Germany's military has a manpower problem, and its solution may be foreigners and teenagers
- Germany's military has struggled with equipment and manpower problems for years.
- It's taking a number of steps deal with the latter issue, including recruiting minors.
- Despite regulating what under-18 soldiers can do in uniform, the Bundeswehr is taking heat for signing them up.
Manpower in particular is a lingering issue for the Bundeswehr, which has shrunk since the end of the Cold War and further reduced after mandatory military service was ended in 2011.
From a high of 585,000 personnel in the mid-1980s, German troop levels have fallen to just under 179,000 as of mid-2018. In 2017, the Bundeswehr had 21,000 unfilled positions, and half of the force's current members are expected to retire by 2030.
In mid-2016, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the Bundeswehr had to "get away from the process of permanent shrinking." (Women weren't allowed to be in the armed services until 2000.)
Von der Leyen said she would remove the 185,000-person cap on the military and add 14,300 troops over seven years - a total that was upped to 20,000 in 2017.
One method under discussion to bring in those new personnel is recruiting citizens of other EU countries.
That approach has general support among the governing parties, though not without qualifications. Defense experts and politicians have said that any foreign recruits should be offered citizenship, lest the force become "a mercenary army."
Another strategy that has been underway for some time is the recruitment of minors. The Bundeswehr has mounted a media campaign to bring in Germans under 18.
The military's official YouTube channel has over 300,000 subscribers, and its videos have garnered nearly 150 million views.
The Bundeswehr Exclusive channel, which posts video series, has more than 330,000 subscribers, and its videos - like the six-week series called "Mali" that followed eight German soldiers stationed with a UN peacekeeping force in the West African country - have drawn more than 68 million views.
The service is also active on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, among other social-media sites. The army's recruitment spending in 2017, about $40 million, was more than double what it spent in 2011.
And since that year the service has signed up more than 10,000 minors, according to Reuters. 2017 saw a record 2,128 people under the age of 18 sign up, 9% of all recruits and an 11.4% increase over the previous year.
"I wanted to experience something and to get to know my own limits, to see how far I can go," said Marlon, who joined the Germany army a few months before he turned 18.
Because of his age, he needed his mother's permission to join, which she was happy to give. He told Reuters that she is now pleased that her formerly messy son is now more organized.
'This is not a normal profession'
After the destruction of World War II and the division of the Cold War, the military is still a controversial topic for Germans. Many are skeptical of the service, reluctant to spend more on it, and wary of overseas military operations.
The Bundeswehr still struggles with the legacy of the Nazi Wehrmacht, and instances of far-right extremism in the ranks strain civil-military relations. Some military officers wear civilian clothes to and from work to avoid the stigma attached to their duties.
There are also some Germans who don't see their country as under threat and are ambivalent about military issues.
That attitude may be changing among younger Germans.
A recent survey of 20,000 students there found that the military was the third most attractive place to work, behind the police in first place and sports brand Adidas. Marlon told Reuters that a career in uniform was much more appealing than working on a car-production line.
But the recruitment of minors has proved to be an especially contentious issue.
Some politicians and children's rights advocates have criticized the government for the approach, describing it as misleading and decrying the precedent it could set.
The record recruitment numbers indicate that von der Leyen "clearly has no scruples," Evrim Sommer, a legislator from the pacifist Left Party, said earlier this year, after requesting Bundeswehr recruitment data.
"Young people should not be used as cannon fodder in the Bundeswehr as soon as they come of age," Sommer added at the time. "As long as Germany recruits minors for military purposes, it cannot credibly criticize other countries."
Ralf Willinger from the children's rights group Terre des Hommes told Reuters this month that recruiting minors is "embarrassing and sends the wrong signal."
"It weakens the international 18-year standard, encouraging armed groups and armies from other countries to legitimate the use of minors as soldiers," he added.
Germany military officials have said their recruitment efforts are in line with international norms and stressed that they need to compete with private-sector employers to attract personnel.
The German military also has rules in place about what minors can do while in uniform. While they undergo training like adult recruits, they are not allowed to stand guard duty or take part in foreign missions, and they are only allowed to use weapons for educational purposes.
The Defense Ministry has also said that minors have the ability to end their service any time in the first six months.
To some, those stipulations don't change the fundamental nature of what the military is training minors to do.
"This is not a normal profession," said Ilka Hoffman, a board member of the GEW Union, which represents education and social workers.
"In no other profession does one learn to kill, and is one confronted with the danger of dying in war," Hoffmann added. "That is the one difference."