Germany to take scalpel to its top-heavy armed forces


GERMANY’S ARMED forces 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.

Defence minister Thomas de Maiziere presented a reform plan yesterday to cut away layers of top-heavy bureaucracy, which he said have become a “serious hindrance” to the army’s activities.

“We’ve taken on a lot: the reworking of the Bundeswehr and the [defence] ministry is like open-heart surgery while the patient walks around on the street,” said Mr de Maiziere, a Merkel confidant and former interior minister who recently took over the defence portfolio. “But this reform is necessary and it can be financed.”

The plan he presented yesterday proposed firing generals – “too much supervision of too little work” – and widespread closure of army bases. No bases were named but closures are sure to be challenged by governors of states in which bases are big employers. In addition, the minister refused to be drawn on whether the defence ministry, along with several other ministries, would maintain its main seat in Bonn alongside a separate operation in Berlin.

Germany’s armed forces comprise the army, navy and air force, as well as supply and joint medical corps. They have 220,000 personnel, with the figure set to drop to 170,000.

Mr de Maiziere said yesterday that the Bundeswehr was underfunded, given the growing burden of its international responsibilities in Afghanistan, where Germany currently has 5,000 soldiers posted. “The army has for a long time been structurally underfinanced for the tasks that it’s being asked to do,” he said.

“I believe that we should continue to assess requests for such [foreign] operations,” he added, saying Germany needed to play a larger role internationally.

Opposition politicians criticised yesterday’s plan as vague on numbers, particularly in relation to whether the ministry would achieve the 20 per cent cut in its €31 billion budget demanded by the finance ministry.

The Green Party accused the minister of using budget tricks to hit his €8 billion savings target, shifting pension claims arising from reform of the Bundeswehr budget. Beyond the challenge of cutting €8 billion from its operating budget, the Bundeswehr faces a more urgent numbers problem. Some 15,000 soldiers are currently performing their military service, the last of their breed before conscription is set aside.

The defence minister hopes the armed forces can in the future attract 5,000 young recruits annually on a voluntary basis, though experts doubt 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 2,000.

Even before the abolition of conscription, numbers had been in decline for years. On average some 60 per cent of young Germans declined military service in favour of “civil service” placements in hospitals and care facilities.

Given widespread pacifism in Germany, observers are sceptical about Berlin’s optimism that it can attract enough volunteers and professional soldiers to meet its Nato obligations.