Germany, once the front line in a decades-long confrontation between East and West, has been cutting back its armed forces for a quarter of a century, cashing in the peace dividend that followed the end of the Cold War.
Since German reunification in 1990, the number of troops in the Bundeswehr, the German military, dropped from 585,000 to 177,000. And compulsory military service was scrapped in 2011.
But Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, wants to reverse the decline. She is proposing that Germany recruit at least 7,000 new soldiers over the next seven years.
Another 5,000 or so will be added through internal restructuring.
Through 2023, Germany needs 14,300 new soldiers, according to the ministry’s forecasts. But Ms. von der Leyen didn’t say that so many new soldiers would actually be made available.
“This isn’t just a trend reversal by name; it’s really a 180-degree shift in personnel policy.”
“Over the last 25 years, the Federal Armed Forces have experienced a continuous decline in staffing,” she said in a statement. “With regards to developments in the political security situation and the resulting challenges for troops, a rethinking and new direction is required.”
The plans will be welcomed by Germany’s partners in the trans-Atlantic military alliance, NATO. Ever since Germany gained full sovereignty after unification, its allies have urged it to take on a greater military role in foreign operations, and it has responded to those calls despite deep-seated misgivings.
Military matters remain a deeply sensitive issue in Germany because of its Nazi history.
But a majority of Germans support the enlargement plan because the sense of threat has risen sharply in recent years as a result of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and terrorist attacks carried out by jihadist groups such as al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State.
With German soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, Africa, Syria, Iraq, Kosovo and the Mediterranean, politicians and army commanders have been warning that the military is overstretched.
“The contraction has crashed with a new reality the past two years, with an increased workload and higher number of deployments,” Ms. von der Leyen said last month in parliament. “Shrinking on the one hand and increasing the workload on the other simply don’t go well together.”
Germany’s military budget last year stood at 1.16 percent of gross national product, short of NATO’s target of a minimum of 2 percent, a level few member states meet.
The Bundeswehr should see its 2015 budget of €33 billion ($37.5 billion) gradually increase by about €6.2 billion to €39.18 billion in 2020 to fund new equipment, the defense ministry said in March.
Ms. von der Leyen, who is seen as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been using the term “trend reversal” a lot in recent months, referring first to the recent rise in the defense budget after years of inflation-adjusted declines, then to plans to invest about €130 billion in new equipment by 2030.
Now she’s using “trend reversal” to talk about the need for more troops.
“We’ve got to get away from a process of permanently shrinking the Bundeswehr,” she said.
It’s an uncontroversial move in Germany and has been welcomed by all parties apart from the pacifist Left Party, which is opposed in principal to foreign missions by German armed forces.
The center-left Social Democratic party, junior coalition partner to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, welcomed the plan, as did the German Bundeswehr Association, a group representing the interests of current and former members of the armed forces and their families.
“This isn’t just a trend reversal by name; it’s really a 180-degree shift in personnel policy,” said the chairman of the association, André Wüstner.
Ms. von der Leyen’s toughest challenge will be to drum up the money for her plans. There’s no budget yet for her €130 billion investment drive or for the increase in troop numbers.
The parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, told Handelsblatt that the expansion was “the right step” but added: “Further steps must follow for it to be realized — the financial planning so far doesn’t support it.”
The government already plans a significant increase in its defense budget next year. And the defense ministry stressed that the initial costs of the troop enlargement were “manageable” at €90 million. But Ms. von der Leyen has to find an additional €674 million to cover a strong rise in soldiers’ pay and increasing personnel costs.
The budget shortfall is far greater for her defense equipment plans. To reach the investment target of €130 billion announced in February, she would have to invest at least €2 billion more per year in new tanks, helicopters and night-vision equipment than planned so far — that’s €40 billion to €50 billion by 2030.
The 2017 defense budget contains additional spending of only €150 million. That’s why Ms. von der Leyen is hoping she will be able to persuade the spendthrift finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, to release further funds.
When it comes to the Bundeswehr, talking about trend reversal is a lot easier than making it happen. A year ago, Ms. von der Leyen announced plans to modernize 100 mothballed Leopard 2 battle tanks to plug a shortfall. Twelve months on, lawmakers and the manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann, still haven’t seen the contract.
Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt’s foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com