Saturday, March 26, 2005

Ambition without substance

Speaking of anniversaries, this year, Germany’s Bundeswehr celebrates its 50th birthday, an event marked by Heinz Schulte, editor of the Griephan newsletter for the defence and security industry, in the current edition of DefenseNews.

Set up in the wake of the failure of Monnet's European Defence Community (EDC) – which was rejected by the French parliament in August 1954 - the establishment of an independent German army represented a major victory for then chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Now, however, things look very different and strike at the heart of the aspirations for European "superpower" dominance.

What is particularly striking is that, immediately prior to the unification of Germany in 1991, the Bundeswehr had a force size of 495,000, including 218,000 conscripts. But no sooner had the Wall come down than planning was underway for a new army, the upshot of which has been continuous rounds of cut-backs.

By 2010, the current plan is for an army of 250,000 soldiers – of which only 55,000 will be conscripts. This transformation is supposed to produce a mix of forces, which would include 35,000 as intervention forces, 70,000 intended for stabilisation operations and 106,000 conducting support operations. Under this plan, the Army will consist of five divisions and 12 brigades. There will only be six armoured battalions left.

But where the transformation is dramatically apparent is in this “Structure 2010”, which is to be adopted as of 2007. The service is to reduce its fleet of main battle tanks from 2,528 to 350, and its infantry fighting vehicles from 2,077 to 410. Artillery pieces numbers will be slashed, from 1,055 to 120 and helicopters from 530 to 240.

And it is not only the ground forces that will be savaged. Within the Air Force, the same radical reductions are planned. The number of combat aircraft is to be reduced from 451 to 262 in 2015 — about 180 Eurofighter Typhoon and 85 Tornado aircraft. There will be three Luftwaffe divisions instead of four.

The Navy has managed, with the exception of the naval fighter-bomber, to retain all capabilities even though it has fewer platforms. In 2006, the Navy takes on a new fleet structure. The current five flotillas will be merged into two operational ones. The main platforms will include about 12 frigates, five or more K130 corvettes, six U212 submarines, fewer than 20 mine warfare units, three task force supply vessels and four tenders, 30 MH-90 helicopters and eight P-3C maritime patrol aircraft.

Heinz Schulte puts this into political perspective, writing that it is an open secret that the three-way split of the Bundeswehr into intervention, stabilization and support forces was a fig leaf for the de facto halving of the Army. Furthermore, he writes, many issues are still unsettled. For instance, the Luftwaffe’s acquisition of a third Eurofighter tranche is not yet set. The total Eurofighter fleet could fall to between 120 and 140 aircraft rather than the planned 180.

Yet, despite these transformation ambitions, Berlin is still entertaining the idea of playing in the European "Champions League" with France and Britain, both of which have aspirations for establishing fully functional Rapid Reaction Forces. But, says Shulte, if it want to join the big league, it must back these ambitions financially, or it will operate one level below its most important European partners.

In fact, with the planned force structure and the lack of financial commitment – and the lack of any strategic planning for the German defence industry - Shulte sees only marginal interest in security and defence matters among the German political élites.

And, he writes, the chosen path of transformation for the armed forces is irreversible. But he concludes that "time will tell whether Berlin can and wants to close ranks with Paris and London." In fact, though, on the fiftieth birthday of the Bunderwehr, the indications are that Germany has given up any ambitions of being anything other than a "super-soft" power, and is not seriously entertaining any plans manitain a significant military capability.

As my colleague remarked recently, one really must wonder whether Europe – and certainly Germany – actually wants to play a part in the world. Given also the UK cutbacks and the impoverished state of the French armed forces, the answer seems to be firmly in the negative.

The ambitions seem to remain but, behind them, there is nothing of substance.

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