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Germany: The Army Wants To Modernize Despite Budget Cuts

Germany is discussing modernizing its armed forces to make them an effective part of a new EU defense force. But the question for planners is how to do this when the finance minister is insisting on deep cuts in the military budget. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 22 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Germany wants to create a modern army that can not only defend the homeland but also be part of a European Union rapid-reaction force, able to move quickly to a crisis area anywhere in the world.

Modernization of what was one of the largest armies in Europe during the Cold War won't be easy. The German army needs better weapons and better heavy equipment, such as transport aircraft and a modern satellite communications system. But recent German press reports say that the armed forces are ill-equipped to meet even their current tasks.

Making Germany's army fit for its new mission will require billions of additional dollars. But Finance Minister Hans Eichel insists that the armed forces cannot be spared from his cost-cutting knife. He wants to slash the military budget by about 2.5 percent annually until the year 2003.

The German military's protests have won support from NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. He told a NATO meeting earlier this month: "Strong defense means two things -- spending wisely but also spending enough. You cannot get defense on the cheap, and there can be no real security without adequate resources."

Robertson's words were addressed to all 19 NATO members. But they created a particularly strong reaction in Germany, where the military has long protested that it does not get enough equipment and what it has is often in poor shape.

Recent press reports suggest there is reason for concern. They say, for example, that the German navy has up-to-date communications equipment suitable for only one ship, and that Germany often borrows modern aircraft from the U.S. when it wants to transport troops and equipment. Communications is another area where the armed forces are ill-equipped. During maneuvers, Germany rents satellite space from other countries.

The German arms industry says cost-cutting in recent years has forced it to fire thousands of workers. Axel Homburg of the arms company Dynamit Nobel argues that if Finance Minister Eichel persists in his plan to reduce military expenditure, then many important arms sectors will have to close. Homburg and other critics say the current defense budget of around $24 billion dollars is already too low and propose it should be increased by 25 percent (to $30 billion dollars).

Germany spends only 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, far less than other major Western nations. France spends 2.8 percent, Britain 2.6 percent and the U.S. 3.2 percent.

Much of the German defense budget is eaten up by a large ground army. That force was designed to fight a land war against an invading troops from the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

The German government wants to transform its army into a smaller, more professional force with a lesser role envisioned for conscripted young men fulfilling their national service. There will also be more women in the new army, and more of them will be directly involved in military matters. Recent changes approved by parliament will allow women to escape the music corps and medical services to which they have largely been confined in the past.

Just how many troops should be cut from the armed forces, however, remains a subject of lively debate among the Social Democrat-led government, the conservative opposition and a government-appointed commission of experts led by former President Richard von Weizsaecker. Last week, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping proposed reducing the number of soldiers from 340,000 to 277,000. He also suggested that the period of national service be cut from the present 10 months to nine months.

But another plan had already been presented by the commission headed by von Weizsaecker. It proposed that the peacetime strength of the German army should be fixed at 240,000. In the event of war, this number would be increased to 300,000, with a manpower reserve of 100,000 troops.

The Weizsaecker commission also proposed that the number of conscripted men should be limited to 30,000 doing 10 months of military service. At present, more than four times that number -- 130,000 -- do military service each year.

The Weizsaecker commission also underlined the need to increase the defense budget in order to modernize the armed forces. It said that "modernization is costly," and that the changes it proposed could not be implemented without additional financial expenditure.

But for the moment, Finance Minister Eichel seems unmoved by such arguments. In a recent television interview, he reiterated that "the military cannot be excluded from financial cuts." It will be up to the parliament in Berlin to find a compromise.