Germany's military is struggling amid rising tensions with Trump and Russia, and now it's thinking about asking foreigners to join

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  • Germany’s military has shrunk since the Cold War.
  • It’s now struggling to add soldiers and to upgrade its equipment.
  • Efforts to boost defence spending have been complicated by domestic politics – and by President Donald Trump.

The German military, the Bundeswehr, had 21,000 unfilled positions in 2017, and the service is now looking beyond its borders to fill its ranks.

A Defence Ministry report in late 2016 proposed recruiting from other EU countries, and the ministry confirmed in late July that it was seriously considering doing so.

“The Bundeswehr is growing,” a ministry spokesman told news agency DPA. “For this, we need qualified personnel.”

Germany’s military has shrunk since the Cold War. In 2011, the country ended mandatory military service. From a high of of 585,000 troops in the mid-1980s, the service’s numbers have fallen to just under 179,000 in mid-2018.

About half of current members of the German military are expected to retire by 2030, and with an ageing population, finding native-born replacements may get tougher.

German leaders have pushed to add more troops while beefing up defence spending.

In mid-2016, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said she would remove the cap of 185,000 total troops to help make the force more flexible. She said the military would look to add 14,300 soldiers over seven years. (In early 2017, the Defence Ministry upped that to 20,000 soldiers added by 2024.)

“The Bundeswehr is under pressure to modernise in all areas,” she said at the time. “We have to get away from the process of permanent shrinking.”

Efforts to grow have included more recruitment of minors – a record-high 2,128 people under 18 joined as volunteers in 2017, but signing up young Germans has been criticised.

Recruiting foreigners was generally supported by the governing parties, with some qualifiers.

Karl-Heinz Brunner, a defence expert and member of the Social Democrat Party, said foreigners who join up should be promised citizenship.

“If citizens of other countries are accepted, without the promise of getting a German passport, the Bundeswehr risks becoming a mercenary army,” he told German newspaper Augsburger Allegemeine.

Florian Hahn, a defence spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union, said such a recruitment model “could be developed,” but “a certain level of trust with every soldier must be guaranteed.”

‘Germany just doesn’t feel threatened’

Personnel woes are only part of the Bundeswehr’s problem.

Reports have emerged in recent years of shortages of everything from body armour to tanks. German troops overseas have been hamstrung by damaged or malfunctioning equipment. A lack of spare parts has left some weapons systems unusable.

Reports of inoperable fighter jets – and insufficient training for pilots – have raised questions about whether Germany can fulfil its NATO responsibilities. As of late 2017, all of Germany’s submarines were out of service, and the navy in general has struggled to build ships and develop a strategy.

Gen. Volker Wieker, the military’s inspector general, said in February that the force would be ready to assume command of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in Eastern Europe in 2019.

The Bundeswehr had a long-term plan to address “still unsatisfactory” gaps in its capabilities, Wieker said, but it would take at least a decade to recover after years of dwindling defence spending.

Defence spending is a contentious issue in Germany – one supercharged by President Donald Trump’s attacks on NATO members for what he sees as failures to meet the 2%-of-GDP defence-spending level they agreed to reach by 2024.

Governing-coalition members have feuded over how to raise defence expenditures. Those in favour of a quick increase say it’s needed to fix the military. Others want the money directed elsewhere and have said Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing Trump’s militarist bidding.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years – really the sort of tragic and kind of embarrassing stories about the state of the Bundeswehr – that is certainly sinking in, and Germans are now supporting more defence spending than they have in the past,” Sophia Besch, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, said on a recent edition of the Center for a New American Security’s Brussels Sprouts podcast.

“There is just this huge debate … around the 2% [of GDP defence-spending level] being the right way of going about it,” Besch added.

Some Germans also remain chastened by World War II and the Cold War, which devastated and then divided the country. The Bundeswehr still struggles with its Nazi history.

“There’s a definitely a generational aspect to this,” Besch said. “The sort of traditional pacifist approach … I think is mostly permanent in the older generations.”

Others just aren’t that worried.

“I think the issue today is that Germany just doesn’t feel threatened. Germans just don’t see a threat to themselves,” Besch added. “They see perhaps a threat in the East, but their relationship with Russia is complex. They just don’t see the need to invest that much in defence spending.”

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