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Germany

German defense minister could abolish conscription in budget drive

German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg said proposals for massive cuts in military spending had forced him to re-consider the concept of military conscription. Chancellor Merkel is reportedly up in arms.

German soldiers taking oath in front of a German national flag

The debate over a professional vs. conscript army has flared up again

German Defense Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg has reopened a long-simmering debate about the draft in Germany, saying he wouldn't shy away from "radical and controversial measures" in his efforts to cut back on military expenditure.

"Against the background of the latest savings proposal, I'm determined to put the issue of military conscription back on the agenda," the German Defense Minister said in a keynote speech on military policy in Hamburg recently.

As part of the government's planned austerity measures, the German military is facing cuts of 1 billion euros ($1.24 billion) annually over the next three years.

Guttenberg was planning to "suspend the draft for an unspecified period of time," a Defense Ministry official said on Wednesday, adding "its complete abolition could save up to 400 million euros per year."

Sacred cow

For more than five decades, the issue of military conscription has been almost sacrosanct in Germany. Under a concept called "citizens in uniform," German political leaders aimed to bring the national armed forces closer to the general public and improve their tarnished image after the Nazi era.

Bundeswehr amoured vehicle with a German flag on a raod in Afghanistan

The Afghanistan mission has raised doubts about the conscript army's readiness for combat

Up until the 1990s, German men were forced to serve in the army for one and a half years. However, conscripts could claim moral objections to military service, having to do civil service instead.

After German unification in 1991, military service was shortened several times. The latest reduction, to just 6 months, is scheduled to be introduced this summer.

The reduction was a demand by the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) - junior partners in the government coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

"The Defense Minister has raised the right issue at the right time," said FDP general secretary Christian Lindner.

Guttenberg could "count on the FDP's support in his effort to make the Bundeswehr [the German army] fit for the future", he said and added: "The suspension of the draft doesn't just make sense from a financial point of view, but also with regard to national security."

Merkel up in arms

However, there has been strong resistance to the proposal from the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU.

Angela Merkel with a skeptical face sitting next to Guttenberg

Chancellor Angela Merkel wasn't amused by Guttenberg's proposal

"The end of military conscription cannot be explained with the need for savings, let alone be pushed through in just three days", Chancellor Angela Merkel is quoted as saying by the "Financial Times Germany" newspaper in its Thursday edition.

The newspaper cited a source who had taken part in a meeting of CDU/CSU leaders on Wednesday.

"Nobody knew about Guttenberg's plans, and every participant in the meeting was up in arms," the source was quoted as saying.

Massive cuts inevitable

Guttenberg himself proposed cuts in military expenditure to the tune of 1 billion euros to help the government get to grips with its ballooning budget deficit.

His plans would also include trimming the size of the Bundeswehr from 250,000 troops to 150,000, the Rheinische Post newspaper reported on Thursday.

In addition, cuts were also envisaged in military procurement, the newspaper said. The Defense Ministry is reportedly looking into projects such as the MEADS missile defense system and the Eurofighter aircraft, orders for which could either be reduced or cancelled altogether.

However, precise details about the cutbacks in the German military won't be available before the end of this weekend, when a special government meeting aimed at discussing overall cuts in the budget will take place.

uh/dpa/AFP/Reuters/AP
Editor: Rob Turner

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