. The stakes in this battle over German armed forces reform are extremely high. If defense minister zu Guttenberg manages to gain enough political support to push through his far-reaching military reforms (“model 4”), it will mark the Bundeswehr’s successful transition from a heavy, Cold War-style army exclusively focused on territorial defense to a much more nimble and lighter force capable of quickly launching effective expeditionary operations (while of course maintaining the indispensable homeland protection component).

The proposed Bundeswehr reforms (including a suspension of the draft) are not only better suited to deal with today’s complex security threats, ranging from terrorism and WMD / missile technology proliferation to global crime networks and piracy. They would also be welcome news for Berlin’s allies, who could, in principle, count on the support of a militarily more capable Germany, both within NATO and within the EU context (the required parliamentary approval for each Bundeswehr deployment abroad notwithstanding). In the wake of the recent economic crisis, huge fiscal deficits are putting severe pressures on defense budgets across Europe, especially France, Germany, and the UK (London might be forced to cut its annual defense spending by up to 20 percent). If Germany can lead the way in terms of adopting politically controversial yet ultimately indispensable military reforms – thus generating more bang for fewer bucks – there is indeed at least some hope that European / NATO members in general can create much-needed synergies in defense procurement and force restructuring based on the notion that not all allies require the full spectrum of defense (industrial) capabilities.

Ulf Gartzke teaches at Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. This article reflects his personal opinions.