The ideal minister of defence

The current minister of defence in Germany (party: CDU) is under political pressure because of a scandal that exposes at the very least poor judgment of officers who could have been expected to handle a bad apple very differently. I don't see any farther-ranging systemic issues in this particular case in the information available.

Even the (many) comments in the most CDU-friendly real newspaper's website on an article about the minister's suitability for the job are very critical of the minister, but this may have many causes (among them a certain butthurt because the minister has criticised the military).

The reasons given by commenters on why the minister is unsuitable for the job vary very much - some are about the lack of knowledge about the military before taking this office, some complain about a primacy of political career and election success over getting the military right and others about performance on the job.

I myself consider Zensursula unsuitable for every public office based on the earlier policies and politics as office as minister of family, seniors, women and youth. Yes, this is specifically about the attempt to establish an unconstitutional internet censorship. Those policies did fit very well to the generally rather anti-liberal* and undemocratic nature of the CDU.

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I like to address one particular notion that keeps resurfacing; the expectation that a minister of defence should have the background of an officer who served for years and learned to know the bureaucracy from the inside and at least some military-specific skills.

This is a rather naive idea in my opinion. The idea that such military competence enables a competent leadership is simple, enticing - and in utter disregard of the topic of preferences.

A competent leader who is good at leading doesn't necessarily produce a good outcome with his leadership.  
The question is; where does such a competent leader lead the organisation toward?

I repeatedly wrote about the principal-agent and Niskanen's budget-maximising bureaucrat. The long story short is that any military is an armed bureaucracy. An armed bureaucracy may look different from a civilian bureaucracy, but has some of the same inherent and systemic flaws. It's pursuing its self-interest and thus ends up pursuing something different than a most cost-effective delivery of the public good of security (deterrence and defence against external threats, in this case in a context of collective deterrence & defence, i.e. the NATO alliance). The pursuit of self-interests is described by the model of Niskanen's budget-maximising bureaucrat, though many more interests than budget size are in effect. The principal agent model describes that a principal (the sovereign) may task an agent (the armed bureaucracy) to act in the sovereign's place and interests, but the agent will pursue the agent's interests and needs to be controlled by the sovereign.

Now this is the very key of civilian control of the military: The sovereign (in Germany: the people) hires an agent (the minister) to do the job of controlling another of the sovereign's agents (the armed bureaucracy).

The idea that an officer who served many years inside the armed bureaucracy could do this well is naive because such an officer was indoctrinated to become part of the armed bureaucracy. Such a minister would know the bureaucracy and many of its flaws, but largely lack the motivation to reign in. To have such a minister is almost the same as giving up on the idea to hire an agent to control the other agent for the supposedly controlling agent is part of the controlled agent at least in the mindset.

An admiral as minister of defence would want to christen new warships even if there was no need for them whatsoever. A former fighter pilot as minister of defence would want new (or at least modernised) combat aircraft, even if the most pressing gap were obsolete air defences or tiny stock of munitions.

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The ideal minister of defence has tasted the military life (lieutenant of the reserves would be nice, more military background is typically disadvantageous than advantageous).

There are two ideal archetypes of ministers of defence in my opinion:

(1) The reformer
This is a captain of the ship "military bureaucracy" who changes course away from "towards bureaucratic self-interest" to "towards sovereign's interests". A majority of senior NCOs and officers above level captain or at least above level colonel will hate his policies.

(2) The administrator
This is a captain of the ship "military bureaucracy" keeps the course, convinced that the ship is on the correct course already. This kind of minister doesn't force the bureaucracy to change much (which they hate), but has to defend the course against those who want to pursue the bureaucracy's self-interest.

The other archetypes are

(III) The typical colonel or general as minister of defence keeps or sets the ship on a steady course towards pursuit of bureaucratic self-interest. It's a cold comfort that such a minister of defence may be rather good at setting and steadying the course.

(IV) The typical career politician as minister of defence controls the ship with a priority on protecting (or furthering) his career, installs other career politicians and especially some long-time loyalists in high ranking positions. Such a minister of defence may also pursue some ideological goal, be this regime change on another continent, eliminating the risk of a coup d'état, reaching a quota of 50% women and gays in the officer corps or whatever.

I understand this was a highly abstract, kind of academic style blog post that may not be to many readers' tastes. The point is that to not look at the topic from this angle does lead to a wrong conclusion. A superb general may be a terrible minister of defence just as a superb colonel may be a terrible general. The requirements for the jobs are very different. In fact, minister of defence (commander n chief in peacetime in Germany) is no extension of the military hierarchy. It needs to be first and foremost an outside office that pursues a different course than the senior officers would on their own. That's the point of having a military under civilian control.


P.S.: Yes, I know I wrote about this before, sometimes I write on the same topic a new with a different angle, different example and so on if I think the earlier attempt wasn't fully satisfactory.

*: For Americans; this is "liberal" in the original and European meaning.


  1. Most of the time i scroll past Your Political posts.

    This was one of the really good ones.

  2. Scharnhorst was an general, a radical reformer, since 1807 chief of the department of war (Kriegsdepartement - which was the ministery of defence at this time).

    And the senior NCOs and officers did not hate him, they worshipped him.

    In my opinion he is best example for what is needed for the job of the minister of defence: an general with practical experience in warfare who knows the whole army from the ground upwards and then still is an reformer when he reached high ranks.

    Therefore one (the civilian gouvernment) should look for officers which think unusual and are not indoctrinated. But today the civil politicans and the high ranking officers (which are more civil politicans than soldiers) support the complete opposite: The civil politicans especially want only yessayer without spine, without independent personality and especially without beeing free-spirited.

    Every soldier with such mannerism has no carrier and fail to reach high ranks especilly because of the to strong civilian control over the military in todays western tm societies. In my personal experience the civilians only want yessayers, which think and act like civilians and therefore promote them simply because the feel more familiar with their (civilian) thinking and can control them more.

    For an ideal minister of defence we therefore need more indipendence for the military and in the military at least some officers which are reformers which then can promote other reformist soldiers. If such an avantgarde reaches a critical mass then a real military reform can start.

    Civilans only for themselves can only fail in this.

    1. Reforms demanded or enacted by rank Colonel or higher tend to be about different doctrine or increased efficiency, not about some other things dear to me as well, such as avoiding money-wasting excess capacities.

  3. I'm curious; where would you rank the US SecDef Donald Rumsfeld in this hierarchy (based purely on his pre-Iraq decisions?)

    Although Rummy would seem to have been a natural "IV" (he was very much a career politician) as a purely administrative SecDef my recollection is that he was something of a "I"; he definitely talked about "reform", and he was at odds with the senior officer leadership early in Bush 43's term. He altered or killed several prized acquisition programs.

    But I honestly don't recall the "why", and my memory doesn't serve me well on whether he wanted to really "reform" the U.S. defense system or whether he even had a solid conception of what "reform" meant.

    1. A combination of I and IV, but no good one.
      Rumsfeld was characterised by prioritising the pursuit of an extremist agenda over his career (reelection).

      His reforms were Cold War hawkish during the 70's and under GWB oriented towards maximised suitability for great power games (regime changes in Arab world and Iran) instead of deterrence and defence.

    2. Interesting.

      No argument on his Cold Warrior thing in the Seventies.

      My take on Rummy under Dubya, tho, was that he was one of the few Bushies that really DIDN'T want to play great power games in the Middle East. I mean...he went along with it, but he was a terrible "wartime" manager, always seeming to be irritated and frustrated by the need to worry about stuff like providing an occupying army with constabulary tools rather than doing his "revolution in military affairs" high-tech thing that he seemed to be all up in when the Bush administration kicked off in 2001.

      I never really figured out whether the "RMA" was an actual thing. But Rummy seemed to think so, and as you study and understand defence policy more and better than I do I wondered if you had a better sense of it.

    3. RMA (originally a Soviet term) was many things to many people, but at its core it was about the application of guidance to many more formerly always dumb munitions. This was supported by advances in night vision tech.

      The theoretical idea that came from the technological progress was that almost everything could be detected and almost everything that was detected could be hit (defeated).

      This led to the emphasis on situational awareness (to be quicker at spotting and striking) & communication (for hunter-kill teamwork) such as in the FCS project and to a lesser degree in the Stryker brigades.

      According to RMA reasoning even the best MBT would be detected and killed, so all that heavy passive protection wasn't as good as being the first to spot & strike.

      It's a bit like the late 1930-1942 story of aircraft carriers which made battleships obsolete, and until introduction of long range air search radars the USN was convinced that spotting and striking the opposing carrier first was much more important than the carrier group's protection.