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New model army?

Sven Pöhle / bkJanuary 14, 2014

Just weeks in office, Germany's first female Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has already sunk her teeth into a major project - to create a more family-friendly military.

Bundeswehr soll familienfreundlicher werden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"We want to be an attractive employer," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told state broadcaster ARD on Monday (13.01.2014). Barely a month in office, she has already moved to make her mark: The Bundeswehr, Germany's military,is to become family-friendly. The first measures have been named: flexible child care facilities at military bases and more family-oriented missions.

In the future, Bundeswehr soldiers will be allowed to work part-time during a so-called family phase, and redeployments are to be ordered only when they are absolutely necessary.

"Bundeswehr soldiers need a regeneration period; they need a balance between work and family, and that's an area where we can improves things significantly," said von der Leyen, adding that the new measures were all agreed in the coalition contract.

Flood of complaints

The measures are also aimed at improving morale in the military, which has dropped since the Bundeswehr reform in 2010. And von der Leyen's tone is also a clear departure from that of her predecessor Thomas de Maiziere, now back in the Interior Ministry, who showed only limited sympathy with the frustration among troops when he left: "The aim of the reform was never, and could never be, to increase the satisfaction of soldiers and employees," he said at ceremony.

The reform has already changed the Bundeswehr considerably. Compulsory military service was phased out on July 1, 2011. The standing army was reduced from 250,000 to about 175,000 professional and short-term soldiers, in addition to 8,800 volunteers. On top of that, a total of 32 military bases will be closed by 2017 and a further 90 reduced in size, slashing the number of the Bundeswehr's civilian employees.

Thomas de Maiziere and Ursula von der Leyen
De Maiziere had little sympathy with the frustrations of soldiersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Many of these employees have expressed their dissatisfaction in the past year. The parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces Hellmuth Königshaus has received 5,061 complaints - the highest ever number in proportion to the number of soldiers since records began in 1959.

The Bundeswehr association (DBwV), which represents the military's interests, has criticized the pace of reform: "The structural transformation from a conscript army to a voluntary army may have been decided quickly, but the transformation of the social conditions for a voluntary service is yet to materialize," DBwV chairman André Wüstner told DW. "Now it's time to put the people first. Minister von der Leyen has recognized this need, and that’s why many people in the Bundeswehr have begun to hope again."

Attractive employer despite cuts?

Berthold Meyer, professor for conflict and peace research at Marburg University, is not surprised that von der Leyen, the former labor minister, intends to help soldiers balance their families with their work. "But for me, there is no job that is harder to balance with a family than that of a soldier," he told DW. "They end up in situations that are family-unfriendly in almost every way."

This is particularly problematic, Meyer argues, because a professional Bundeswehr has to compete with other employers. "Companies are desperately searching for young people too," he said. "But they can often pay more, offer better employee benefits, and don't require young people to risk their lives."

There are other obstacles in the way of von der Leyen's plans, too. "The implementation of these measures will cost a significant amount of money, which has yet to be made available in the defense budget," Green party defense spokesman Tobias Lindner told the Handelsblatt newspaper on Monday (13.01.2014). Universal child care facilities alone will cost upwards of 10 million euros ($13.6 million), he said, and additional personnel will be required to more flexible work times possible.

Bundeswehr solider with child
The Bundeswehr: one of 'the most family-unfriendly jobs'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman countered by saying that von der Leyen's measures would, in fact, be financed out of the current defense budget. An evaluation of the needs will be carried out, she told DW, and then concrete measures will be determined.

Even though the question of financing is yet to be conclusively answered, Wüstner has called on the defense minister to follow through on her promises. "The people in the Bundeswehr hope that the attractiveness-initiative set down in the coalition contract will be driven forward,” he said. “If not, then the reform and the move toward a voluntary army could turn out to be a non-starter."