World of Trouble: Conscription on the Table as European Militaries Dwindle

05 December 2023, Romania, Constanta: A Bundeswehr soldier stands in front of a defense sy
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The British Army is now the smallest it has been in 200 years, as more defence personnel continue to leave than join, while in Germany the military recruitment crisis is so acute the defence minister speaks of bringing back conscription.

The number of serving personnel in the British armed forces including all three services and the reserves fell by a further 3.9 per cent to just 184,865 this year. Of those, just 75,983 are regular soldiers.

Some 16,260 people left the armed forces in the past year: subtracting new recruitment the net loss of troops was 7,440 personnel.

According to an analysis by British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, this fall means the British Army is now at the smallest size in 200 years, no mean feat given the population of Britain in 1820 was only a little over 20 million souls, while it rapidly approaches 70 million today.

Recruitment is a long-term issue for the British military, with deteriorating pay and conditions, and even quality of life issues like a sustained loss of traditions in recent decades running down the factors that help bring in new troops and retain them. But the United Kingdom is not unique in these challenges in Europe, and Germany continues to struggle with armed forces that lack in both manpower and capability.

Speaking to the national newspaper of record Die Welt at the weekend, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said that while the government was working on plans to stabilise the armed forces through a series of changes, if these measures failed ultimately there are other options on the table to make sure the military doesn’t collapse for want of soldiers. When asked if one of those options is compulsory service, Pistorius said he is considering “all options”, calling the decision to suspend conscription in 2011 “a mistake”.

While conscription is still provided for in the German constitution and is legal — the system was simply but into abeyance in 2011 — Pistorius acknowledged restarting it would be politically difficult now, and that any such move couldn’t go ahead without broad political support.

“That’s why I’m looking at other models, such as the Swedish one”, Pistorius told the newspaper. In Sweden, while all young people are eligible for conscription, only a few thousand a year — men and women — are actually called up.

Speaking to Welt, Pistorius identified other issues, among them the looming possibility of the attention of the United States — provider of the vast military umbrella that has protected Europe for decades — wandering from Europe to the Asia-Pacific. He said: “We are aware that sooner or later we would probably have to compensate for one thing or another that might no longer come from Washington. Theoretically, there could also be areas that we could not easily compensate for immediately.

“…it will take time for the defense industry to ramp up its capacity. We now have about five to eight years in which we have to catch up – both in the armed forces, in industry, and in society. Putin is currently increasing Russia’s arms production significantly. According to the Duma decision, an increase of more than 60 percent.

“At the same time, his threats against the Baltic states, Georgia and Moldova must be taken very seriously. This isn’t just saber rattling. Dangers could lie ahead at the end of this decade. But by then we will be prepared for it.”

Some have called this German assessment of Russia’s readiness and willingness to pursue war further into Europe optimistic, with Poland on NATO’s eastern flank warning that NATO should be ready to fight in three years, not ten. Political scientist and co-founder of the Warsaw Security Forum Professor Katarzyna Pisarska warned last week that the old world of “this lifestyle, the focus on the welfare state, on prosperity under the American protective umbrella” is “over” and the continent should urgently prepare to fight for its life.

Europe is “entering an era of wars”, the Professor prognosticated, and was likely to be able to count less and less and American support as it did so. She said: “For many younger Americans, including a generation of politicians, Europe is little more than an open-air museum. You feel and are actually closer to Asia and the Pacific region. China is the biggest geopolitical threat for them.

“…The USA is changing, demographically. There has been hardly any immigration from Europe for many decades, but from Asia and of course Latin America. This also changes the priorities of politics.”

Professor Pisarska said adjusting to these changes would require considerable political support and a change of mindset in some of Europe’s richest nations, Germany first among them, but the response to defence minister Pistorius’s comments on conscription demonstrates the parties of Germany are not interested in war talk. As reported, his own political party responded to the interview with alarm, with parliamentary colleague Sönke Rix saying coercion couldn’t be the answer to military procurement, remarking that:

“The commitment of young people must continue to be voluntary. Forcing young people to do compulsory service, whether in the Bundeswehr or in the social sector, would be the wrong approach.”

Government coalition partner the Free Democrats (liberal, FDP) also reacted negatively, with party defence spokesman Alexander Müller calling the idea an “enormous encroachment on civil liberties that is disproportionate to the threat to Germany”.

While recruitment and capability are not new problems for European militaries these issues have been thrown into the spotlight by Russia’s invasions and occupation of Ukraine and Georgia. While Putin’s appetite for risk is impossible to judge, there is clear concern inside NATO that a successful military operation against Kyiv could embolden the Kremlin to try its hand elsewhere.

In its frequent appeals for military, materiel, and financial assistance Ukraine has frequently made this point, that by underwriting their armed forces the West can forestall the possibility of having to fight a war agianst Russia on its own territory. These warnings are clearly heeded by those nations closest to Russia — like Poland — more keenly than elsewhere, but the advent of the Hamas-Israel war has turned heads, with Ukrainian President Zelensky complaining in recent weeks the deliveries of munitions to his armed forces from the West have flatlined since the Hamas attack.


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