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Trends in German Defense Policy: The Defense Policy Guidelines and the Centralization of Operational Control

Authored by Dr. Thomas-Durell Young. | June 1994

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Like most of its NATO allies, the Federal Republic of Germany has undertaken a massive restructuring of its armed forces.1 The end of the Cold War, the need for unified Germany to assume responsibility for its security, and the current economic recession have made German defense planning extremely difficult. Bonn is also under pressure to reorient the Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) from a defense force organized to deter war in the Central Region to one with deployment capabilities similar to those of other comparable powers. However, countervailing domestic and external political pressures have impeded this reorganizing effort.

Internally, even a clear political consensus regarding the use of the Bundeswehr has yet to emerge in Bonn. German participation in peace operations and international humanitarian missions has yet to gain wide political support, let alone participating in military campaigns in support of national interests outside of the immediate defense of German territory.2 Notwithstanding defense planning efforts undertaken to date by the current Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union/Free Democratic Party coalition government, the resolution of this debate is essential before definitive planning can be undertaken. In the sagacious words of Clay Clemens,

The major consistency in German political life for at least three decades has been the tendency of all the mainstream parties to shape policy together in an incremental, consensus-building process.3

Thus, until the time when an all party accord is reached in Bonn, Germany's defense structure will remain provisional.

Externally, the rest of Europe continues to cast a wary eye over this new iteration of "ein Deutschland." As the largest member of the European Union and possessing an enormous economic potential, the Federal Republic may increasingly come to dominate European affairs. Moreover, if Bonn were to maintain the Bundeswehr at a peacetime ceiling of 370,000, as referred to in Article 3 of the "Two Plus Four" Treaty, Germany would be likely to possess the largest standing military force in Western Europe. In view of recent history, it will be some years before other European countries are fully comfortable with a united Germany. Indeed, in Germany itself, anxiety over "normalizing" defense structures has resulted in charges by some that the current coalition government is militarizing German foreign policy.4

Given these numerous factors influencing German defense policy formulation, coherent defense planning has become all but impossible. While this situation is not unique, it is particularly important for Germany because of its significance in the regional balance of power. Moreover, Germany's allies also expect Bonn to be able to participate to a greater degree in military operations outside of the Central Region. However, in spite of this planning uncertainty, there have been little-noticed developments in two key areas which presage the ruling coalition's and defense bureaucracy's reoriented concept of the Bundeswehr: the publication of the Verteidigungspolitische Richtlinien?--VPR (Defense Policy Guidelines) in November 1992;5 and efforts on the part of the Bundesministerium der Verteidigung--BMVg (Federal Ministry of Defense) to establish, for the first time, a centralized operational control structure. While perhaps inconspicuous, the VPR and operational control restructuring will fundamentally affect the future planning of the Bundeswehr and how its deployments in less-than-war operations will be commanded. Yet neither this document nor this restructuring should cause undue concern. As will be argued in this paper, German national strategy, force planning and operational control structures will remain firmly tied to NATO and the emerging European defense identity.


1. Assessing contemporary German defense policy is no easy task, given rapid changes in the security environment, policy and financial resources. For background on the immediate implications of unification on German defense structures see the excellent essay by Geoffrey Van Orden, "The Bundeswehr in Transition," Survival, Volume 33, No. 4, July-August 1991, pp. 352-370. For long-term implications and the effect of unified Germany on regional security, the following monograph should survive the test of time: Wolfgang F. Schlör, "German Security Policy: An Examination of the Trends in German Security Policy in a New European and Global Context," Adelphi Paper, No. 277, London: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, June 1993.

2. For background on this contentious political debate see Kurt A. Kissinger, "Bundeswehr Deployments 'out-of-area': An Examination of the Current Debate over German Armed Forces' Participation in International Peace Operations," Ridgway Viewpoints, No. 93-10, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, 1993.

3.See, Clay Clemens, "A Special Kind of Superpower? Germany and the Demilitarization of Post-Cold War International Security" in, Germany in a New Era, ed. by Gary L. Geipel, Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute, 1993, p. 200.

4.See Die Zeit (Hamburg), July 30, 1993. Cf., the response by General Gerd Schmückle (Ret) in Die Zeit (Hamburg), August 6, 1993. See as well, Susanne Peters, "Germany After the End of the Cold War: Arriving at a New Staatsräson?", n.d., p. 24.

5.Der Bundesminister der Verteidigung, Verteidigungspolitische Richtlinien, Bonn, November 26, 1992.