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German military must be 'fit for war'

October 31, 2023

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has said that the country's military must become combat-ready quickly. But that will require a major long-term overhaul, and experts doubt that will be easy.

Boris Pistorius giving a speech to officers at a Hamburg Bundeswehr college
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is known not to mince his wordsImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius warned on Sunday night that in the current global situation, Germany needed to be prepared for war and able to defend the country. But that required a fundamental re-think about what the Bundeswehr was for.

"We have to get used to the idea again that the danger of war could be looming in Europe," the Social Democrat told public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday. "And that means: We have to become fit for war. We have to be fit for defense. And get both the Bundeswehr and society ready for this."

Simultaneously calling for more political urgency and defending his own record since taking up office in January this year, Pistorius rejected criticism that his department was working too slowly. "Much more speed would be impossible," Pistorius said.

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Prominent critics have appeared in the media in recent weeks to criticize the lack of political will to confront Russian aggression. Retired US General Ben Hodges went so far as to tell public broadcaster ZDF that Germany was in danger of losing the moral authority it had won from facing its Nazi history by failing to confront threats to the international democratic order.

But making the German army "conflict-ready" means not only reversing decades of money-saving reforms in the defense budget but also re-thinking what the military is actually for: In other words, fewer missions in foreign countries like Afghanistan or Mali, more focus on defending Germany and Europe. It is, some would argue, understandable that 30 years of relative peace in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the threat of the Warsaw Pact, have changed the nature of the German army itself.

"We can't just catch up with that in 19 months," said Pistorius, before adding that two-thirds of the €100-billion ($106-billion) special military fund Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced last year in his "turning of the times" (Zeitenwende) speech was now tied up in contracts. "The problem is that the contracts don't automatically mean production and delivery — all that takes time," he said.

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That is true, said Rafael Loss, German and European security policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "Industry orders take a significant time … industry needs time to ramp up production capacity, they need time to put together very complex weapons systems and integrate them into the Bundeswehr," he told DW.

But he believes a lot of the reforms that Pistorius has brought in are relatively shallow. "Both the Bundeswehr and the ministry are very busy tweaking at the margins, but the bigger overhaul and the plan for a bigger overhaul are missing," he said.

Aylin Matlé, research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), is loath to blame Pistorius himself. "I'd say that his predecessor, Christine Lambrecht, wasted a year of modernization, and did too little," she told DW. "The acceleration of a lot of processes came from Pistorius." On top of that, one cannot underestimate the financial burdens involved: Calculations from the Bundestag defense committee have suggested that the armed forces actually need another €300 billion to modernize completely.

"Of course, it's not just a question of money," added Matlé. "There's the question of personnel: The Bundeswehr has a recruitment problem.The army currently has 183,000 soldiers, and the aim is 203,000, but it's already clear that the application numbers have actually gone down. The Bundeswehr needs to make sure it's an attractive employer."

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A top-heavy army and a mental block

A symptom of the necessary structural changes in the Bundeswehr, according to Loss, is the number of officers in the German army, which is as high as in the late 1980s, when the standing army was much larger. Now, there are too many generals and admirals and not enough sailors and soldiers to serve on ships and drive tanks. "It's right to point out that today Germany's armed forces are much more top-heavy than they used to be, and that certainly raises questions about its combat-readiness," he said.

There's also a mental block in German politics and society about the very idea of Germany being "ready for war." Only 14 years ago, then-German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg triggered controversy when he struggled to call the war in Afghanistan what it was: He famously said that German troops were facing "war-like conditions" in the country. "That already freaked people out," said Rafael Loss. "I think the return of this martial language reflects the deterioration of the security environment in Europe."

Loss is concerned that the current coalition government spans such ideological differences about how to manage the budget that they won't be able to find a way to fund the military once the €100 billion fund runs out. Pistorius estimates this will happen in 2027 or 2028.

Government politicians have already raised this issue: Green Economy Minister Robert Habeck told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung this week: "If we take the turning of the times seriously, Germany must do more for its security. The debt brake has good reasons and it applies to the work of this coalition. But we should think beyond today and consider whether the political rules we have given ourselves still fit the changing time Germany wants more women to serve in the military." Either way, NATO's professed target, of making member states spend 2% of GDP on defense is expensive, and the money will have to come from somewhere.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight