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Overseas Missions Now Bundeswehr's Priority

May 21, 2003

Germany's defense minister presented his new policy guidelines for the country's Armed Forces on Wednesday. He stated that domestic protection was no longer the Bundeswehr's main concern.

International peace-keeping missions are the Bundeswehr's new mandate.Image: AP

German Defense Minister Peter Struck presented his new policy guidelines to leaders in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's cabinet on Wednesday, drawing criticism from within the government coalition of Social Democrats and Greens as well as from opposition parties.

Wacklige Zeiten
German Defense Minister Peter StruckImage: AP

It's the first new set of government defense policy guidelines in 11 years. They're aimed at overhauling the Bundeswehr and adapting it to its changing tasks in the modern world.

New priorities

The defense ministry says the Bundeswehr's most important task nowadays is peacekeeping abroad, and national defense is no longer the priority -- at least in times of peace. The new guidelines also mark a shift in domestic security policy, as they give the army powers to assume roles in anti-terrorist operations within the country's borders, in cases where the domestic security forces do not have the required capabilities. Previously, internal military operations were considered taboo considering the role played by the Nazi-controlled Machtwehr during World War II.

The ministry also said the changes would involve bitter cutbacks in some areas, including the closures of several long-standing bases to free up money for international missions.

Dispute over military service

Struck, a Social Democrat, will also renew his commitment to compulsory military service despite objections from the SPD's junior coalition partners, the Green Party. The Greens have been campaigning for the abolition of national service for years, and there is a clause in the coalition agreement to the effect that the issue will be addressed by the current government. In an interview on German national television on Wednesday, the Greens' defense policy spokesman, Winfried Nachtwei, said the minister's new guidelines left the "ongoing conflict over military service unresolved."

The opposition liberal Free Democrats also favor an end to conscription. The party's spokesman on defense issues, Jörg van Essen, described the new guidelines as "a step in the right direction." Speaking during a radio interview broadcast nationwide, he said it was pointless to staff the armed forces with conscripts because, under current law, only volunteers can be sent to take part in overseas missions.

Peace in the world

While criticizing the minister's policy on national service, the Greens welcomed the overall thrust of the new policy guidelines. Nachtwei said they would allow the Bundeswehr to make its contribution "to securing peace in the world and preventing conflicts." At the same time, he said, they would impose the necessary limits on its powers, by making sure it worked within the frameworks laid down by international law, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union.

Anger over closures

Meanwhile, local and regional politicians reacted angrily to the announcement that about 10 army and air force bases staffing more than 7,000 troops are slated for shutdown. The government says the closures will release up to €1 billion ($1.17 billion) in funds for overseas missions.

One of the bases slated for the chop is a tornado fighter jet base in Upjever in the state of Lower Saxony. State Premier Christian Wulff, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, described the decision as "a blow to the coastal region."

"All of central Germany" without air defenses

The CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, said the planned closures would leave "all of central Germany" without air defenses. The party's defense spokesman, Christian Schmidt, said the changing nature of the armed forces' tasks meant that changes to the law were required, and not just to policy guidelines. He also said the new guidelines failed to make clear how the minister intends to finance the Bundeswehr's new tasks with its current budget.