The German government wants to streamline its armed forces into a modern army that can play an effective role not only in Europe but also in trouble spots around the world. The problem is that Germany is in a severe economic crisis, and there is little money to spare for modernizing. So this week, Defense Minister Peter Struck announced plans to find the money by closing some military bases and sending outdated weapons to the junkyard. But he left open the politically sensitive issue of whether Germany should continue conscripting young men into the army for a limited period of service.
Munich, 23 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- German Defense Minister Peter Struck has argued since he took office last year that the military's traditional task of defending the nation's borders must now take a backseat to fighting terrorism and helping to subdue conflicts and crises around the world.
He told journalists this week that Germany no longer fears a direct attack across its borders, as it did during the Cold War. The future of the German armed forces now lies in operations abroad, not in territorial defense.
"[The idea] that our country needs to be defended against an attack from the air, [or against] a ground attack across our borders -- this scenario is not realistic anymore," Struck said. "The Bundeswehr [German militay] must come to terms with that. The Bundeswehr will take on new tasks. Its job will be redefined."
Struck argues that the growth of international terrorism has changed the picture.
"The defense of Germany is no longer limited geographically," he said. "To ensure our safety, it must be spread to wherever we are threatened, whether it is Afghanistan or anywhere else."
Struck emphasized that although Germany declined to participate in the war against Iraq, it has already moved into its new global role. It shares command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and has peacekeeping forces in the Balkans and elsewhere. About 8,000 German troops are already deployed around the world.
But both the United States and the European Union want Berlin to do more. The European Union expects a modernized German army to take a leading role in its new rapid-reaction force. Like most NATO countries, Germany allowed defense spending to fall after the end of the Cold War and invested in social welfare programs instead. Last year, Germany spent only 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. In contrast, the U.S. spent 3.3 percent of its GDP on its armed forces. As a result, America's defense budget even before the Iraq war was double that of the other 18 NATO countries combined.
Struck is willing to modernize. The problem is that Germany is in a serious economic crisis and has no money to spare. So this week, Struck announced he will try to save 1 billion euros by closing military bases and discarding outdated weapons systems.
He said that without modern weapons systems, Germany will be unable to do its part in combating the new threats that face the world: "In the first place in the spectrum of responsibilities is the prevention of international conflicts, the management of crises, and the struggle against international terrorism."
Struck announced that starting next year, nine military bases will be closed. Among them is Germany's only naval air squadron. Most of the others to be closed are equipped with outdated antiaircraft systems. Germany is now replacing them with the modern "Patriot" missile system. Struck also plans to take 90 of Germany's 305 Tornado fighter-bombers out of service by 2005.
Retired German General Klaus Naumann, who is a former chairman of NATO's military committee, said this week that most of the Tornados are more than 20 years old and should be replaced by the modern Eurofighter. Germany is buying the Eurofighter, but fewer than originally planned because of austerity cuts.
In addition, the number of tanks will be cut from 2,500 to 800, and at least 10 ships will be mothballed.
The defense minister is also considering slashing the overall size of the German armed forces. At present, Germany has around 290,000 men and women in uniform, but many experts believe this number could be cut to 210,00. The cuts announced by Struck this week will affect about 6,000 soldiers.
Struck's modernization program had its first triumph this week when the German Parliament's budget committee approved 8.3 billion euros to buy 60 modern Airbus A-400 military transport aircraft by 2012. They will replace its Transall transport aircraft, some of which are more than 30 years old.
But Struck announced no decision on the controversial issue of conscription. Over the decades, tens of thousands of young German men have performed more than one year of military service. The length of service has gradually been reduced to the present nine months, and other measures have virtually excluded married men and men over the age of 23.
Many senior military leaders consider conscription to be too expensive and argue that it has outlived its purpose. But there is strong resistance in Germany to abolishing it.
Struck said this week he will ask the governing Social Democrats to make a recommendation on the future of conscription by the end of the summer. Its coalition partner, the Greens environmental party, immediately reminded the government that it had opposed conscription and said it would reject any efforts to continue the system.
The co-leader of the Greens, Angelika Beer, said her party supports an all-professional army similar to those used by the United States, Britain, and France.