German army stretched to the limit

12th December 2003, Comments 0 comments

The German army is facing a major shakeout as Berlin cuts both troop numbers and its defence budget. Leon Mangasarian reports on the new pressures that have hit the country’s armed forces.

Sizing up a new enemy: budget cuts

Prussia, which was Germany's forerunner, used to be described as an army which controlled a state.

Modern Germany still has one of Europe's biggest armies but has taken a very different path over the past decade with troop strength being slashed amid defence spending cuts in a nation still wary over military prowess.

US President George W Bush, angered by Berlin's refusal to send troops to Iraq, admitted he shouldn't be surprised because Germany is "pacifist at its core" after the horrors of two world wars.

Former German Defence Minister Hans Apel, a member of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD), is blunter about the state of Germany's Bundeswehr - the combined armed forces.

"From a military standpoint Germany - at the very best - is only fit to play in a regional football league," says Apel who served as defence minister from 1978 to 1982.

To be sure, Germany still packs military punch: The 100 members of its elite KSK unit serving in Afghanistan reportedly operate with deadly efficiency. German troops took part in their first post-World War II combat during the 1999 Kosovo war.

*quote2*But the overall figures of decline in the past decade speak for themselves.

In 1990, when former East and West Germany unified, the country had combined armed forces totalling 660,000 troops.

This was swiftly downsized to about 330,000 under unity terms and then to the present 283,000. Now the government is debating a further reduction to 260,000 soldiers.

But total number of troops is a deceptive measure of military strength for Europe's biggest nation with a population of 82 million.

Chancellor Schroeder has repeatedly declared in the past year that Germany's global troop projection limit has been reached and there are no available forces or funds for further deployment.

So how many soldiers does Germany now have stationed mainly in Afghanistan and the Balkans to reach its military limits? The surprise answer is a total of 8,360.

What then are the remaining 275,000 German troops doing?

  • Over 30,000 soldiers are required for rotation in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia, officials say.
  • About 100,000 soldiers are either in basic training or serving their now shortened conscription period of nine months and cannot be deployed for combat.
  • Most of the 92,000 troops in the Luftwaffe (air force) and navy cannot assist in peacekeeping missions where German forces are currently stationed.
  • A further 22,000 soldiers are studying at Bundeswehr universities and exempted from tours of duty.

The Bundeswehr even affords the luxury of a 1,200-member sports company which is deployed at events such as the Olympic games.

Aside from a lack of crack combat forces, the Bundeswehr is also battling budget cuts and a freeze on future funds.

*quote1*German defence spending will remain locked at EUR 24.4 billion annually for the years 2003 to 2006.

And this is despite the fact that Germany already pays far less on defence than the other big countries in Nato.

Whereas the United States spends 3 percent of its GDP on the military, and France and Britain 2.5 percent each, Germany directs just 1.6 percent of its GDP to the armed forces.

A sad result of underfunding is that Bundeswehr soldiers often cannibalize aircraft, tanks and trucks to keep units operational.

Outdated equipment is a further problem with many major weapons systems dating back to the 1970s and designed for the Cold War doctrine of resisting a major offensive by the defunct Warsaw Pact.

Big arms procurement projects in coming years seek to remedy this problem.

Planned new systems include 180 new Eurofighter jets, military transport planes, helicopters and submarines to give the Bundeswehr a nimble force for global deployment with a 60,000-man rapid reaction force.

But there are fears the closely calculated financing of these projects leaves no margin for play in a tightening Bundeswehr budget.

Hopes for more defence spending are a pipedream.

The German government is cutting taxes to revive its economy — currently the weakest in Europe - and still overshooting eurozone budget deficit limits.

An often overlooked part of the military funding problem is that half of German defence spending winds up as salaries and benefits not just for soldiers but also for an additional 128,000 civilian employees of the Bundeswehr.

"You could throw out half of them and nobody would notice," said administrative expert quoted by the news magazine Der Spiegel.

The trouble with this view is that under Germany's strict job protection laws there's little chance of such a thing ever happening.

December 2003


Subject: German news

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