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The Future of the Bundeswehr and its Advocate

An interview with Hans-Peter Bartels by Gertrud Maria Vaske

Threats are becoming more global, more hybrid, and as a result they seem to be moving closer. A total of 130 billion euros will be spent on upgrading equipment and facilities over the next few years. The 1.5 million soldiers in the 28 EU Member States should be sufficient for defense purposes, seeing that defending the Alliance is now once again one of the real-world tasks of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr), ever since the Russia–Ukraine conflict. At the moment, we still have around 177,000 soldiers. What’s wrong with the armed forces in this country – the numbers of applicants are continually falling. Why do you think this is?

The Bundeswehr’s staffing problems at the moment are mainly due to its failure to fill the serious skills gap, such as in IT and the area of medical services. The constant increase in tasks will lead to further overstretching of an already strained workforce. For this reason, the German defense ministry is currently considering increasing the number of personnel in the Bundeswehr.

You have been in office for more than a year now. Innere Führung is attested as being an exemplary concept, even in other countries. Despite this, complaints received from soldiers show that almost 1,000 out of 4,000 (according to the 2015 report) – i.e. around 24 percent – are concerned with issues of leadership and “military order.” The White Paper for the German armed forces is currently being revised. In your opinion, should the concept of Innere Führung also be revised?

First of all, it would be a mistake to assume that the statistics you mention relate solely to events concerning the core area of Innere Führung. The fact is that the almost 1,000 cases in this category also include all investigations relating to accidents involving soldiers, problems with compensation for overtime, and issues concerning the outward appearance. The number of complaints from soldiers relating to the core area of Innere Führung stood at just under 400 in 2015.

The basic concept of Innere Führung is the requirement that every soldier should have a standard of their own for right and wrong, for good and evil. No ideology can replace our conscience, nor can any religion. That is the idea of the concept of Innere Führung – and this idea is timeless. So there is no need for a fundamental revision – also because, as it says on the very first page of the corresponding Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift), Innere Führung is subject to the need for a continual process of further development.

As a “soldiers’ advocate,” to what extent do you help soldiers with these issues?

Every soldier has the right to appeal to me individually and directly, without going through official channels. Consequently, the complaints that I receive on a daily basis cover a wide range of professional, personal, or social problems in everyday military life. They concern issues of leadership, personnel management, welfare, and increasingly the work–family balance as well. The soldier’s allegation – and incidentally they will not be disadvantaged in any way by submitting a complaint – is then examined in each case with regard to infringements of the soldier’s basic rights or violations of the principles of Innere Führung. In many cases, the end result of this process – if the soldier’s complaint was justified – is that they can be helped.

We have a female Federal Chancellor and a female defense minister, and for the last 15 years women have served in the Bundeswehr and now make up a little over ten percent of all personnel. Yet acceptance of women in the Bundeswehr is demonstrably falling. Why? More acceptance of women, family-friendliness, and compatibility with the profession – to what extent is more support required here? What form could this take?

A study published in January 2014, called Truppenbild ohne Dame, noted a “clouding of the integration climate,” and concluded that greater efforts were required to integrate women into the armed forces. It is particularly notable that in this survey, a third of the soldiers were of the opinion that the Bundeswehr lost fighting strength because of women.

This prejudice – and it is nothing other than a prejudice – needs to be combated resolutely. In particular, I do not share the reservation that women’s supposed lack of physical strength leads to a loss of combat strength in the armed forces and could have lethal consequences during deployments. In the military, physical strength alone is not the decisive factor. What also counts is the mental constitution, strong leadership, and not least technical skills.

Since the armed forces were completely opened up to women, things have changed somewhat with regard to equal opportunities, but ­women are still under-represented in many areas – especially among the combat troops and in leadership positions. To change this, there is not just one possible formula. Instead, it is necessary to think in all directions. The ability to balance family and career is an important factor in making the Bundeswehr more attractive to women. But it is also important that ­women in the armed forces should have the same career opportunities as men.

Some key initiatives in this regard have now been taken by the leadership. But we still have a long way to go. In the future, we will also need to give more attention to why so few women apply to become a longer-service professional soldier, even though they meet the relevant criteria. The difficulty of balancing family and career is no doubt an important consideration here, but the overall atmosphere and conversational tone is often still a factor, too.

The penultimate working report stated that the Bundeswehr can be an attractive employer for female soldiers of all ranks, if equal opportunities are put into practice. Have they been put into practice now? What is needed in the system?

The defense ministry has initiated some important changes in this respect. These include – to name but a few – systematic investigations of assessments and potential career barriers for women in all career and status groups, as well as agreements on objectives to identify female medical officers in senior physician roles and for their targeted assignment and further training with a view to training competitive candidates for clinical department heads. These are important approaches and they constitute the right way, but the goal is still a long way off.

For a long time, it has been an aim to increase the attractiveness of military service and improve the work–family balance. Is there a shortage of the right managerial personnel who also want and support this?

Some of the measures introduced with the attractiveness agenda serve to improve the balance between military service and family or private life. This topic is still of particular importance to soldiers, especially with regard to the difficulties associated with assignments far from home. The keyword here is “commuter army.” We should aim to ensure that career planning, including training and courses and the associated assignment orders and transfers, are more geared to the needs of the people concerned at the respective stages of their lives than has previously been the case. This requires better communication as well as greater transparency and reliability of planning.

In your view, are strict rules – such as the 41-hour week – more likely to be helpful or unhelpful when it comes to employer efficiency and employee satisfaction?

The Soldiers’ Working Time Ordinance (Soldatenarbeitszeitverordnung), which came into force on January 1, 2016, represents a cultural change for the Bundeswehr in dealing with working hours. For the first time, the normal working week for soldiers during routine duties is limited to 41 hours. However, many soldiers will have to accept that in the future, because of less overtime, their financial compensation for working more hours will be significantly reduced – e.g. because they no longer perform guard duty. The crunch is still being felt everywhere. Practice will show whether and when the goal of the new working time model is achieved to the full extent and to the soldiers’ satisfaction. At the moment, we are still struggling with many uncertainties. This is partly due to information deficits. Incidentally, the restriction on working hours will inevitably mean that more personnel are needed. Then they will have to actually be available to the Bundeswehr!

The increase in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases, the additional burden resulting from overseas deployments, but also from dealing with the refugee situation – what is your advice to soldiers, as an advocate, with regard to the work–life balance? What do soldiers simply have to put up with?

Never before has the Bundeswehr been faced with such an abundance of different tasks and missions. To meet these challenges, the armed forces need motivated soldiers who are able to work under pressure. The limit is reached when soldiers are constantly overworked. This is particularly true for assignments where there is a lack of specialists. The skills shortage especially affects the careers of non-commissioned officers in the general special service (Feldwebel des allgemeinen Fachdienstes) and specialist non-commissioned officers in technical, information technology, and medical service assignments.

States of exhaustion and burnouts among soldiers who have a particularly heavy workload are now becoming a cause for concern. We therefore need to ask whether the current number of personnel is still adequate given the Bundeswehr’s expanded range of tasks. I think the defense minister is wise to consider reviewing the personnel concept at this time. In view of the military’s task, achieving a work–life balance in the Bundeswehr is likely to remain a big challenge in the future as well.

The Bundeswehr is working on many improvements. What has improved greatly for soldiers over the last year, and what do policy-makers need to improve urgently for soldiers here in Germany, as a top priority in 2016?

As I said earlier, with regard to the balance between military service and family or private life, there have been a number of good decisions in recent years: an extension of opportunities for part-time work, longer periods of time in one post or at one location, and fewer transfers are all steps in the right direction.

Further progress has also been achieved with regard to facilities for soldiers to communicate with family, partners, and friends during deployments. There has been some improvement in dealing with PTSD, too. The topic of war injuries and trauma is also getting more public attention today. As a result, stigmatization and fear of contact have decreased. Plus there are improvements in early detection, such as screening processes. Finally, the pooling of responsibilities for military service injury compensation procedures (Wehrdienstbeschä­digungsverfahren) in the German Federal Office for Human Resource Management of the German Armed Forces (Bundesamt für das Personalmanagement der Bundeswehr, BAPersBw) has been a success: the socio-medical evaluation and the decision concerning the military service injury compensation procedure is now carried out by one authority. Yet the procedures need to finally become quicker, too.

Of course, the attractiveness of the armed ­forces also includes making sure that they are fully equipped. If you can’t do your job because the equipment you are supposed to use for training and exercises isn’t there, the job isn’t attractive. This is also a matter of health and life. If equipment for training and exercises is not available at home, this can have dangerous consequences during deployments. We need to start improving equipment and facilities now. We also urgently need to increase the number of personnel in the Bundeswehr. 185,000 soldiers are not enough, especially since there are currently only 177,000. The overworking of individual areas that are particularly in demand in the air force, the medical service,and the navy is no longer acceptable, as it harms soldiers’ motivation and unnecessarily limits German security policy options.

And, as already discussed, I am also concerned about the new Soldiers’ Working Time Ordinance. If it is to be a success, it requires a rapid reaction to known problems. Soldiers need legal certainty, confidence in their actions, and practical everyday-life solutions that actually work in their field.

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Hans-Peter Bartels has been Parliamentary Commissioner for the German Armed Forces since 2015. He studied political science, sociology, and ethnology at the Christian-Albrechts-University in Kiel and obtained his PhD in 1988. He joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1979 and has been a member of the German Bundestag since 1998 – most recently as Chairman of the Defense Committee. Bartels is also a member of the SPD’s Commission on Basic Values. 

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