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Germany: Bundeswehr ranks shrink despite recruitment drive

February 2, 2024

Despite a spending and recruitment drive triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, German military troop numbers fell slightly last year. Berlin has mooted more drastic approaches to try to broaden the recruitment net.

A group of German Bundeswehr military recruits, pictured from behind, marching at a ceremony in Munich. September 14, 2023.
Germany is trying, and to some degree failing, to attract more new recruits as it moves to increase defense spending following Russia's invasion of UkraineImage: Matthias Balk/dpa/picture alliance

The total number of full-time and reservist Bundeswehr German military personnel shrank by roughly 1,500 in 2023, despite efforts to recruit more troops, Germany's Defense Ministry told the dpa news agency on Friday. 

As of December 31, 2023, the total stood at roughly 181,500 men and women, compared to 183,050 at the end of the previous year.

A spokeswoman for the ministry told dpa that the Bundeswehr's goal was still to sustainably increase the size of its ranks. 

"We need qualified men and women ready for operations, who will stand ready in sufficient numbers for the tasks and missions ahead," she said.

Large poster advertising job opportunities with the Bundeswehr, in this case as radar operators. Offenbach am Main, Hesse, Germany.
The Bundeswehr is more or less permanently recruiting, but efforts have intensified in the past couple of years, as has the focus on the processImage: Norbert Neetz/IMAGO

High employment levels make it a jobseekers' market

The ministry said that demographic and societal changes, given Germany's aging population and high employment rates, were leading to recruitment challenges for all sorts of industries, the military included. 

"Out of the competition among jobseekers of the past a competition between employers for personnel — particularly skilled personnel — has developed," the spokeswoman said.

Military recruitment also tends to be age-limited, with the viable recruitment options often in their 20s or 30s, and more rarely deeper into their careers.

The number of Bundeswehr career soldiers and reservists had risen in 2023, according to the ministry, with the overall reduction attributable to fewer soldiers signed up for a fixed period of service.

Why Germany's military is in a bad state, and what's being done to fix it

Discussions on reviving national service or allowing non-citizen soldiers 

The Bundeswehr's stated target is to expand its ranks to 203,000 troops in total by 2031. This is part of the broad German expansion of its defense spending, much of which was part of the 2024 budget that cleared the Bundestag parliament in Berlin on Friday

These defense spending changes, although part of a longstanding process for Germany, accelerated considerably in the immediate aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The focus on their implementation also intensified thereafter.

A "package of measures and initiatives" were said to be in the works designed to make the army's offers more attractive and to make recruiters more flexible and quicker to react. 

The sluggish recruitment had already drawn attention and prompted debate in recent weeks and months in Germany. 

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has mooted more drastic alterations in a bid to recruit from a broader pool.

These include a reinstatement of a 1-year period of national service for school leavers, though not necessarily with the military. Germany abolished a comparable national service period in 2011 after 55 years.

"There were reasons at the time to suspend compulsory military service. In retrospect, however, it was a mistake," Pistorius recently told newspaper die Welt

Pistorius has also voiced openness to the idea of enabling the Bundeswehr to recruit volunteers without German citizenship

For now, though, both potential policy changes remain in the planning phase. 

The Bundeswehr already has some 1,400 civilian employees without German passports.

Pistorius also recently called for applicant recruits to be dealt with and assigned training or posts more swiftly, so they are less likely to find another offer elsewhere.

msh/nm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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