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Germany

Bundeswehr faces biggest shake-up in its history

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has revealed his plans to reduce the size of the army. The total number of soldiers will be cut to around 165,000, with compulsory service practically abolished.

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

Guttenberg has consistently pushed for an overhaul of the army

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg presented his draft plans for the future of the German army to government ministers on Monday.

The model Guttenberg unveiled will see the present 252,000 soldiers cut to 163,500 over the next few years, a reduction of around a third.

Conscription will be suspended in the short term, with young men no longer called up to do compulsory service. But Guttenberg stressed that it was important conscription retains its place in the constitution, in case it becomes viable again in the future.

"By the end of the year it ought to become clear that the Bundeswehr will become smaller, but better," Guttenberg said after discussing his proposals with coalition partners.

Knock-on effects

The chosen model would mean a reduction in the professional standing army from around 195,000 soldiers to 156,000. The cuts mean that the army would be left with three tank battalions, two artillery battalions and one paratrooper regiment.

The civilian service alternative to military conscription, an important provider of labor to Germany's care homes, will also be suspended. Family Minister Kristina Schroeder proposed on Monday to introduce a national voluntary community service.

Soldier standing in an empty room

Germany has conscripted young men into its armed forces since 1957

"I'm not giving myself hope that we can completely replace what we have now," Schroeder told reporters in Berlin. But she celebrated the fact that women would be able to perform community service for the first time.

The proposal to suspend rather than scrap conscription altogether postpones a contentious debate that has been bedevilling Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition in recent weeks. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sees itself as a staunch defender of compulsory military service, though its military impracticality and high cost have long threatened the ideal of a 'citizen's army.'

'Voluntary conscription'

Guttenberg, of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, hopes to mollify his party colleagues with the new "voluntary military service" model, which he says represents "a modern variation for the citizen to take on responsibility."

The government is hoping to attract volunteers to sign on to this new scheme for up to 23 months by promising driver's licenses, university places and other fringe benefits.

Women would be included amongst an estimated 7,500 army volunteers. "Not enough to safeguard the regeneration of the troops with up-and-coming soldiers," criticized Ulrich Kirsch, head of the Armed Forces Association.

The Defense Ministry is aiming to cut some 8.3 billion euros ($10.6 billion) off its budget over the next four years, though Guttenberg warned that savings in new armament projects would also be needed.

Author: Ben Knight / Thomas Sheldrick (AP/dpa)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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