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Defense Minister Wants a Leaner, Flexible German Army

April 26, 2003

The German army, originally designed to fight a war from the east that never came, is past its prime. Germany's Defense Minister told DW-TV he wants to turn it into a flexible force able to meet today's needs.

Peacekeeping operations will play a bigger role in the future.Image: AP

Back when Germany found itself on the front lines of the Cold War, the German army stood ever ready for a wave of Soviet tanks rolling over the borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia. In some ways, the German army, or Bundeswehr, is still waiting for that attack, even though the only vehicles rolling across Germany's eastern borders these days are full of freight or tourists.

Once the United States' strongest ally, Germany is now one of the military laggards in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Equipment is old and increasingly in need of repair. Problem is, replacement parts are hard to find. On average, Bundeswehr trucks are 25 years old.

Wacklige Zeiten
Image: AP

Peter Struck, the country's defense minister, (photo) says he wants to change traditional thinking about the army's role and how and where troops should be deployed. In an interview with DW-TV, Struck said the German army's strengths lie in its ability to act as peacekeepers in hot spots like Afghanistan or in the Balkans, rather than massing at the border to Poland and saying "the enemy is coming from the east."

While Germany's Bundeswehr might have lost its role as guardians of western European democracy, it has proven itself effective in various peacekeeping operations. Much of its vehicle fleet might be antiquated, but it has several hundred highly trained special operations troops, a strong medical corps and excellent mine clearing equipment and diesel submarines.

Germany, with some 8,500 troops deployed overseas, comes in only behind the United States in the number of soldiers serving abroad.

Defense Abroad is Defense at Home

According to Struck, German troops abroad are an integral part of domestic security. In today's world, Stuck said, German military brass operates under the conviction that national defense entails more than protecting German soil from invaders.

"Germany is also defended by our troops in Afghanistan," Struck said. In effect, the Bundeswehr learns how to deal with contemporary threats, like terrorism or chemical and biological weapons, through its experiences there on the ground. And in some instances, especially when it comes to equipment, the Bundeswehr has learned it has to rethink long-held military assumptions.

Bundeswehrsoldat in Afghanistan
Ein unbekannter Bundeswehrsoldat bewacht hinter Sandsaecken den Zugang zur Basis der deutschen Truppen in der afghanischen Hauptstadt Kabul auf einem Archivbild vom 18. Januar 2002. Der Bundestag hat am Freitag, 20. Dezember 2002 mit parteiuebergreifender Mehrheit einer Verlaengerung des Bundeswehr-Mandats fuer Afghanistan um zwoelf Monate zugestmmt.Image: AP

Afghanistan (photo) has taught, for example, that armed all-terrain vehicles are often more important than heavy tanks. Personnel transport carriers can be just as essential as fighter jets. Struck said the German military needs to turn its traditionally static armed forces into a high-tech mobile forces that can face the kinds of threats that will likely surface in the future.

"We need to do more against ABC-weapons," admitted Struck. "That is, have more units which can investigate biological or chemical weapons or contaminated areas."

Empty Coffers

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany, along with many other NATO allies, let its defense spending languish, choosing to invest in social programs instead. While the United States spends 3.3 percent of the gross domestic product on its armed forces, German funding for its military amounted to 1.5 percent of GDP.

And of the $27 billion going to defense, only 13 percent of that goes to new equipment. More than half of the budget goes to salaries and personnel costs. The constant shortage of money has begun to hurt troop morale.

Funding increases aren't currently on the table, but Struck did tell DW-TV he does intend to free up money for the restructuring by decommissioning old equipment and outsourcing some expensive administrative duties to private companies. He said troop levels should stay at their current level of 285,000.

Homeland Defense

Struck has told the German newspaper Die Welt that the Bundeswehr should be deployed in the domestic fight against terrorism. In a draft of new military guidelines under development, the Bundeswehr would in the future be used against terrorist attacks or in the case of natural catastrophes.

The guidelines, which will be debated by the German cabinet next month, recommend that even in cases where normal jurisdiction falls to internal security forces, the military should be mobilized if it can counter the danger or if increased troop deployments are necessary to defend the populace or critical infrastructure.