Why you should care
The drop in military recruitment numbers for one of Europe’s leading economies could stem from private sector competition.
Germany’s armed forces are struggling to attract much-needed recruits, with the number of new soldiers joining the Bundeswehr falling to an all-time low last year. The shortages are an urgent challenge for the German military, which has tried to boost its strength and capabilities at a time of record-low unemployment, and against fierce competition from both the private sector and institutions such as the police.
The need to build up the Bundeswehr reflects at least in part the recent pressure from the U.S. and other allies to raise German defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, in line with a longstanding commitment given by all NATO members. Berlin spent 1.2 percent of its budget on defense last year, a figure that is expected to rise to 1.5 percent by 2024. Still …
Just 20,000 recruits joined the armed forces in 2018, down from 23,000 the previous year, and the lowest in the history of the Bundeswehr.
The hiring difficulties were highlighted by the revelation that 21,500 officer and non-commissioned officer positions were vacant, according to a recent official Parliament report, which is a closely followed assessment of the Bundeswehr’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges. Recruitment troubles aside, the report points to another critical but increasingly familiar failing: the poor state of military equipment and weaponry.
“My report for the year 2018 finds the personnel situation of the Bundeswehr is strained and the material situation still unsatisfactory,” says Hans-Peter Bartels, the commissioner and author of the report. “I would like to say that spring has come, and everything has changed. But the truth is: This is still winter.”
The report points out that crucial military hardware continues to be available only in limited numbers. It cites, among other things, the A400M military transport aircraft, of which less than half the German fleet was available for use over the course of 2018. The same was true for the Luftwaffe’s fleet of Tornado and Eurofighter jets. Not one of the country’s submarines was fully ready for service in 2018, according to the report. Bartels also cites the poor state of readiness of Germany Leopard 2 battle tanks as a big area of concern.
These and other problems were exacerbated, Bartels says, by excessive bureaucracy and painfully slow procedures: “Our Bundeswehr, as I see it now, suffers from both understaffing and over-organization. Too much work is done either twice or is done in conflict with other work. Too many labor hours are dedicated to poor structures.”
He adds, “Many soldiers tell me: We are administering ourselves to death.”
However, the commissioner was satisfied with the state of the latest increases in the defense budget, which rose by $5.6 billion last year to $49 billion. “A lack of money is not the reason for failure,” Bartels says.
Under the defense ministry’s plans, the number of active soldiers in the Bundeswehr is supposed to rise from 181,000 at the end of last year to 198,500 in 2025. As Bartels points out, personnel numbers continue to rise year on year, but largely because serving soldiers decide to prolong their contracts.
“That means the Bundeswehr is growing older and is becoming more of a compact professional army. That is not ideal if we want to maintain a lively exchange with society,” he says.
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