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German government wants 'war-ready' troops

April 5, 2024

The new Bundeswehr is to become "war-ready" and flexible, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said as he announced his plans to restructure the German army. It will not be easy.

Boris Pistorius
Boris Pistorius wants to streamline and reorientate the BundeswehrImage: Lisi Niesner/REUTERS

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, currently Germany's most popular politician according to the polls, had chosen the date quite deliberately — the 75th anniversary of the founding of NATO. At the time, it was a turning point in world politics: A new alliance of Western states against the threat posed by socialist-communist states in the East.

Pistorius now also wants a turning point - for "his" Bundeswehr. "Nobody should get the idea of attacking us as a NATO territory," he said in Berlin on Thursday.

The "turning point" in the Bundeswehr, as Pistorius calls it, once again has to do with the threat from the east, or more precisely: with the implications of Russian President Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine, and the instability it has brought along NATO's eastern flank. However, Pistorius did not mention the name of the Kremlin leader during Thursday's press conference in Berlin.

Four branches, one command

The long-term plan for reform is to move the armed forces away from laborious long-term missions — such as in Afghanistan, Mali, Kosovo or the Horn of Africa — towards national defense. "It's a transformation from an army for foreign missions to an army for national and alliance defense," military expert Thomas Wiegold told DW. The code for this new priority is: LV/BV. The abbreviations stand for national and alliance defense. According to Pistorius, he wants to make the troops "fit for war."

The reforms seek more clarity, less bureaucracy, and fewer duplicate structures. The Bundeswehr's operations will soon be coordinated in one place: the so-called operational command, where previously, domestic and foreign operations had been managed separately. The idea behind this, according to Pistorius: "Planning and operational command of the Bundeswehr from a single source."

Even the opposition center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has few qualms with this plan. "The merging of the Operational Command (for foreign operations) and the Territorial Command (for domestic operations) to form the Operational Command of the Bundeswehr is absolutely positive," the CDU's defense expert, Roderich Kiesewetter, told DW by email.

Germany revamps military to boost defense readiness

Upgrading cyber defense

Pistorius also wants to make the Bundeswehr fit for a relatively new front in global wars, and plans to establish a new branch of the armed forces, in the cyber and information warfare. "It's about analyzing hybrid threats. For example, when it comes to disinformation campaigns," he said.

There will also be a support command for medical supplies and logistics, or attacks with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, which will be available to all branches of the armed forces.

Pistorius wants to manage many tasks centrally and more effectively, which means there will also be some streamlining: "The aim was to bundle responsibility. Staff units will be eliminated," he said. Though the ministry has not yet said where and how many.

He also said he wants to give himself and his team six months to implement the reform. Is that even doable? "Six months could be enough for the structural changes at the top. But the implementation in the troops will take considerably longer," Wiegold told DW.

Many observers had expected Pistorius to present his ideas for the potential reintroduction of compulsory military service, though nothing along those lines came on Thursday. But the Bundeswehr remains short of new recruits. The trend has been going down since Germany's compulsory military service was suspended in 2011. The defense minister wants Germany to have at least 200,000 soldiers by 2031 — compared to just over 180,000 now.

The Bundeswehr urgently needs some fresh bloodImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

Conclusion: 'Good ideas in principle'

Nevertheless, Pistorius is apparently continuing to examine models of compulsory military service and has taken a look at the practice in Scandinavian countries. On Thursday, however, he merely mentioned that models had also been considered in the event of a "reintroduction of compulsory military service."

Wiegold believes that Pistorius deliberately wanted to separate the issues of compulsory military service and Bundeswehr reform: "He needs political support when it comes to compulsory military service because it is a political decision," he said. "He can't do it alone. He must have the support of both the coalition and parliament." The CDU's Kiesewetter, on the other hand, believes that the continued wait-and-see attitude is also due to the fact that "unfortunately there is currently no unity in the governing coalition."

Wiegold argued that Pistorius is on the right track with his reform ideas in principle: "But as with many good ideas, it will depend on how they are implemented." Kiesewetter is more critical. The fact that Pistorius is focusing on "war capability" is fundamentally correct, but "with the reform, however, he is falling short of the possibilities for implementation."

Pistorius is self-confident: "It is a trend-setting reform," he argued.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing. 

Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.