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A new mission for Germany's Bundeswehr?

Nina Werkhäuser / drAugust 3, 2016

Defense minister Ursula von der Leyen has paid a visit to the "Command Center for Territorial Missions" in Berlin. She underlined the Bundeswehr's readiness to assist police during domestic terror attacks.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P.Seeger

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen does not completely understand the recent uproar in Germany over the proposal to deploy Bundeswehr troops within the country.

The constitution clearly allows for such action, she said during a visit to the Berlin-based "Command Center for Territorial Missions." Under the umbrella of "mutual assistance," German police can request assistance from the military for reasons including "large-scale terrorism." More specifically, for "large-scale terrorism of catastrophic proportions," said von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). That is how it is described in the Bundeswehr's new "White Paper," she said, adding that in such cases there is no question that it is the police who take the lead role.

No change to the constitution

The defense minister sees no need to amend Germany's constitution, or Basic Law, in order to justify such action. But the CDU's junior parliamentary coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), is strongly against a constitutional amendment. "Amending the constitution is a red line for us," said SPD parliamentarian Eva Högl, who accompanied von der Leyen on her visit.

For the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), there is a much greater need to amend the constitution and deploy Bundeswehr troops domestically. The SPD, however, is adamant that security inside Germany must remain the sole responsibility of the police.

Joint exercises planned

After the recent attacks in Germany, von der Leyen sees it as a primary mission to prepare the country for the most extreme situations, which is why the military is holding joint exercises with the police. The details of the first "Command Post Exercise" will be discussed with the interior minister, as well as the interior ministers Germany's of three interested states, at the end of August. It is already known, however, that the aging emergency plans from past years are set to be freshened up so that in case of an emergency, authorities know where and who to call.

Bundesverteidigungsministerin Ursula von der Leyen Kommando Territoriale Aufgaben der Bundeswehr
Von der Leyen during her visit to the base in BerlinImage: DW/N. Werkhäuse

But what skills and equipment could the military actually contribute in the event of a major terrorist attack? "The Bundeswehr has experience with terror attacks," said von der Leyen, adding that experience was "in foreign missions."

The explosive detection dogs, which ahead of the defense minister's arrival were sniffing the pockets of arriving visitors, are one resource that the Bundeswehr is willing to provide. The army is also the sole operator of mobile labs for the detection of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Soldiers can also assist with organizing evacuations and barricades, according to Bundeswehr leadership, or support police with armored vehicles.

No help needed?

Critics point out that the police are for the most part capable of carrying out such responsibilities, and they demonstrated their competence during the recent shooting in Munich. Von der Leyen, however, insists that "as long as the situation is unclear, one should be on the ready."

A good example for civilian-military cooperation in the defense minister's eyes is the refugee crisis. Up to 9,000 soldiers have provided temporary help with refugees, coordinated by the Command Center for Territorial Missions in Berlin. In the event that the police called on the military for a "major terrorist attack," the corresponding threads would come together at the Julius Leber Barracks in the German capital. That would, however, be an unprecedented mission for the Bundeswehr.