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History casts a long shadow over Germany’s military. Although the constitution still insists the Bundeswehr is a purely defensive force, it’s a liberal interpretation of “defence”, encompassing Germany’s interests wherever they are around the world. This has enabled German forces to play an increasingly active role in international operations over the past decade.

Nevertheless Germans seem to be blind to their country’s regular international deployments, despite them being such a departure from most of Germany’s post-war history. “If you ask people where German soldiers are in the world today, will they go to Mali tomorrow, what is the best tank, what rifles do they use, people won’t have a clue,” says Dr Detlef Buch, senior fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.

As well as facing an apathetic public, the Bundeswehr is in the middle of a major restructure. It is slashing back its personnel, vehicles, aircraft and bases. Germany’s armed forces have long enjoyed a professional reputation but that only became strictly true in June 2011 when it suspended conscription.

Few would argue against the benefits of an all-volunteer force but Germany might be trying to be too professional. For example, candidates for the role of officer in the Heer (army) now have to undertake the world’s longest training package, lasting a staggering 79 months before graduation from the Offizierschule in Dresden. During that time, they might have spent a few weeks or months on attachment with operational units but they won’t have actually deployed on operations.

Officers destined for the tank battalions don’t turn up at the Ausbildungszentrum Panzertruppen (Armour Training Centre) at Münster until the 66th month of their careers. (By contrast, the British Military Academy at Sandhurst churns out officers for specialist training after 11 months.) Perhaps as a result of this arduous training, last year’s intake of officers and non-commissioned officers was down by 15 per cent, despite a major recruitment drive by the Bundeswehr.

When the recruits finally pass out, they do so into a reduced force. The Luftwaffe is losing 37 of its planned Typhoon fighters and several a400m transporters, while the Heer’s armoured vehicle fleet is dropping from 350 Leopard 2 tanks down to 205 and from 405 Puma infantry fighting vehicles to 350. The Heer’s plans for 80 Tiger attack helicopters have been halved and just 80 nh90 transport helicopters will now have to do the work planned for 122.

By contrast, the Deustche Marine escaped the cuts relatively unscathed. Over the past decade, the Marine has become heavily involved in nato and EU anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the eastern Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa. The first of four new frigates designed for such multinational constabulary missions is now being built at Blohm and Voss’ shipyard in Hamburg ahead of launch in 2014. It will be the “world’s first politically correct frigate”, says naval analyst Richard Scott. “It’s efficiently engineered, user-centric and designed to deliver scaled and proportionate effect to stabilisation operations worldwide.”

The Bundeswehr is expected to finalise a new joint-doctrine document setting out exactly what can be expected of them by the end of this year or early 2014. As well as the easier naval deployments, one of the key aims of the restructuring process is to enable 10,000 soldiers to be engaged in two continuous operations in multiple areas if required.

Whatever the new doctrine says, it’s clear that the Bundeswehr is finally moving out of the shadows. —

Defence in numbers

  • Third largest defence exporter in Europe, accounting for:
    €5.41bn
  • Europe’s biggest exporter of small arms in 2011, with sales worth:
    €1.39bn
  • Defence budget increased by:
    €33.3bn
  • Active forces:
    185,000

Deployments in numbers

  • 2
    German Patriot missile batteries on Turkey/Syria border
  • Up to 400
    personnel to work with the Patriots on Turkey/Syria border
  • 4
    German army Tiger attack helicopters deployed to Afghanistan.

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