Germany Expands Army As NATO Warily Eyes Russia
On Thursday, Dec. 6, the German government announced the formation of a new tank battalion that will be activated by October 2019. The move, which will be accompanied by a concerted effort to upgrade existing tanks and expand military bases, marks the first time in decades that the German Army (Bundeswehr) is slated to expand and comes amid heightened security tensions in the European continent owing to a flare-up in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Amid the larger geopolitcal confrontation of the Cold War in decades prior and the rearmament of West Germany in the 1950s, the Bundeswehr received ample funding and equipment as the crucial backbone of NATO’s military strategy in event of a war against the Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact. However, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the reunification of Germany in 1990 heralded marked cuts in defense spending by Berlin.
In the past decade, as Berlin wrung its wrists over the state of its budget amid the financial crisis and recession on the continent, the Bundeswehr has been the subject of several embarrassing incidents highlighting its underfunded, understaffed, and ill-equipped status. In a simple but stark comparison, the Cold War-era Bundeswehr maintained 70 tank battalions on active duty; today, the Bundeswehr has five barely functional tank battalions.
Criticism of Germany’s lackluster defense spending (alongside other fellow NATO allies’ minimal defense spending) came to a head earlier this year, when US President Donald Trump openly threatened to lower US commitments to NATO in Europe. A budget spat among the coalition parties in the German government this past May resulted in guarantees by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in July to increase German military spending to 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product by 2024 — still short of the NATO-recommended target of two percent of GDP. Germany’s legislature ultimately approved the enhanced spending (in a record budget for 2019) on Nov. 23.
At a press conference on Dec. 6 in the Munster Training Area, the German defense minister stated that the 363rd Tank Battalion — the German army’s sixth tank battalion — would be officially formed and based at Hardheim military base, just south of Frankfurt, with the first of four companies activated by next October. By 2021, with the formation of another battalion at Hardheim and the transfer of two battalions from bases in Bavaria and Thuringia, the 363rd will be at its full operational strength of 500 men.
Additionally, the German government is investing 20 million euros (22.8 million USD) into updating and expanding facilities at Hardheim while allocating another four billion euros (4.6 billion USD) towards digitization and high-tech cyberwarfare capabilities for the German military, which will be accompanied by an expected expansion of the Bundeswehr to over 200,000 ground troops by 2025.
Germany’s announcement wraps up a busy week of new developments for NATO, especially with regards to its Eastern European members and partners in the face of Russian actions in the Kerch Strait.
Two days of meetings of foreign ministers of NATO member-states, starting on Dec. 4, produced joint statements on a whole host of subjects, most notably expressing deep concern over the security situation in the Black Sea region and calling for Russia to release the detained Ukrainian sailors, declaring Russia to be in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the fielding of the new 9M729 missile system, and asserting NATO’s full and continued support for partners Ukraine and Georgia — both countries in the Black Sea region bordering Russia that have experienced or continue to experience “continuing aggressive actions” from Moscow.
With regards to the Balkans, another area of intense geopolitcal jockeying between NATO and Russia, NATO foreign ministers also welcomed the developments in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia towards resolving the longstanding name dispute with Greece and approved Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Membership Action Plan, with the alliance formally inviting Sarajevo to submit an Annual National Program to formally move Bosnia and Herzegovina towards full membership with NATO. However, the alliance called for caution in dealing with the situation in Kosovo, especially with the recent announcement by Pristina committing Kosovo to transforming its internal security force into a regular army.