German Military Braces for Change
Its mission in Afghanistan is highly unpopular and its budget is about to be clipped, yet the real story for the German armed forces, or “Bundeswehr”, is the make-over it is about to receive from the Ministry of Defense (MoD). The word “change” has long been used by the German government and MoD officials and indeed since the end of the Cold War and the reunification of the two Germany’s the Bundeswehr has been shrunk to less than half of its size circa 1991. But the goal to reshape the German military from a largely static, territorial defense force to a flexible and mobile force capable of taking on an expeditionary role remains an ongoing process.
Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg would like to see that process sped up and the Bundeswehr move away from its lingering Cold War mind-set. The current German financial environment opens up a window of opportunity for sweeping changes to take place without entrenched industry efforts or military brass special interests getting in the way.
Berlin is preparing to trim EUR60-80 billion ($77-103 billion) from its public expense sheet between now and 2016 as part of an effort to meet a recent constitutional amendment referred to as the “debt brake” clause. That amendment calls upon the German government to gradually narrow a structural deficit of EUR67 billion by 2015, after which its annual deficit spending will be held to within EUR10 billion. With a public debt roughly equivalent to 79 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and a national mood soured by the European bailout of Greece, pressure has been building on the government to bring its fiscal house into order.
Defense – never among the more popular of items on German voters’ minds – will not be spared the budgetary knife. The government’s savings plan calls for EUR8.3 billion ($10.7 billion) worth of cuts to the EUR31.11 billion ($40.2 billion) defense budget through 2014. Placing all possibilities for achieving such savings on the table, Mr. zu Guttenberg has shunned the role of protector of the ministry’s financial position and instead eagerly embraced the role of reformer. As such he has presented scenarios to the government that if approved would result in sweeping changes to the 252,000-strong Bundeswehr.
These changes include downsizing the force, suspension of the practice of conscription, the early retirement of existing platforms and the termination of select defense programs.
Three proposals to shrink the armed forces have reportedly been tabled: the least severe would involve downsizing the force to 200,000 and keeping a degree of conscription in place; the “nuclear” option would be to cut the Bundeswehr to 150,000 troops and dispense with the practice of conscription completely. The middle proposal involves reducing the armed forces to 170,000 personnel and substitute conscription with an undetermined form of short-service volunteers.
The idea of trimming the armed forces resonates greatly inside the German MoD for the simple reason that just over half of the defense budget (EUR16.33 billion in 2010) is consumed by personnel costs. Even worse from the perspective of the MoD, despite having 252,000 persons in uniform very few of these are forces capable of conducting combat missions in overseas theaters. With roughly 8,000 troops participating in missions abroad – including 5,000+ serving in the NATO-led effort in Afghanistan – the Bundeswehr has essentially maximized its deployable manpower capabilities.
Part of the means for achieving a more professional, readily-deployable force would ideally come from suspending compulsory military service, an act estimated at saving Germany some EUR400 million ($517 million) annually. The very idea of discontinuing the practice of conscription would normally generate more controversy in the public domain, but gradually more political parties have become open to the idea.
Conscription has proven a double-edged sword for Germany. On the one hand it is seen as an insurance policy that prevents the military establishment from drifting away from the civilian population at large. But the other side of the equation is that because German law exempts draftees from service abroad the Bundeswehr is denied the use of over 60,000 of its own personnel for participation in overseas missions, thus diminishing what Germany has to offer to its NATO allies.
Going forward the reforms being planned by the MoD will call for all units to be trained and prepared for deployment in external operations – including ones involving direct combat. For a country understandably scarred by memories of the Second World War and harboring an ingrained pacifist streak the Bundeswehr shift from an armed civil protection agency to one principally composed to tackle difficult expeditionary roles is significant – if unappreciated at times by allies pleading with Germany to do more.
Personnel matters are not the only major shake-up looming. Select defense programs such as the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) and the Talarion unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) may face termination. Other projects, such as the A400M transport aircraft, NH90 helicopter, Puma infantry fighting vehicle and Type F125 frigate, could see their order sizes reduced. A final order of 37 Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft will be offered up for sale in order to avoid the stiff penalties Germany would incur for not meeting its full contractual obligations.
Meanwhile current military capabilities will come under scrutiny as the MoD searches for additional areas to prune. The German Navy has already taken preemptive action, decommissioning its six remaining Type-206A submarines earlier in June rather than waiting until their scheduled retirement date of 2016. That may not be all for the Navy, either, which could see its inventory further shrink by eight frigates and 21 Sea King helicopters. The Air Force will not be spared as plans being considered call for the reduction of its fleet of C-160D Transall airlifters and Panavia Tornado combat aircraft by 15 and 100 units, respectively.
Altogether if such bold moves are fully initiated it would mark a veritable sea-change in the composition and capabilities of the Bundeswehr. More importantly, it could foretell an inevitable push towards joint weapons procurement and closer defense integration across Europe. With one of the largest militaries amongst the dual EU-NATO members of Europe, Germany’s reform efforts – along with those soon to be undertaken in Britain – could have a knock-on effect throughout the continent. Relinquishing sovereignty of certain capabilities – such as protection of national airspace – for now remains a bridge too far for the larger military powers in Europe.
But with shrinking armies and smaller defense budgets changes are inevitable. How best to adapt to those changes in a way that ensures military capabilities are not broadly diminished represents the challenge facing Germany and that of Europe as a whole.
Photo by arenot.
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