Reforming Germany's Army

MUNICH: What are the military threats European countries now face? What forces are required to meet them? How much are governments willing to pay? The debate over these issues has now reached West Europe's biggest army, Germany's Bundeswehr. Its outcome concerns not only Germans but their partners in Nato and the EU as well.

It is a belated debate here. The Cold War ended a decade ago, and most of Germany's allies conducted their debate years ago. If Germany has lagged, it is for two reasons: Germany's security environment has undergone the most dramatic change, and Germans remain deeply attached to military conscription.

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Revolutions happen quickly but it takes time to adjust to the changes they bring. For half-a-century, Germany was the point where the Cold War was most likely to turn hot. Then, beginning in the spring of 1990, Germany united, the Warsaw Pact and USSR disintegrated, and countries to Germany's east, which had been the staging post for Soviet tank armies, suddenly became friends, then partners. In 1994 the last Russian soldier left German soil.

That would have been the moment to take stock of Germany's new strategic situation. But Helmut Kohl's government feared that any examination would unravel the central feature of the army created in the mid-1950s and a major condition for its wide acceptance in the country: military conscription. The military embraces conscription because it assures the armed forces of high-quality recruits and a close link to civil society; politicians like it because it helps make the armed forces transparent; agencies of the welfare state appreciate it because, without conscription, there would be no conscientious objectors to be usefully (and cheaply) employed in all sorts of social tasks.

So the armed forces found themselves in a double bind: the Cold War's end prompted calls for a peace dividend and for unification to be funded. Germany's defense budget slid to lower levels even faster than did those of her allies. But to maintain conscription implied a large and costly military structure which bloated personal expenditure at the price of squeezing the budget share of military investment. The result is an army neither manned nor equipped for dealing with likely security threats, nor for cooperating with the armed forces of Germany's allies.

So reform became inevitable. Because the conservatives of Helmut Kohl did not address it, Gerhard Schroeder's left coalition had to. A year ago, it set up an independent "Commission on Common Security and the Future of the Armed Forces" under the chairmanship of Richard von Weizsaecker, the respected former President of the Republic. Earlier this week, the Commission's report was published. A debate long in coming is finally beginning.

The 179 page document does not mince words. The Bundeswehr has no future in its current structure. Germany is no longer threatened by invading armies; she is surrounded by allies in Nato and partners in the EU. This strategic condition is here to stay. Instead of the capability for repulsing a massive attack on its borders, the armed forces need to be able to intervene in and manage crises B whether within or beyond Nato B in joint operations with their closest allies.

Hence what counts is the number and equipment of forces deployable for crisis operations. At the moment, barely sixty thousand soldiers qualify; the Weizsaecker Commission calls for an increase to 140,000 of different stages of readiness, sufficient to intervene in two simultaneous crises. At the same time, it proposes a drastic reduction in the overall size of the Bundeswehr: from the current 320,000 to no more than 240,000 men and women (yes, women: they will be eligible for practically all military functions). The number of conscripts, with a military service of 10 months, should be 30,000 a year, down from the present 130,000.

In other words: the number of soldiers needed for the new tasks goes up, while the total of the armed forces goes down. The resulting savings are proposed to modernize military hardware and equip the forces for future tasks. Just as soldiers and their means should be geared to these, so the chain of command needs to be streamlined to assure rapid deployment of combined forces, in close coordination with allies, and with political oversight guaranteed.

It will take up to six years, the Commission estimates, to manage the transition from the present to the future Bundeswehr, and Weizs„cker suggests a program budget to make sure the reform stays on course. But if it does, Germany will be fully capable of honoring commitments she has undertaken in Nato and the EU. Indeed, the reform will give a boost to much closer European defence cooperation by increasing interoperability with major European allies and encouraging joint procurement, joint production and joint management of military investment.

Now politicians are taking over. In the ensuing public debate, two items have already emerged as central: money and conscription B one politically demanding, the other politically convenient.

These reforms will not come cheap. Although the new Bundeswehr will be more cost-efficient, it will need money to manage the changeover, more than currently planned by a government set on a laudable course of fiscal consolidation. Will Chancellor Schroeder be willing to commit himself to reforms which will bring fruit only after the next elections?

Conscription is another matter. While one third of the Commission members favored a volunteer army, the majority supported conscription, albeit with a smaller number of call-ups than today. Their reasoning: Since the future is uncertain, it makes sense to retain the flexibility conscription permits, to respond both to unforeseen changes in the security environment and to shortfalls in the recruitment of volunteers; here the difficulties that allied armies are encountering which have jettisoned conscription have been a warning. But the number of young men to be called up depends on the requirements of the forces; hence the Commission insists on no less than ten months' service. This explains the much reduced figure of only 30.000 a year.

It is this part of the proposal which is encountering most criticism. Most political parties reject it, preferring instead to draft a much higher number. The Commission's selective draft, they argue is unconstitutional because it allows the large majority of eligible young men to escape conscription.

This may not be the last word in the debate. For to argue that the draft is only just if everyone is called up regardless of military requirements is unconvincing, provided those that are drafted are compensated for their service. Moreover, to draft more than one needs is a costly luxury. That recognition is gradually sinking in, at least in the government. Defense Minister Scharping who is currently preparing his own proposals for the future Bundeswehr, also envisages a major reduction in the number of conscripts though not as drastic as the Commission wants.

Less money and more conscripts will slow down, and possibly derail, the Weizsaecker reforms. But then commissions propose, politicians dispose. They are under greater constraints than independent advisers, they get the credit for success but also bear the risk of failure. It would be naive, therefore, to demand that they should not deviate from the script that Weizsaecker wrote.

It would be wrong, as some are doing, to dismiss the Report as an inconsequential wishlist. In one year of hard work, Weizsaecker's group has done what no other body in government or parliament can do: define the benchmark for needed reforms. Politicians will deviate, but they will have to account for it if and when they do. That is why it is safe to say: reform of the Bundeswehr is finally under way.