Germany: Conscription - no conscription - conscription - no conscription ...

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A new discussion about the future of conscription has flared up in Germany. Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg argues that conscripted troops are costly and of little use to the modern German military, or Bundeswehr, now focused on far-flung foreign missions to hot spots such as Afghanistan. The six-month stint that young German men are required to serve is too short for highly skilled military training, security analysts say. Conscripts also can't serve abroad, so many end up working in kitchens or at desk jobs.

Aiming to cut roughly €1 billion a year from Germany's €31.1 billion military budget, Mr. Guttenberg wants to trim troop levels to 150,000 from the current 250,000, which would mean 40,000 fewer career and volunteer soldiers, who typically serve for at least two years, and seemingly no role for conscripts. Eliminating conscription, whose costs include housing, feeding and training soldiers, could save at least €400 million a year, defence ministry officials estimate.

So far, the Defence Ministry has come up with five models for the future of the German Bundeswehr: The most radical version is a mini Bundeswehr with 150,000 professional and part-time soldiers. At the other end of the spectrum of reform models is a military consisting of 205,000 soldiers, including conscripts, which essentially corresponds to the current structure. A compromise "Model 4" includes 150,000 to 160,000 professional soldiers, as well as 7,500 to 15,000 short-term volunteers. It would produce a military of about 170,000 soldiers.

The short-term volunteers would serve between 12 and 23 months. But even this version would also boil down to a de facto abolition of compulsory military service.

The federal government has already "cut compulsory military service to the point of senselessness, and thus destroyed it," writes former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe, a member of the CDU, in an essay for SPIEGEL. "No one should believe that conscription will ever be reactivated once it has been inactivated", Rühe adds, noting: "Suspension means abolition."

On 27 July, Guttenberg, Frank-Jürgen Weise, the head of the structural commission on Bundeswehr reform, three members of that commission, Chancellery Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla and Merkel met on the eighth floor of the Chancellery. Weise also proposed voluntary conscription, which would still allow the government to register all young men under the law on compulsory military service and, if legally permissible, to examine them as well.

And there it was: an idea, a plan and a defense minister who was being flexible once again, and who suddenly felt that abolishing compulsory military service would be a "fatal mistake." It all sounds very well and good. The advantage of the plan is that all of the structures associated with compulsory military service would remain in place and could be reactivated at any time, and that the current, preposterous six-month military service would no longer be an issue.

However, the biggest beneficiaries of conscription have become Germany's hospitals, nursing homes and other social programs, where for the past 20 years more than half of draftees have opted to carry out a substitute service.

Abolishing conscription, they argue, would leave a large hole in Germany's public services. More than 150,000 men out of 226,000 deemed fit to serve in 2009 filed as conscientious objectors, slating them for civilian-servant jobs.

"It would definitely be a loss," said Peer Köpf, an expert on personnel and operations at the German Hospital Association.

Losing the steady flow of conscientious objectors in substitute service would be the latest blow to Germany's health-care system, beleaguered by the spiraling cost of caring for an aging population. Earlier this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government announced further increases in premiums and cuts in medical spending to help plug an €11 billion ($14 billion) deficit in the country's public health-insurance system next year.

Hospitals, clinics and nursing homes have come to depend on the labour of conscientious objectors, though the law dictates that they only do "supplementary" work that doesn't endanger traditional jobs. There is no move to maintain mandatory service if conscription is abolished - it would also be legally complicated, as any mandatory service not linked to military service would amount to forced labour.

Sources: Wall Street Journal: German Hospitals Can Ill Afford End to Draft, 19 July 2010; Spiegel Online International: Conscription Debate Divides German Conservatives, 29 July 2010

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