New German Defence Chief Faces Uphill Task | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.07.2002
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New German Defence Chief Faces Uphill Task

Peter Struck is in for a bumpy ride. With elections just nine weeks away, he hardly has time to address much-needed reforms for an outdated and cash-strapped military.


A reputation for iron-discipline - newly appointed German Defence Minister Peter Struck, left

In a hurried swap last week, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder fired his gaffe-prone defence minister, Rudolf Scharping, and roped in the parliamentary leader of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), Peter Struck, to fill his shoes.

As opposed to his flamboyant predecessor, who was finally shown the door after being suspected of shady financial deals with a public relations lobbyist, Struck is reputed to be an uncharismatic disciplinarian, a tax and financial expert and an effective manager of the party’s traditionally wayward parliamentarians.

The beleaguered German Chancellor is now hoping that the same solid qualities that made the 59-year-old Struck a parliamentary whip to reckon with will help boost the flagging spirits of a German army badly in need of modernisation and funds.

Hobbled by financial constraints

But the going is expected to be rough for the new defence minister, with neither time nor money on his side to push through the momentum for much-needed reforms.

Struck will have to work with a thin defence budget of a mere 1.48 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product, compared with the 2 percent average of his European Union counterparts.

He also takes on the defence post at a time when Germany faces major hurdles in honouring its commitments to prestigious European military hardware projects that were stalled under Scharping.

Specifically, Germany is yet to approve its proposed purchase of A400M military transport planes with eight European partners, assess the Meteor air-to-air missile for the multination Eurofighter aircraft and find a successor to its 28-year-old Marder tank.

The biggest problem in the realisation of the collaborative projects is Germany’s belt-tightening as it strains to keep its budget deficit below the eurozone ceiling of 3 percent.

"A real challenge he (Struck) faces is to get agreement for the extra money... Meanwhile, the troops are using tanks that are spent and unable to train on other armed vehicles which have all been sent to Afghanistan," Wolfgang Ostermeier, deputy chairman of the German Armed Forces Association (DBWV) told Reuters.

No more money for the army

In a blow to repeated complaints from army generals that the armed forces are dramatically underfunded, Struck was quoted ay as saying he would not push now for more military spending.

"I played a significant role in the drafting of the budget for 2003 that has already been agreed by the cabinet. That is also valid for the defence budget. I see no reason for changes", he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Guido Westerwelle, leader of the small pro-business opposition Free Democrats, criticised Struck’s comments. "Those who want to give the military more and more international tasks cannot give it less and less funds," Westerwelle said in a statement in an apparent reference to Struck’s crucial role last year in holding the SPD’s almost 300 MPs together in the make-or-break confidence motion on sending German troops to Afghanistan.

Struck eager to reinforce army-friendly image

But Struck, a keen motorcyclist and trained lawyer, is eager to show that the defence portfolio is not one that he plans to take lightly.

At his first official engagement as minister at an annual ceremony on Saturday to commemorate an unsuccessful 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and swear in new recruits, he told the ceremony that he was a strong supporter of conscription.

"Military service is one of the things which keeps alive the close connection of the armed forces with a permanently changing society," he said.

Struck also plans to visit German troops serving in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia in the coming weeks.

Time running out

But the planned tours will have to be whirlwind ones, with German parliamentary elections just nine weeks away.

The sacking of his defence minister is just the latest setback to Chancellor Schröder’s governing SPD party, which is still trailing behind the opposition conservatives.

Schröder will be pinning his hopes on a reliable defence minister to claw back some of the lost ground for a party engulfed by scandals.

But the question is, will Struck be able to deliver in time?

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