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German military's mission impossible, attracting recruits

August 2, 2023

Defense minister Boris Pistorius says Germany's armed forces are experiencing major difficulties in recruiting new members. It is hampering efforts to strengthen the Bundeswehr following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius speaks at a Bundeswehr career center in Stuttgart
Pistorius said so far this year, there were 7% fewer applicants than in the same period last yearImage: Marijan Murat/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has said the country's armed forces should not be marketed as a "Mission Impossible" film, but admitted he was facing his own Herculean task to recruit and retain soldiers to serve in the Bundeswehr.

"Everyone is talking about a shortage of personnel in the Bundeswehr — and no one knows this better than I," he told reporters during a visit to the Bundeswehr career center in Stuttgart on Wednesday.

"We have seven percent fewer applicants this year compared to the same period last year," Pistorius said.

However, he expected a trend reversal, saying the requests for advice about a career in the Bundeswehr rose by 16%.

Boosting Bundeswehr enlistment

Germany already has around 183,000 uniformed military personnel.

Still, it is looking to fill out the ranks of the all-volunteer force as part of the "Zeitenwende" (which roughly translates as a changing of the times or a turning point) announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.

Why Germany's military is in a bad state, and what's being done to fix it

The armed forces had aimed to employ 203,000 soldiers by 2031, but Pistorius said on Wednesday that this target was still under review — possibly an indication it will not prove realistic.

Last week the government adopted a series of measures seeking to increase the number of women serving in the military.

High dropout rate

The German armed forces, however, also have a retention crisis with a dropout rate of 30%.

"That has a lot to do with expectations, with expectation management, maybe with misconceptions, and in individual cases also with excessive demands," Pistorius said.

He suggested more realistic ads for the Bundeswehr, avoiding making it seem like a "Mission Impossible film," a reference to the Hollywood blockbuster. The Bundeswehr launched a new image, recruitment and advertisement campaign last year, but it faced criticism in some corners. Many of the posters and videos have a heavy focus on fighter jets, paratroopers, submarines and other specialist roles and equipment that only a fraction of recruits are likely to work with.

He said younger generations prioritize work-life balance more, which can challenge those interested in a military career.

Germany's aging population is also an issue for military recruitment, with armed forces typically looking to recruit people right at the start of their working lives, not when they're older.

"By 2050, we will have 12% fewer people in the 15-24 age group," Pistorius said. He recommended more efforts to recruit graduates, itself a contentious issue for some in Germany.

The acute problems facing the Bundeswehr were laid bare in March when the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Eva Högl, said the military had "too little of everything" and its barracks were in a "pitiful state."

Högl's report found that some troops' living quarters lacked Wi-Fi and even working toilets.

lo/msh (dpa, AFP)

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