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Bundeswehr oversight

Sven Pöhle / db
May 20, 2015

Germany's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces looks back at five years in office. His job was often difficult, Hellmut Königshaus told DW.

Bundeswehr Grundausbildung
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: You served in the military 45 years ago. If you were a young man today, would you volunteer to serve in the Bundeswehr?

Hellmut Königshaus: Sure, I would consider it. But it's important that quite a few people do so, and not just a few.

That sounds as if the Bundeswehr is far from living up to its own claim, issued by Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen: "Active, attractive, different."

Some people say that so far, the Bundeswehr has only reached one of those goals: it's different. There's much to be done in this respect, including creating conditions that reconcile service and family life. If people have to expect to be transfered every few years, that basically makes it less attractive.

How family-friendly can a job in the Bundeswehr really be?

Regarding family friendliness, the Bundeswehr can never be the most attractive employer. What we need to do is prevent everything that can be prevented. Much remains to be done in that regard.

That includes the dilapidated state of many barracks, an issue you raised in your last annual report to parliament. So where is the defense minister headed with plans to raise pay and install flatscreen TV monitors in soldiers' rooms to enhance the Bundeswehr's attractiveness?

That doesn't contradict the goal of bringing the rickety housing up to standard first. But that's only one issue. On the other hand, we need standards the people were used to from home, including, for instance, Internet access. I don't understand why that is seen as a contradiction to the other goals.

Hellmut Königshaus Wehrbeauftragter 20.03.2014
Hellmut Königshaus reports to parliamentImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Bernd von Jutrczenka

Arms projects and the troops' equipment have repeatedly gotten the Bundeswehr negative headlines. That includes the G36 rifle. You've been reporting about problems with the rifle for a long time, but only now has Defense Minister von der Leyen ruled out any kind of future for this standard army weapon. Why didn't they listen to you before?

I never said the G36 isn't a good rifle. It will have to be re-evaluated. It was about how the Bundeswehr leadership handled reports on how it loses precision in certain climates and under certain conditions. That doesn't mean the weapon as such is a problem, it's just something you have to know about so you can devise your operational tactics. But it's of no use to deny the problem - if there is one.

Your task as an advocate for the soldiers hasn't always made you popular in the defense ministry. What was the reaction to your warnings?

In principle, the ministry was responsive, though often after lengthy fighting, and after accusations of incompetence and lacking qualification on my part. But in the end, they put together outstanding equipment in Afghanistan, with significantly more robust arms. The same is true for training in the navy and problems that had cropped up with the army postal service and with housing. There was serious infighting every time, and often the problem was negated; as a rule, however, the problems I pointed out were not only recognized, they were solved.

Have these debates gotten easier under the new defense minister?

The fundamental attitude has changed. She is prepared to follow up on information concerning the G36 and other planned purchases. I believe a new spirit has taken hold there. Not just a spirit of explicitly demanding reports about problems, but also a more fundamental change. The troops are expected to contribute, think ahead and come up with proposals for politicians. In the past, that wasn't necessarily called for. The Commissioner for the Armed Forces making suggestions was just as unwelcome. They seem to have felt it was his job to make sure the soldiers had warm socks in winter and liked the food on base. But first and foremost, it's the Commissioner's job to protect the basic rights of the soldiers and their relatives. That includes the right to life and physical integrity - that's why the question about equipment in a mission came up.

Hellmut Königshaus
Königshaus spent a lot of time listening to complaints and suggestions from the troopsImage: Getty Images/M. Villagran

Would you say the improved protection for soldiers on a mission is your biggest success?

Yes. Certainly for the Afghanistan mission. And the willingness to recognize the principle is a success, too, though not entirely mine.

Which problems would you have liked to have tackled more thoroughly during your tenure?

Everything I noted on basic day-to-day business in Germany. Since defense spending is capped, of course every cent and every euro that went to improving equipment for missions was missing for necessary investments in Germany. That in turn led to a downward trend in the infrastructure and facilities,;in particular, concerning things that weren't really relevant for the concrete missions.

What's your advice for your successor Hans-Peter Bartels when he takes over on May 21?

I'll tell him then.

What are your plans now?

The minister has asked me to join a commission investigating the issues surrounding the G36 rifle - especially the question whether soldiers may have been exposed to avoidable risks. Of course, I'll help. I feel I still have that obligation to the troops.

Are you planning a political comeback with the liberal Free Democrats, the FDP?

These past five years, my work has been non-partisan, and I've kept away from political activities. In future, I don't have to do that any more, and I won't. Of course, I'll get involved in politics again.

Hellmut Königshaus was a member of parliament from 2004 to 2010. In 2009, he joined the Bundestag's defense committee. In 2010, the Bundestag elected him Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces. Soldiers can turn to the Commissioner with complaints. The Commissioner is not a member of parliament, nor is he a public servant, but, as a kind of ombudsman, he takes on the role of facilitating legislative oversight of the military.