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Geopolitics

How To Rebuild The German Military — Europe's Best Hope To Deter Putin

Germany is the only country that can provide the necessary army forces to secure NATO's eastern flank against Russia. Its army urgently needs targeted investment in tanks and personnel, as well as a new doctrine that examines all options without taboo, including a draft.

Photo of ​Bundeswehr soldiers training near a German tank in Munster, Germany

Bundeswehr soldiers training in Munster, Germany

Nils Wörmer, Philipp Dienstbier*

-Analysis-

BERLIN — It was a brutally honest declaration by the highest-ranking officer in the German army. On the morning of the Russian attack on Ukraine, Inspector of the Army Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais wrote on his LinkedIn page that the German military had suffered from years of fiscal neglect and its shortcomings were visible for all to see.

And with those words, the majority of German politicians finally faced the truth. They saw what experts have been saying for years: the German armed forces are barely capable of national and alliance defense and thus cannot fulfill their constitutional mandate.

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In view of Russia's war of aggression, it has once again become clear that Germany must assume the main burden of conventional defense in Central Eastern and Northern Europe and once again act as the backbone of the (non-nuclear) NATO deterrent.


German policymakers are now faced with the task of restoring the lost capability of its armed forces to provide comprehensive national and alliance defense as quickly as possible.

The promise of Olaf Scholz

The promise by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of a special fund of 100 billion euros and future annual defense spending of more than 2% of the country's GDP is a good starting point. But it is no substitute for the fundamental questions regarding German defense policy that need to be answered as quickly as possible.

Against the backdrop of the dramatically changed threat situation, it is necessary to first clarify the capability required to build a credible deterrence, and secondly the size of the armed forces personnel needed for this. Thirdly, there is the question of the appropriate form of military service to meet the — still to be determined — personnel requirements in terms of quantity and quality.

The ability to wage high-intensity battles must be the decisive criterion.

German defense policy must return to what the German armed forces had mastered for decades and orient itself to what future warfare demands in terms of technology and doctrine. Russia and China are also setting the standards here.

Instead of stabilization, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism, the ability to wage high-intensity battles in all dimensions of warfare must be the core mission and decisive criterion for the performance of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

Becoming the backbone of Europe's defense

In this context, the German army is of particular importance. Considering the strategic orientation of Germany's allies and the reduction of land forces (especially armored combat units) in other EU and NATO states, no country apart from Germany can and will provide the necessary army forces to secure NATO's eastern flank so that the alliance could hold its own in a potential conflict with Russia.

This is essential, however, because this is what ultimately achieves the deterrent effect in peacetime, meaning that there would be no escalation into a war. This concern must be placed at the center of German defense policy in order to turn the Bundeswehr once again into the backbone of Europe's defense.

Germany's contribution to national and alliance defense on land essentially consists of providing three fully staffed and equipped divisions with eight to ten combat brigades within NATO by 2032 — a total of 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers. This has recently been deemed hardly feasible due to a lack of financial and human resources, despite the fact that this target mark corresponds to just 25% of the number of armored combat units in the Bundeswehr in 1990.

In the context of this year's turning point, committing three divisions must now constitute the minimum to be achieved as quickly as possible and, if necessary, extended following a thorough assessment of the security threat situation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sat at a table with a member of the Bundeswehr during a visit of the German Army's Operations Command in Brandenburg on March 4.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting the Bundeswehr's Operations Command in Brandenburg on March 4

Clemens Bilan/dpa/ZUMA

Restoring the Bundeswehr's old capabilities

Regardless of the number of divisions envisaged as a German contribution in the medium term, what must be made clear is that this is no "rearmament," as it has been rumored. The planned steps are aimed at restoring capabilities that the Bundeswehr already possessed — to a much greater extent — and that policymakers had abandoned in the meantime, assuming that a territorial conflict in Europe was no longer possible.

However, this assumption was shattered by reality on Feb. 24, 2022.

With the promise of 100 billion euros in special funds, a number of long overdue procurements can now be initiated to improve the Bundeswehr's partly unsustainable state of equipment. However, the fresh money will not change the horrendous bureaucracy in the military's procurement system, which is in urgent need of reform.

All options must be examined without taboo.

In addition to equipment, there are other structural issues that are a works-in-progress, such as appropriate digitization of the land forces. In terms of the capability profile, the reconstruction of the Army Air Defense Force is also the most urgent task, as it is absolutely essential.

Examining all options without taboo

Fundamentally, the German Army must make a radical doctrinal U-turn back to its historical mission and once again be able to conduct defensive, delaying, and (counter)offensive operations in northeastern Europe.

To be sure, the scale and geographic space in which such a scenario could play out have changed since the 1980s. However, the basic requirements have hardly changed, from the rapid mobilization of reserve units (which still have to be built up) to the rapid deployment capability of large units across Germany and its neighboring countries.

The Chancellor's financial pledges also fail to solve the Bundeswehr's most obvious problem: its glaring personnel shortage. Although the old conscription model was already out of date in 2011, its suspension without comprehensive preparation of alternative mechanisms to recruit personnel represents one of the biggest burdens on the Germany military's defense capability.

The target of 203,000 service posts and a reserve of 120,000, which would probably have to be adjusted upward in view of the increased demands on the Bundeswehr's capability profile, cannot be met with the current form of military service due to demographic trends.

It is therefore necessary to discuss a modern form of armed service that would also contribute to a better anchoring of the military in society and ensure greater resilience of German society beyond the area of defense. With the return of a territorial war in Europe, the point has been reached where the security situation has changed so drastically that all options must be examined without taboo.

In response to the Chancellor's speech, voices were immediately heard from many who don't usually comment on defense policy issues and who also have no significant expertise in this area to categorically rule out the introduction of mandatory military service. But this limits Germany's room for maneuver prematurely and unnecessarily. The time and necessity to put defense policy on a new footing and to take the big plunge have never been more pressing.

*Nils Wörmer is head of the International Politics and Security Department of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Berlin; Philipp Dienstbier is a consultant for Transatlantic Relations at KAS.

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Ukrainian flags flying over Kherson city hall soon after midday

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Though Moscow has explained the surrender of the city as an effort to avoid casualties, most military analysts consider it a major turning point in the war.

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