Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and Chancellor Angela Merkel have told soldiers that reform of the military is going well. Many soldiers do not share their optimism.
"The repositioning of the military is now picking up speed," said German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, expressing his satisfaction at the progress of reform. At the annual conference of the German military - the Bundeswehr - in Strausberg near Berlin on Monday (22.10.2012), he admitted that the improvements could not yet be felt everywhere, but said that things were going in the right direction.
Chancellor Angela Merkel even described the Bundeswehr as a model for reforms in other areas of German society. But she and de Maizière failed to present their expected comprehensive interim report on the reorientation of the German army.
Reform is inevitable
The international security landscape has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. Conflicts have become more varied and require a corresponding response from Germany's armed forces. De Maizière said that in the future the armed forces will have to take on more responsibilities around the world. Merkel hinted that Mali in West Africa could possibly be a future deployment. It was unacceptable, she said, that terrorists had found a safe haven there and that the civilian population continued to suffer.
Already, German soldiers are involved in stabilization operations in the Balkans, in armed conflicts such as in Afghanistan and in securing the sea lanes off Somalia. According to the defense ministry plans, about 10,000 soldiers will continue to be able to respond quickly, flexibly and for lengthy periods in multiple areas of crisis and conflict. Since 2010, the ministry has merged the relevant competencies in the armed forces and eliminated duplication. The number of command authorities alone has been reduced from 42 to 25.
Extensive savings program
In view of the lack of funds in the budget, the new tasks make a drastic austerity program necessary. The decision was made to close 31 military sites by 2017 and reduce the size of a further 90. Military projects will be cut by billions of euros. There will be 140 new fighter jets, not 177. The number of combat helicopters on order will be cut by half to 40. But the biggest savings will be made in personnel.
From a high of 500,000 soldiers during the Cold War, there will now be no more than 185,000. This does not necessarily mean soldiers will be dismissed. Since Germany suspended conscription in July 2011, the armed forces have been made up only of volunteers. That was widely recognized as a sensible move for the times, because only one in five eligible young men was actually recruited each year and because the pool of available recruits is shrinking with the decline in population.
Dissatisfaction and criticism of the reforms
But the downsizing and restructuring of the Bundeswehr have also led to frustration and sometimes chaos. That's something the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Hellmut Königshaus, has noticed. His task is to document the morale among the ranks and to be the contact person for criticism and concern.
Königshaus complains that soldiers have been given little information about the reforms and sometimes did not know where they would be serving the following week. The troops felt that the "top down" orders they received didn't take account of their views.
At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to attract recruits for the army, he said. The minimum annual intake of 5,000 recruits will indeed be achieved. But not long ago, the desired number was 15,000. At the moment, a military career seems an uncertain and unattractive choice for many young people.
Most soldiers agree that the Bundeswehr does need reform, but they do not understand the way that the reform is being implemented - sometimes it seems to go too quickly, sometimes too slowly. According to a survey by the Bundeswehr Association, 88 percent of officers believe the reform process requires immediate correction, otherwise it will not last long. Some 53 percent of all soldiers even think the reform has been a failure. A study on change management conducted by the Military Institute of Social Sciences for the Ministry of Defense came to similar conclusions.
At the conference on Monday, de Maizière asked for patience and understanding for the sometimes painful cuts - and to see the opportunities, not just the risks. The conference will spend all of Tuesday (23.10.2012) discussing military reform. In 2013 and 2014, soldiers will be asked again. Then the members of the armed forces will have another chance to say how far they've come round to their defense minister's point of view.