Bundeswehr starts preparing for war

Bundeswehr starts preparing for war

Frank Hofmann

NATO was created to act as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. In it, the West German army trained for defense against attacks from the east. Three decades later, the threat is once again coming from Moscow.

German soldiers deployed in Lithuania
German soldiers are currently deployed in LithuaniaImage: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo/picture alliance

It was early 1996 when German soldiers in combat gear stepped onto the territory of another European country for the first time since World War II. The Germans did not come to Bosnia-Herzegovina as UN peacekeepers, or Blue Helmets, but as part of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR).

In 1992, the former Yugoslavian republic had been plunged into the bloodiest war on European soil since 1945 by the country’s ethnic Serb minority, with the support of the troops of the Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic. In December 1995, the warring parties, the neighboring countries and the heads of state and government of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany signed the Dayton Peace Agreement.

NATO formed IFOR, which was succeeded by the Stabilization Force (SFOR), to maintain the ceasefire and stabilize peace in the small southeastern European state.

German Bundeswehr soldiers not prepared

Germany participated, but the Bundeswehr was only partially prepared for the mission in the mountainous country. The soldiers of the German army had not been trained for “out of area” operations. At times, they had to widen roads because the heavy military equipment was unable to pass through.

During the Cold War, the Bundeswehr of the German Federal Republic (West Germany), which joined NATO in 1955, had primarily been responsible for defending against a possible attack by the Warsaw Pact countries, which were in the Soviet zone of influence and included the socialist German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

There were half a million Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany. And the GDR’s National People’s Army (NVA) boasted over 150,000 additional soldiers.

Every year, scenarios of an attack were enacted in NATO maneuvers and exercises that took place on flat land in northern Germany, primarily with tanks.

The idea was that Leopard main battle tanks and Bundeswehr units would defend against such an attack from the east until unrestricted air sovereignty was established with the help of NATO’s largest member, the US.

Soldiers wearing various uniforms in 1955
New uniforms were introduced for the West German army in 1955Image: dpa – Bildarchiv

German army has halved in size

From 1958 to 1972, the West German army grew in strength from 249,000 to 493,000 troops.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of troops hovered around 480,000. When the Bundeswehr integrated the National People’s Army, with the primary aim of phasing out its structures, the number increased again briefly.

Some 20 years later, there were only about 200,000 soldiers left in the Bundeswehr. By 2023, it only had 181,000 members, according to the German Ministry of Defense.

Only a small portion of these soldiers are trained to be deployed for combat as part of NATO missions.

Afghanistan deployments

The Bundeswehr’s role in NATO changed again after the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001 prompted the US to invoke the alliance’s common defense clause and Germany met its treaty obligations. The German army was part of the US-led coalition that went on to invade Afghanistan in order to push back the Taliban.

For a long time, the Bundeswehr concentrated on training up units that could be transported quickly, even to Afghanistan. Until the Zeitenwende, or “turning point” — a term coined by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a speech to the German parliament just days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 — many in the military had not been preparing for such a widely spread land attack in Europe, three decades after the end of the Cold War.

Leadership role for Germany?

During the Cold War and in the years since, the US has played a leading role within NATO. No other country has invested as much in the military as this nuclear power, which still has more than 100,000 military personnel stationed in Europe.

But US protection could be lost if Donald Trump becomes US president again. Trump has threatened not to protect NATO partners that do not spend enough money on defense from Russia. He even said he would encourage Moscow to do “whatever the hell they want” with NATO alliance members falling short of defense spending targets.

Will Germany take on a leading role in NATO in the future? The Bundeswehr must become “a guarantor of conventional defense in Europe,” said Chancellor Scholz in a government statement in June 2023. But it still lacks the personnel, equipment and capabilities to do so.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has since said that the Bundeswehr must become “war ready.” Some analysts project that Russia, which has shifted to a war economy, could launch an attack on NATO territory in fewer than five years.

After three decades of “out of area” operations, the Bundeswehr would currently only have enough ammunition to defend itself against such an attack for a few days.

Therefore, the idea now is to upgrade NATO to such an extent that it can be a strong deterrent to Russia attacking NATO territory. Just as it was during the four decades of the Cold War.

This article was translated from German. It was first published in April 2024 and updated on the occasion of NATO’s 75th anniversary in July 2024.

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