Asymmetric Dialogue

Germany plans to increase size of armed forces

Summary The push on personnel strength forms part of a broader effort by the government to improve Germany’s defence capabilities

Germany plans to boost its armed forces to more than 200,000 soldiers by 2025, the latest sign that Berlin is committed to rebuilding its military after decades of neglect.

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The planned increase was announced by the defence ministry on Thursday and foresees a rise in the number of professional full-time soldiers from 172,000 now to 186,000 in 2025. Including reserve soldiers and volunteers, the overall strength of the military is expected to grow to 203,000 — the largest the Bundeswehr will have been since 2011. 

The push on personnel strength forms part of a broader effort by the government to improve Germany’s defence capabilities, and answer critics at home and abroad who accuse Berlin of not pulling its weight in military matters. 

US president Donald Trump has hit out repeatedly at Germany’s failure to lift defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, the target set by Nato at a summit in 2014. But Berlin’s defence expenditure has also faced intense scrutiny at home after a flurry of damaging reports pointing out that key weapons systems are barely functional while soldiers have to deal with a glaring shortfall of crucial equipment. 

Under current budget planning, German military spending is set to increase from €37bn last year to €44bn in the year 2022. The government is committed to raising the defence budget to 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2024.

According to a statement issued by the ministry on Thursday, the additional troops are needed to meet the Bundeswehr’s growing responsibilities, especially in the area of collective defence.

The ministry pointed to Germany’s role in Nato’s rapid reaction force for eastern Europe as well as Berlin’s commitment to play a leading role in the EU’s own system for defence co-operation, known as Pesco. Other challenges that require more staff included the digitalisation of the Bundeswehr and the need to expand the armed force’s cyber warfare units. 

Hans-Peter Bartels, armed forces commissioner of Germany’s federal parliament, said the planned increase was aimed primarily at “filling up the hollow structures” of the Bundeswehr that were the product of years of under-investment. 

But he cautioned that finding the right personnel in an era of near-full employment in Germany would not be easy. “We will have to see whether these positions can really be filled,” he said. “As the ministry says itself, the demographic trend is not favourable: cohorts are shrinking and the competition for talent is getting tougher.” 

German troop numbers have fallen dramatically over the past 25 years, from 500,000 in 1990 to a low of 168,000 in 2015. The decline came above all in response to the new political situation in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

But Russia’s invasion of the Crimea in 2014 caused German policymakers to rethink their approach and Berlin has sought to bolster its defence spending and military readiness ever since. Public opinion, too, has shifted: a poll released by the Körber Foundation this week found 43 per cent of respondents favoured more defence spending, up from just 32 per cent in 2017. 

“A majority of the population sees that there is a threat coming from Russia now . . . People recognise that the Bundeswehr needs to be better equipped,” said Mr Bartels.