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German Forces in the Crossfire

Sweeping reforms are necessary to prepare outdated German forces for a modern combat role. Stretched to the limit and ill-equipped, missions and lives are at the mercy of in-fighting politicians.


New military role – outdated, inadequate equipment: German troops patrolling in Kabul

The German military is increasingly in the headlines as a bloated, badly organised and outdated Cold War dinosaur.

Germany's armed forces, which rely partially on conscripts, critics increasingly say, must be converted from a largely static defence force into a modern out-of-area army.

The country has long relied on conscripts to counter the negative historical image of the Nazi war machine.

But reforms are now imperative to modernise the Bundeswehr.

Despite the recent closure of 40 military bases and a reduction in troop numbers, Germany's armed forces need to upgrade equipment.

But Berlin, pinched for funds elsewhere in the federal budget, is either unwilling or unable to invest extra funds to bring its armed forces to a level recommended by experts and increasingly demanded by public opinion.

The deaths of two German soldiers and three Danes in an accident in Afghanistan last week brought home to Germans the real risk that foreign deployments pose and threatened to turn defence spending into a major campaign issue, which the opposition would likely relish.


The situation has lead to calls that German soldiers are put at excessive risk in out-of-area missions.

Members of the armed forces filed 5,000 complaints in 2001, said parliamentary commissioner for the military Willfried Penner on Tuesday. Already in the first two months of 2002, complaints were up by 25 percent.

Penner, a parliamentary deputy for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, released a report on the state of Germany’s armed forces a week after four German soldiers were killed in two separate accidents – the two in Kabul and two others in the Baltic Sea.

Penner cited numerous complaints from Afghanistan, where Germans are frequently mistaken for Russian soldiers, who are very unpopular with Afghans. Because some Afghans cannot tell the uniforms apart, German soldiers face the risk of targeting on patrol.

They have also expressed concern, reportedly, because some of their vehicles are not armoured.

And apart from the outdated military hardware, the forces are being stretched to the limit.

In addition to duties in Bosnia, Kosovo and Georgia, Germans last year took on the leadership of the peacekeeping mission in Macedonia and joined military operations in Afghanistan.

It is the first time German troops have been in combat since the Second World War.

This shows Germany’s increasing readiness to take on international responsibilities. But it also raises the question of how effective a Cold War dinosaur can be in modern battle.

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