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Does Germany still need conscription?

The German military faces increasing demands on its professional soldiers, not short-term drafted troops.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg shakes the hand of a member of the guard of honor during a welcome ceremony for his Spanish counterpart Carme Chacon in Berlin on Dec. 15, 2009. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — Germany's military has long struggled with a contradiction at the core of its identity: It is asked by the country's political class to serve in far-off countries alongside the professional soldiers of allied nations, but its institutional core is that of a conscripted infantry designed to protect the homeland from Soviet attacks.

Now the German government has taken a step toward bridging the gap between country's old military structures and new international responsibilities. Starting this fall, the duration of mandatory conscription will be reduced from nine months to six months. Many Germans are hoping that change will serve as a way station on the path toward eliminating conscription altogether, and finally modernizing the military into a capable, professional force.

Germany's parliamentary commissioner for the military, Reinhold Robbe, has accused the government of neglecting the transition required of the military's identity. The Defense Ministry still largely thinks in terms of obsolete Cold War-era strategy, he told parliament in early March. That has left the military under-resourced and under-prepared for its current missions. "The military leadership hasn't yet arrived at the realities of an army in combat," Robbe told lawmakers, "and continues to fail the troops in providing everything that's needed for them to fulfill their missions."

Mandatory military conscription, he implied, is one of the military's obsolete structures. When the Bundeswehr, Germany's post-war military, was first formed in 1955, its foremost mission was to protect the homeland from a possible land invasion by the Soviet Red Army. That's why Germany's military strategists wanted to have hundreds of thousands of conscripted infantry on hand.

Today, of course, Germany is surrounded by allied countries: All of its neighbors, aside from Switzerland, are members of NATO. A land invasion is unimaginable.

But Germany's military forces are more active than ever before. Currently, German soldiers are serving in Afghanistan, off the coasts of Lebanon and Somalia, in Sudan, in Kosovo and in Bosnia.

What the military needs for those missions isn't countless low-skilled infantry (who are, in any case, prohibited from serving abroad during their mandatory service), but specialized military professionals — soldiers who have studied counterinsurgency, who have put in the time to become experts in other cultures, or who have mastered complex technological weaponry. Not only does conscription fail to advance those aims, government studies have shown that the training programs for the 40,000 military conscripts every year use up resources that are desperately needed in the Bundeswehr's foreign missions.