Close to the troops and far from the politics | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.03.2014
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Close to the troops and far from the politics

Ursula von der Leyen is Germany's first female defense minister. She has now marked her first 100 days in office and has been working hard to avoid the mistakes made by her predecessor.

"Mother of the company" and "Family minister in uniform" were the headlines in the German media after Ursula von der Leyen was chosen to be the new defense minister. Her appointment was the biggest surprise of the grand coalition and not just because she was the first woman to head this portfolio. The media attention has been unrelenting since she took office 100 days ago.

"it is an enormous task," said the CDU politician shortly after her appointment, "I'm looking forward to it. But I also have to say that I have huge respect for the task ahead of me," not least because the defense ministry post in the past has often been a stumbling block for politicians with ambitions.

Von der Leyen, too, is not lacking ambition, commitment, or discipline. During the week, she sleeps in the ministry and starts her working day early. The 55-year-old mother of seven has had plenty of experience leading a ministry: She was a minister in Lower Saxony before joining Angela Merkel's cabinet in 2005, where she first headed the family affairs ministry and then moved on to the labor ministry.

Campaign for a family-friendly army

Her first task in the defense ministry covered an area which was well known to her: the reconciliation of family and working life. She wants to help the Bundeswehr become one of the most attractive employers in Germany.

That would seem to be a necessary and logical step considering the changeover to an all-volunteer army. Since the end of conscription in 2011 the Bundeswehr does not automatically get new recruits. It has to compete with other employers. Von der Leyen plans more flexible childcare in the barracks, more family friendly deployments and fewer relocations for soldier families. And she has even talked about loosening the fitness norm for soldiers. The implementation of these plans is still pending and how they will be financed is not yet clear.

Von der Leyen's revamping plans are also aimed at reducing the complaints within the armed forces. The troops, in recent years, have been confronted with seemingly never-ending reforms. Since reunification, the army has been in constant remodelling mode, accompanied by cutbacks in funding and personnel, closure of garrisons and higher work loads.

Several visits to Bundeswehr missions abroad have given von der Leyen a good picture of the burden the troops are shouldering. Right after taking office, she traveled for a Christmas trip to Afghanistan.

Ursula von der Leyen and a group soldiers (Foto: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

Von der Leyen visited German troops abroad shortly after taking office

More international engagement

At the Munich Security Conference in January von der Leyen pleaded for more German involvement in crisis regions. It's no option to do nothing, she said. The defense minister has also placed particular focus on Africa. "Africa is our direct neighbor, and sooner or later, we, in Europe, have to deal with the consequences when there is murder, displacement, hunger and destabilization in Africa," she said. Germany has to be more committed to the continent, even militarily, if necessary.

But deployments abroad are not popular in Germany. That's why they are often limited to the training of foreign security forces and logistics support for Germany's allies. Germany's military options are very limited anyway and many of the special forces for these deployments are already overstretched.

That's why not much has really happened so far, except the expansion of the existing Mali training mission in Koulikoro. In addition, German troops are also set to train Somali security forces. German participation in an EU mission in Central Africa is also under consideration as well as assistance in the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. But, otherwise, no new missions are on the horizon.

Reorganization of the arms policy

After grabbing headlines for her plans to improve the appeal of the Bundeswehr and the debate about deployments abroad, von der Leyen also turned to another problem area in her portfolio: the armaments sector.

Ursula von der Leyen and Thomas de Maizière (Foto: Joerg Koch/Getty Images)

Von der Leyen wants to avoid the pitafalls faced by her predecessor, Thomas de Maizière

The minster is keen to avoid stumbling over some weapons project. Her predecessor, Thomas de Maizière, nearly lost his job because of the 'Euro Hawk' reconnaissance drone. Other arms projects also caused problems due to late delivery, significantly higher costs, or technical glitches.

Arms projects need to be more transparent, von der Leyen said in an interview with German broadcaster ARD. The keyword is modern procurement controlling: "That means that we constantly check the state of affairs, noting where we have to improve and where we have problems." External management consultants are supposed to help in the next few months. They will put the most important procurement projects to the test and will regularly inform von der Leyen about current developments.

New structures are not enough; there needs to be personnel changes as well, the minster explained and acted. Stephane Beemelmans, undersecretary for armaments, was sent into provisional retirement, and Detlef Selhausen, department head for equipment and information technology, also lost his job.

Stumbling blocks on the way to the top

So far, von der Leyen has cleared some stumbling blocks out of her way. But major challenges are still ahead. Despite the never-ending reforms and arms procurement projects, she also has to deal with the Bundeswehr's withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 - a logistical nightmare. What's more, it is still not decided if Germany will purchase combat drones. If von der Leyen is able to master all these tasks, there might be the next promotion waiting for her: She is often mentioned as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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