The New German Army

Most of the attention on Germany's sweeping cuts in its defense budget has focused on the money.

Most of the attention on Germany's sweeping cuts in its defense budget has focused on the money. That's understandable with Germany now on track to be spending a bare 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense (Britain spends nearly 3 percent and the United States almost 4 percent). But the real story lies in the transformation of the still-formidable German military.

Defense Minister Peter Struck's announcement noted that 100 of Germany's bases (about one in five) will be closed, and the current armed forces of 285,000 troops, sailors and airmen will be cut back to 250,000. Moreover, the present organization of the German army into three armored and two mechanized infantry divisions, with 2,400 Leopard tanks, is being subjected to the most-dramatic change in the Bundeswehr's history.

Still broadly configured for that great Cold War clash of tank armies in Central Europe that never came, the Bundeswehr is being transformed into the world's first post-modern military force. If ever the revived Red Army were to come sweeping through the North German plain, Struck's new army would probably be in no shape to do much more than hand them speeding tickets as they sweep past to the English Channel.

The army is to be divided into three distinct forces. There will be an intervention force of 35,000 troops for tough international missions that are likely to involve fighting. There will be another stabilization force of 70,000 troops for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, like the ones the German army currently undertakes in the Balkans and Afghanistan. There will be 137,000 troops designated as "support," and the remaining 10,000 will be a ready reserve, available to be flexibly deployed where needed.

This is an army designed for the new realities of the post-Cold War world, Struck argues. There is no real prospect of a major conventional war in Europe, so the need now is for agile forces trained for both peacekeeping and peacemaking. It would allow Germany, if the politicians were to agree, to conduct its current peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and the Afghan hills, while also having a credible, expeditionary force available for missions like the war on Iraq. But given Germany's opposition to that fight, it would more likely be devoted to coalition operations, whether under NATO or European Union or U.N. banners. It is not big enough to achieve much alone.

But this is a classic example of that old rule that when a committee starts out to draw a horse, it produces a camel. The hands of committees of politicians are all over this. Struck had initially spoken of scrapping the German draft, but this plan retains it, pleading that the next election of 2006 should precede such a decision. The reality is that the Health minister, whose hospitals depend on the 90,000 young Germans who choose voluntary welfare service rather than a military uniform for the conscription term, blanched at the thought of the costs of replacing them.

Moreover, Struck's new force should have little need for the 180 new Eurofighters on order, which were initially designed to hold the skies against a Soviet invasion. The new missions need combat helicopters, ground-support fighter-bombers, military transports and electronic warfare aircraft, rather than air superiority fighters. But because the Eurofighter (already criticized as semi-obsolescent since it is not a Stealth warplane) is a joint production with the Brits, Italians and Spaniards, the Germans are stuck with it for political reasons.

Equally, political reasons may lurk behind the decision to cancel the planned purchase of U.S.-built Patriot missiles, for which there is a compelling military need. The Navy also loses its planned pilotless reconnaissance drones. Struck claims the cuts of some $30 billion over the next 5-7 year budget period "will open up room for targeted weapons investment from 2012." That is a long time to wait for the high-tech weaponry that has been commonplace in the American and British arsenals for years.

Struck said his project was "about switching military planning from unrealistic projects back to realism," and he has a case. Under-funded for years, with aging equipment and too many semi-trained troops, the Bundeswehr is barely able now to accomplish the territorial defense task which was its Cold War mission. The once-proud German military is the classic example of that unimpressive European defense system, which claims to keep 2 million troops under arms, but had a terrible job in deploying even 40,000 of them into the Balkans with the Kosovo war.

Now at least it might be able to make a decent job of the post-Cold war missions that Struck has defined as the Bundeswehr's future. But bear in mind that retooling the German military for small wars and peacekeeping carries one massive political implication. For serious defense of its homeland, Germany will now be dependent on friends and allies that can deploy heavy force, which means NATO, which in turn means the United States. For all Germany's diplomatic sniping at London and Washington over the Iraq war, the German homeland will in the future depend -- just as much as during the Cold War -- on the American taxpayer continuing to pay for Europe's security.


Martin Walker is the Washington bureau chief for UPI.