I remember, back in the 90's I claimed to friends that the Bundeswehr could safely reduce to 200,000 personnel and we would be just as safe as we were with about 300,000. Some ridiculed me, which I never fully understood.
Later on, we were at about 250,000 and I claimed that we could make do without conscription and go down to 150,000 ... same result.
Conscription hasn't been active since 2011 and we're at 177,000 personnel now and still perfectly safe. In fact, just about every serving insider I spoke to during the last years confirmed that most likely we could get rid of thousands of personnel (mostly officers) in high level staffs and would be strengthened by such a move, so most likely we could make do with 170,000 without even losing any power.
|Personnel strength of the Bundeswehr 1959-2010|
This is the only diagram I found about the development of the personnel strength. keep in mind that 1/4 of Germany was fielding a second military until 1990 and the quantity of civilians employed by the ministry of defence has shrunk as well. Outsourcing on the other hand has grown. Personnel strengths have dropped post-2010 due to the end of conscription.
Do I advocate a smaller Bundeswehr?
Well, I see very little actual defence value in the German navy, for sure! I suppose the navy could be reduced by about 1/5th, with about 1/4th of the ships in mothball rotation. This way we would have three crews for each four ships, with a 4th crew consisting of reserves, to be ready for action within a few months. Knowing the Bundeswehr, the biggest risk of this would be that the 4th unit would likely be cannibalised for spare parts and thus impossible to reactivate quickly. On the other hand, there's hardly any serious opportunity to claim that NATO needs the German navy for maritime superiority about even the rest of the world. A cut of naval strength across the board, across NATO, would be irrelevant for actual collective defence and deterrence. Navies are hardly of any relevance for the only not totally unlikely defence scenario; a defence of the Baltic members.
The German air force (about 28k personnel) has its issues, I suppose it over-emphasizes combat aircraft. That's typical of seemingly all Western air forces, since without good reason combat pilots who gather hardly any experience in leadership or administration rise through the ranks the fastest among air forces' officer corps. Air defence is atrophying (especially since the stupid slow MEADS project that cannot possibly be cost-efficient at the planned quantities) and a second strike leg in form of guided ballistic missiles isn't even only under development. Instead, overpriced air-launched cruise missile missions get crammed into the scarce aircraft sorties, with a questionable focus on the destruction of stationary hard targets. So I wouldn't say that the German air force should have less personnel, but sure it should have different priorities.
Finally, the army (I will omit the Streitkräftebasis, the support armed service, for want of knowledge about it. Seriously, it's quite a blind spot of mine especially since I left service before it was established).
I suppose we're doing the army business completely wrong, and current developments aren't pointing the right way either. I'm convinced that as a NATO and EU member not at the (relevant) frontier, but very close to it, we should have an army that can deploy quickly (days) and in force by road march. It should also be able to double its strength within less than two years. It's primitive and stupid to ask us to forward deploy forces into the Baltic countries. That's what people who repeat formulas instead of thinking themselves ask(ed) us to do, and the same kind of people agreed to it. We're by geography the country that should focus on quick deployment by road, not by deployment by air, not predeployment, not deployment by sea, not deployment by rail.
Well, how much personnel would one fine army corps require?
There used to be the term of "divisional slice", that is the army strength divided by the quantity of its full active division (or equivalents thereof). The divisional slice used to be at 50,000 personnel for personnel-inefficient forces, and rather 40,000 with complex and more well-run ones. Sadly, this is utterly useless in this case, for even if I assumed a two-division corps strength I could simply not tell how large the army should be since so many of the support troops who used to be part of a such a divisional slice are now in the Streitkräftebasis. I can't tell how big a portion of the latter serves the army. I can only guess that a two-division equivalent army corps (enough to take on about half of the Russian army in Europe) would produce an estimate of 80,000-90,000 army personnel. This might fit into a 150,000 personnel military considering the relatively small size of air force and navy personnel demands, but maybe it would end up at 170,000 if much of the Streitkräftebasis could be allotted to navy and air force.
On top of that I would recommend a parallel reservist force with basic (~infantry) training and junior NCO training tasks only. This could replace the basic training organisation, but would be bigger than that.
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I think we COULD safely reduce the military power of Germany (spending, personnel strength) by much without adding any risk to German sovereignty. At the same time I don't think we SHOULD do so. Germany is a relatively rich European country, has a relatively competent military and is relatively close to the most relevant frontier for collective defence. It's only suitable from a European solidarity point of view to demand that the largest European country with such advantageous conditions does more than the bare egoistic minimum.
At the same time I have absolutely no difficulty considering substantial parts of our military spending to be wasted and irrelevant for actual (collective) defence or deterrence - especially for operations outside of Europe (including dedicated equipment for such missions), for the navy and for stupid programs like MEADS.
I've recently seen a call for a political rally against militarism. Such political views of radical anti-military sentiment and radical pacifism exist, but I don't share them. I'm a moderate pacifist - against beginning or joining wars, but fine with (collective) deterrence and self-defence.
A problem is that many people say "defense", but think "military", thus I often write "actual defence" on this blog. Another problem is that many people don't think or don't pay attention to facts and judge that we're too weak, not spending enough or not numerous enough against a particular threat - when in reality it's the opposite situation. In reality, NATO could spend much less and have much less personnel across the board and then on top of that demilitarize both North American NATO members entirely ... and Europe would still be safe, still be superior militarily to the sum of all of its neighbours. But nowadays it's not only the aggregated nominal strengths that matter, but also their timeliness. Germany is in a unique location in this regard, so this is a strong argument for air and particularly land forces that can become effective at the frontier almost as quick as the Polish ones. Again, I see no real case supporting even only the mere existence of the German navy.