Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Can conscription save Germany’s armed forces?

(Photo: Getty)

Could compulsory military service soon be reintroduced in Germany? Since becoming defence minister at the beginning of last year, Boris Pistorius has grappled with the challenge of how to rejuvenate Germany’s dwindling armed forces. He increasingly appears convinced that conscription is the answer to his problems.

Last week, Pistorius dropped the latest hint that a plan for the reintroduction of conscription was around the corner. Compulsory military service ‘of some kind’ was currently being ‘considered’ by the ministry of defence, he said. While Pistorius stressed a decision would not be taken immediately, and would require the support of parliament, reports suggest he has given the ministry until the end of the month to present him with options of what a new conscription model could look like.

Pistorius has become a single-issue politician, banging the drum for making Germany ‘war ready’

Pistorius is a man in a hurry. According to Der Spiegel, the defence minister wants to present his plan for military service before the federal election, due to be held by the end of October next year. He has been looking to Scandinavia for inspiration, making trips to both Sweden and Norway in March and paying particular attention to how both countries conscript their fighting age populations. Sweden’s model – where around 100,000 18-year-olds are screened each year and just the most suitable 5 per cent or so serve for 12 months – is said to be most appealing to him. His aim, according to sources in the ministry of defence, is to resurrect some form of military service capable of making a ‘scalable, threat-adapted contribution to national resilience’.

The defence minister has been mulling over the idea of conscription for some time now. Until 2011, German men were subject to conscription, requiring them to serve in the military or civil defence forces for six months. In December Pistorius called the decision to scrap this policy a ‘mistake’ but later insisted he was not advocating for the reintroduction of compulsory military service. Now he appears to be moving towards the idea of conscription once again.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, and subsequent breakdown of relations with Kyiv’s Nato allies, brought home to politicians in Berlin the neglected state of Germany’s army and defence capabilities. Not long after becoming chancellor, Olaf Scholz pledged to increase the number of troops to 203,000 by 2031. But with the German armed forces currently at approximately 182,000 – a drop of around 1,000 since last year – it is difficult to see how those numbers can be bolstered without the reintroduction of some form of military service. 

In 2011, when conscription was dropped, approximately 31,000 conscripts between the ages of 18 and 25 had completed at least six months of military service, while the armed forces employed around 188,000 professional soldiers. Since then, the forces have struggled with recruitment: potential applicants are put off by the lengthy bureaucracy of applying and the restrictions it places on their lifestyles. Germany’s lawmakers have acknowledged that compulsory military service directly boosted the number of professional troops the country had, as a portion of conscripts would choose to continue with the armed forces.

Pistorius’s desire to potentially reintroduce military service is just one part of his grand plan to overhaul Germany’s armed forces and defences. Over the past year he has become a single-issue politician, banging the drum for making Germany ‘war ready’ in the face of increasing aggression from Russia. 

The defence secretary has announced several headline reforms to the structure of the armed forces. Over the next six months, the armed forces’ foreign and domestic operations will be merged under one ‘Bundeswehr operational command’. He has also ordered the creation of a new cyber warfare branch to sit alongside the army, navy and air force. In a move to modernise Germany’s defence capabilities, it will concentrate on electronic warfare, cyber operations, reconnaissance and electronic infrastructure protection. 

Pistorius is hoping these reforms will streamline the armed forces and improve their ability to respond to threats, both domestic and foreign. But despite his noble intentions, as the defence minister is already finding out, tackling issues created by several decades of chronic underfunding is no walk in the park. 

‘We are defending our country and our allies,’ Pistorius has said. Once his plans have borne fruit, ‘no one should even entertain the idea of ​​attacking us’. The defence minister, the most popular of Scholz’s cabinet with the German public, can certainly talk the talk. But that is just the easy part – Pistorius still has to prove that he can also walk the walk.