Germany ponders future of army after Cold War

April 03, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- On a green field in Germany, a unit of the army that once gave birth to "der Blitzkrieg" hones its skills for a new Europe.

Soldiers swarm into position, then open fire.

"Ping, ping!" one shouts.

"Pow!" yell others, while those with larger weapons go, "Boom."

Thanks to budget cuts, there isn't a live shell among them. Like children on a playground, they must provide their own sound effects.

This scene from the files of Alfred Biehle, compiler of army gripes for the German parliament, is a small but telling example of the lean and uncertain times facing the Bundeswehr, as the modern German Army is known.

With the Cold War a memory and the recession squeezing budgets, Germans find themselves again debating the future of their army, never a matter for calm discussion in a country where militarism has twice led to disaster in the 20th century.

In poll after poll, a fifth of the population favors doing away with the army altogether, and about twice that many think such a move probably wouldn't hurt the country. Even more support the limitations of the post-World War II constitution, which allows the Bundeswehr to fight only in defense of the nation.

Nobody gave the restriction much thought before German reunification, when there were plenty of well-armed enemies to worry about right across the border in the former East Germany.

But now Germany's friends, including the United States, are nudging Germany to expand its military horizons. They're pressing for more help stocking United Nations forces in international hot spots, and hint that this will be Germany's price for a greater say in world affairs.

Expansion is costly

Most German leaders say they're willing in principle to expand the military but as a practical matter the army is proving unaffordable, and each year its size and budget shrink more.

Forces have already been cut from 400,000 to 370,000, and an additional 25,000 will probably be cut this year. Some defense analysts say 200,000 would be enough.

Then there's the equipment. Ask Jorgen Koppelin about it and he rolls his eyes.

Mr. Koppelin, a Free Democrat member of parliament and leading voice on Bundeswehr matters, said the army's emphasis on tanks and other heavy equipment was tailored for home defense. Undertaking overseas missions at short notice will require a more nimble force.

But that's not all.

"There are barracks for Bundeswehr soldiers where rain comes in," he said. "Some kitchens are in such bad condition that they should be closed. The offices are like a museum. They have typewriters 25 years old and usually don't have computers. Those that do, have computers that are very old. . . . The Bundeswehr is in very critical shape. The motivation is bad; the training is bad; the equipment is bad."

Army still strong

Yet, for all its woes, it's still the strongest army in western Europe, said James E. Dunnigan, an American analyst of world military affairs and co-author of "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War."

"The cutbacks, the lack of ammo, that's happening everywhere," Mr. Dunnigan said. ". . . You don't have to go abroad and kill foreigners to be a good army. The training is the thing, and German basic training is pretty good."

Germany's cutbacks have been magnified by recent events. The Americans and other former allies of World War II have begun withdrawing most of their forces from Germany, leaving the Bundeswehr as the new bulwark of European security. Add to this the continued instability of the Balkans and the recent stirrings of right-wing nationalism in Russia, and the experts begin to worry who in Europe, if anybody, would be willing and able to put out the continent's next fire.

If Germany is to remodel its forces to do so, "huge investments in the coming years will be necessary," says Karl-Heinz Hornhues, vice chairman of the governing coalition's legislative delegation and an outspoken authority on military affairs.

Combined forces possible

About the only short-term method suggested so far that saves much money is cutting more troops. A longer term solution might be more combined operations with neighbors. A Franco-German force and a German-Dutch "multinational corps" are already planned, and this year Germany will join Poland and Denmark for a naval exercise in the Baltic Sea.

But the talk of a leaner, more mobile force assumes Germans will be willing to send their people off to kill or be killed on foreign soil. So far that doesn't seem to be the case.

Germany was conspicuously absent from the U.S.-led coalition that defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and even the government's financial contributions sparked huge peace demonstrations.

Only recently have German soldiers joined United Nations relief missions, sending token forces to Cambodia and Somalia, and even those operations aroused anguished internal debate.

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