Germany proposes new selective military service to boost defence

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By Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) -Germany’s defence minister presented a proposal on Wednesday for a selective military service focused on volunteers to boost its depleted armed forces in the face of tensions with Russia, following widespread opposition to a return to conscription.

The proposal is part of Germany’s shift towards a more robust foreign and defence policy, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz as a “Zeitenwende” or “turn of era” in the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Around 13 years after Germany suspended mass conscription, Defence Minister Boris Pistorus said on Wednesday all men would be obliged to fill out a questionnaire to gauge their suitability for, and interest in, military service upon turning 18. The questionnaire would be optional for women.

It would then select around 10% of those for mustering before narrowing down the selection to the most suitable and motivated to undertake the six-month basic service – with an option to lengthen this by up to 17 months.

“Those who are most, most suitable and motivated should be selected for the military service,” Pistorius told reporters.

This new model aims to increase to 15,000 the number of young people undertaking voluntary military service, a rise of 5,000, in the first year, the ministry said, growing that number year by year.

The aim was to eventually reach 200,000 more reservists, which would enable Germany to swiftly expand its troops to around 460,000 in the event of war – nearly double what it could muster today. It currently has 180,000 soldiers, which it wants to increase to 203,000, and 60,000 reservists.

And even then, Germany would have well fewer than the 500,000 troops and 800,000 reservists of the former West Germany in the Cold War.

“No matter if we are better equipping our armed forces … the principle of deterrence only works if you have enough soldiers who could eventually defend the country,” Pistorius.

The minister has vowed to turn Germany into a “war-ready” nation, warning that war between the NATO western defence alliance and Russia could happen in five to eight years.

FIRST STEP TOWARDS CONSCRIPTION?

The model is similar to the Swedish one, introduced in 2018, which aimed to enhance the status of military service through a degree of exclusivity and some incentives. Pistorius said those who signed up for a longer service would get a bonus.

It remains to be seen whether Germany will, like Sweden, eventually oblige the unwilling to serve too, if it cannot find enough volunteers – something there was no likelihood of for the time being, the minister said.

He added that a discussion about some form of obligatory military service was needed but now was not the right time as it would require a long political debate, especially in view of elections next year.

“I regard this as a first step,” he said.

Pistorius, who currently tops rankings of Germany’s most popular politicians, has called the suspension of Germany’s obligatory military service in 2011 “a mistake”.

But leading politicians from all three parties in Scholz’s coalition have expressed opposition to obligatory military service, with Scholz himself ruling out a return to mass conscription.

Pistorius is also facing opposition within the cabinet to his plans to increase defence spending.

Critics say Scholz and others in the government are not willing – or do not see the urgency needed – to make the hard and often unpopular decisions necessary to implement his “Zeitenwende” ahead of the elections.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Sabine SieboldEditing by Christina Fincher, William Maclean)

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