German leaders want ability to send troops overseas

March 10, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- With the Persian Gulf war over, German leaders are preparing changes that would allow wider participation in military actions.

Government and opposition parties are slowly coming to an agreement that the country's basic law should be changed to allow German troops to be sent overseas. In anticipation of this, the armed forces have started to develop division-level mobile units that can be deployed on short notice, according to confidential military documents that became available last week.

Still unresolved, however, is how far German overseas military involvement should go.

The ruling conservative-liberal coalition favors looser restrictions that would allow participation in gulf-type operations. The opposition Social Democratic Party is divided, with some members favoring such a policy and others wanting participation only under the U.N. flag. Both sides must agree because changing the law requires a two-thirds vote in parliament.

The two sides agree that a decision should be made before summer, but have said that such a far-reaching decision to change 40 years of policy should not be made under pressure of the gulf war. With the war coming to a close, the discussion in Germany has started to become intense.

"No one wants us to throw overboard the lessons of history -- to march ahead blindly or indulge in militarism," said Manfred Woerner, general secretary of NATO and former German defense minister.

Germany's allies, however, do expect it to take more responsibility in the future, especially as Europe unites and calls for a mobile European defense force become louder, Mr. Woerner said.

The current interpretation of Germany's basic law, which was drawn up after World War II and acts as the country's constitution, is that the military may only be sent outside German territory if an ally, such as a NATO member, is attacked and requests help.

According to Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg, this could be changed in three ways. The armed forces, or Bundeswehr, could be allowed to engage in U.N. peacekeeping or military actions, to participate in NATO-approved actions or, in the most liberal case, to act with approval of the West European Union, a little-used organization of nine countries.

In no case should Germany be allowed to send its troops overseas unilaterally, Mr. Stoltenberg said.

The Bundeswehr already is preparing for its new role by establishing two tactical and operative military staffs that are to oversee the development of mobile units, a government document leaked to the press shows.

The Bundeswehr's current inability to send forces overseas was dramatically illustrated last month when it didn't have large enough planes to carry anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey. Plans to hire Soviet aircraft fell through and the equipment sat in an airfield in Germany for several days until U.S. C-5 transports were borrowed.

The new forces will be limited to either professional Bundeswehr soldiers or conscripts who volunteer for the service. No unwilling conscripts will be forced to serve in overseas missions, according to the document.

The idea of conscripts being sent overseas is an extremely sensitive topic in Germany. For more than a generation, men have been drafted into the West German army but with the unspoken understanding that it was only to defend the country against attack. Officials seem to realize that forcing conscripts to serve in the new units could be the catalyst for demonstrations and protests that would dwarf recent anti-gulf war actions.

Restructuring the army has been made easier by the reduction mandated by treaties governing German unity, the paper claims. The combined Bundeswehr now has about 500,000 men but must be trimmed to 370,000 in three years. Desk jobs also are being slashed, with the Defense Ministry due to lose 1,000 of its 5,200 planning positions by 1996.

Some critics see the proposed changes as a way for Germany's influential weapons industry to win domestic contracts and for the army to justify itself in a united Europe where Germany's neighbors pose no military threat.

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