Expert Neitzel on the Bundeswehr: “Pistorius is trying everything to avoid being measurable”

The report about radio devices that are said to have been ordered without considering how they could be integrated into Bundeswehr vehicles confirms the cliché: There is chaos in the troops because of all the bureaucracy. The military historian Sönke Neitzel sees no chance of improvement as long as there is no courage for major reform. Mr. Neitzel, the Bundeswehr has been confirmed to be willing to reform in recent months. Is something actually happening or is the initiative petering out?

Sönke Neitzel: I think something is already happening. The Procurement Acceleration Act helps a little, the inspectors are better integrated, but ultimately we are tinkering with the process and hoping that with more money everything will be fine. I don’t perceive that we think big enough.

How big should we think?

A real structural reform would be necessary. I asked Defense Minister Boris Pistorius about this last week and received the answer that there will be no fundamental changes to the structure. The reform is canceled.

Professor Sönke Neitzel teaches military history and the cultural history of violence at the University of Potsdam.

Many people believe that the argument against comprehensive reform is that it would paralyze the entire apparatus to a certain extent. A difficult undertaking for a “ship that is underway”.

I don’t think the argument is credible, I think it’s too weak. The Bundeswehr is always “on the move”. Question is: What is the reference point? This is the combat capability of the troops in five, seven, eight years. It is highly unlikely that she will have to fight now. But maybe in five, seven, eight years. Do we then want to reorganize the Bundeswehr? When the time comes?

Are there any further references?

The Federal Intelligence Service has completely reorganized itself. Ukraine has reclassified five times. You can actually do that. But Boris Pistorius says we have to focus on what is possible. If we had focused on what was possible, there would never have been a NATO double decision. No Agenda 2010, no Eastern policy, never the euro, never a Schengen agreement.

Would you include the structural reform of the Bundeswehr here?

It’s about nothing less than the re-establishment of the armed forces. And this start-up will take 10 to 15 years if you step on the gas. You can’t expect Boris Pistorius and the Inspector General to make everything work in two years. That is not our claim either. We will have to continue to work on the gap. And the military always has to deal with gaps. The question is: Are decisions being made now that will have a big impact but will mean that in five years, eight years we will really have three operational divisions, squadrons and ships?

The Bundeswehr also needs a lot of soldiers for this. It is expected to increase its workforce to 203,000 by 2031; it currently stands at 183,000. They are already saying that this cannot be done. What makes you so confident?

The situation is much worse. 203,000 cannot be reached. And even holding 180,000 is completely unrealistic when you talk to people on the line. Cohort sizes are simply going down.

Do you think the age groups are getting smaller and there are fewer young people available?

Exactly. And we only have a certain quota that can realistically be enthusiastic about the Bundeswehr. Internally, the calculation is as follows: If Germany does not introduce a year of social service, compulsory military service, or some other fundamental change in personnel recruitment, then in ten years the Bundeswehr will perhaps only have 150,000 people. Especially since people are now cheating with the 180,000.

In what way?

Generals and high-ranking officers who serve until they are 65 years old are often no longer useful in their final assignments. How many surplus officers does the force have that they are putting away somewhere because they can no longer be put to good use in the last five years?

Does that mean the number of soldiers deployed efficiently is currently below these 183,000?

You maintain the high length of service so that the numbers don’t fall even further, yes. The basic problem in the debate is that we are not communicating honestly. We’re still dealing with mirror fencing, talking about the number 203,000, about which everyone knows: “No way. That can’t be achieved.”

What would be honest? And realistic?

The goal must be to keep the 180,000, sensibly deployed with qualified people. But for this to happen, very basic things have to happen. This debate is not being conducted with the necessary intensity.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said at the beginning of June that perhaps the number 203,000 should be checked. He doesn’t dare predict “whether we can reach that number.”

But the minister or the inspector general would have to stand up and say: “We can’t do this alone. We can run social media campaigns and the like. But that won’t be enough. Not even to maintain the number of staff.” Fundamental things have to change, and that is a political decision. The inspector general could say: “Our proposal is A, B and C, but you, as the federal government, have to decide.” There is no such pressure.

Does that mean the Bundeswehr itself can’t do anything? Because that would just be tinkering with the symptoms?

Yes, because if politicians were to make such a big decision as a compulsory year with corresponding consequences for the Bundeswehr, which would perhaps even mean an increase in size, then the force would also have to reform internally. The Bundeswehr’s human resources system is centralized and completely overloaded with bureaucracy. But I don’t see Pistorius and the Inspector General standing up and saying: “Here’s our reform proposal for personnel: first, second, third.” And as long as this pressure is not built up, the cabinet sees no need to address this unpleasant question of a possible compulsory year.

Is this a pattern among the troops?

You can apply this to all major problem areas in the army, whether personnel, mindset, armament or structures. But if I’m not brave as Inspector General, if I don’t dare to make announcements in public, then how can soldiers in Lithuania risk their lives in combat? That doesn’t work.

You say the analysis is done and there are possible solutions A, B, C. Are these possible solutions all associated with an obligation?

There is also the Scandinavian solution of saying, we’ll just look again. Thanks to the screening, we know who is actually there, which of these people would be of interest to us, and we are already in contact. We can then make a targeted effort to recruit these people: “Based on your screening, you would be suitable. Can you imagine that?” That’s how the Scandinavians do it. There are a variety of models; the reservists can be massively increased until the social year or the reinstatement of compulsory military service. Ultimately, we have to be fair and judge Boris Pistorius by the result.

Will he bring the Bundeswehr forward even without structural reform?

If he does it, great. But I think Pistorius is doing everything he can to not be measurable, to make it as diffuse as possible. But for me that is not a claim that a minister should have. As a minister you have to say that it’s not about your own office, it’s not about yourself, it’s about the whole thing. You have to put things on track. I miss that courage.

Frauke Niemeyer spoke to Sönke Neitzel

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