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A modern, German army: learning to use tanks that detect nuclear, biological and chemical agentsImage: AP

Chancellor Unleashes New Defense Spending Debate

Jennifer Abramsohn
September 7, 2006

In recent years, Germany's army has changed drastically and some say should change more. Created in the Cold War era, the Bundeswehr no longer has to worry about defending its eastern border from a Soviet tank invasion.


Instead, it has become increasingly active in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions around the world. Right now German soldiers are deployed in 11 international missions, from Kosovo to the Democratic Republic of Congo. If Germany sends troops to Lebanon -- currently under debate -- that would make 12.

'Defense budget is not sacrosanct'

On Wednesday, Merkel told the German weekly Die Zeit that it is time for the country to take a new look at the role of the army. "We must ask ourselves, overall, if our military structures are valid for the future," Merkel said.

Angela Merkel bei der Bundesmarine U-Boot
Merkel inspected some German naval sites last weekImage: AP

She added that she would also consider increasing the military budget, pointing out that Germany spends less on its army than Finland, Norway or Holland, -- and much less than Italy, France, the UK or the US -- in terms of percentage of GNP.

"You cannot say that the planned defense budget for the next 20 years is sacrosanct," Merkel said. "A German government cannot say, 'Please, don't take part in any new conflicts in the next decades, because we can't afford it,'" she added.

An official plan to modernize the Bundeswehr -- to turn it from an unwieldy behemoth created to defend its own borders into a lithe organization ready to take on asymmetric threats around the world -- has been underway for several years. Known in policy circles simply as "the transformation," it is due to be completed by 2010.

'A good signal'

Many agree that German military defense should include diverse international deployments, but they complain that funding for the plan has thus far been inadequate.

"Unexpected deployments need to be additionally financed," said Bernhard Gertz, chief of a lobbying group called the German Federal Armed Forces Association (DBwV). "The defense minister can't be expected to finance it out of thin air. That just isn't serious, or professional."

Verteidigungsminister Franz Josef Jung in Kongo
Defense Minister Jung, in DR Congo. Is he still living a Cold War?Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

He welcomed Merkel's comments, calling them "a very good signal that the country's leadership has gotten the message." Gertz added that he would like to see the 28.4 billion euro ($36.5 billion) military budget increase by between 4 and 6 billion euros ($5 to $7 billion) over the next four years.

For his part, Wilfried Stolze, a spokesman for the DBwV, said the money that is currently there isn't being used to best advantage.

"We don't need heavy tanks any more -- and we have 6,000 of them. They're good for the scrap heap. What we need is light armored vehicles -- hundreds of them. And more air transport capacity. The infantry of the future will communicate with laptopt and high-tech materials," he said. "International networking will be key."

Straßenszene in Kinshasa Demokratische Republik Kongo UN Soldaten
UN soldiers in Kinshasa, DR Congo -- Germany has 2,000 troops thereImage: AP

It is generally accepted that Cold War military goals should be replaced, but the question remains as to just what should replace them. Where should Germany draw the line between defending its own interests, and taking an active role in improving the political climate in the world at large?

Call for more intelligent military mandate

Angelika Beer, Germany's Green Party representative in the European parliament, warns that the country's armed forces need a clearer mandate before military spending is increased.

"If Ms. Merkel wants to talk about increasing military spending despite the tight budget and a policy of cutbacks, then we really need to clarify the mandate of the military first," Beer said.

A discussion over the role of the German armed forces is "long overdue," she said.

"Without a broad consensus on its mandate, there is a risk that the military will be called on every time policy fails."

Germany first got into the international peacekeeping game in KosovoImage: AP

Green Party Bundestag parliamentarian Alexander Bonde, who sits on both the defense and budget committees, was also negative on Merkel's comments.

The "transformation" of the military has taken a step in the wrong direction under Franz-Josef Jung, the current defense minister, he said.

'We need specialists'

"Jung is slowing down the (reform) process, in certain areas even turning it around," by focusing on increasing the number of regular conscripts rather than trying to boost the number of paid military specialists, Bonde argued.

"We need specialists trained for missions, capable of contributing," he said. "I fear putting more money into the armed forces will not lead to new capacities where we need them, but will add to old capacities aimed at winning the Cold War -- which is not out there anymore."

But, he added, the conservatives are beginning to realize that the Bundeswehr is not up to the challenges of today's world.

"I think (Merkel) underestimates how much money and resources are wasted by our having the wrong structure," he said. "They've underestimated the changes needed in the armed forces."
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