A visit to Germany’s military history museum in Dresden reveals just how deeply ambivalent modern Germany is about its military, the Bundeswehr. One account described it as “a meditation on mankind’s addiction to state violence.” No wonder that Germany—despite being Europe’s most populous and wealthiest country—has continuously cut the size of the Bundeswehr since the end of the Cold War. While much of that was warranted, given the disappearance of the Soviet threat, today’s Bundeswehr is not only a fraction of its former self (and half the size of the French military), but also apparently in a state of disrepair, according to an independent review of the Bundeswehr’s combat readiness last September.
Hence, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Moscow to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his aggression in Ukraine, she did so without the benefit of military power to back her efforts. Instead, German diplomats have sought to use Germany’s economic power as leverage to shape Russia’s behavior. Far better, they argue, to avoid competing with Russia on military terms, in which Germany is weak and Russia holds “escalation dominance.” But economic power clearly has its limits, as Russia has yet to end its intervention in eastern Ukraine. That has led even those Germans who have long been sympathetic to Moscow to consider whether there has been a fundamental shift in Russian posture—one that might require Germany to address through a stronger defense. For the first time in decades, Bundestag legislators have begun to discuss the need to strengthen the Bundeswehr.
But what kind of Bundeswehr is needed? Surely, it must be one that is consistent with Germany’s vision of itself, if Germans are ever to embrace it. It should be tailored for a mission that most German citizens can agree is in Germany’s national interest, such as the security of Central Europe. It should also be one that can meaningfully contribute to NATO’s collective defense, but does not put its neighbors ill at ease. As such, one could envision a Bundeswehr that is designed—through its armaments and force structure—to be fundamentally defensive, yet still beneficial to NATO.
From the way the German army chose to pare back its equipment after the Cold War, it is clear that its leaders sought to preserve as much of the combat capabilities of its heavy armored units as possible. But by 2010 that was no longer possible, as the numbers of its main battle tanks (MBT) and armored infantry fighting vehicles (AIFV) plunged. Rather than rebuild its army on a foundation of MBTs, Germany could equip it with more defensive weapon systems, like AIFVs that are fitted with long-range anti-tank missiles. Such systems wound provide an effective defense against armor without having the offensive strength of MBTs.
Meanwhile, the German navy could focus its attention on the defensive mission to protect NATO’s sea lines of communication to the alliance’s Baltic member states. Given the maritime environment of the Baltic Sea, that mission would primarily entail coastal diesel-electric submarines, corvettes, and minesweepers, rather than larger oceangoing combatants. As a corollary to that mission, the German navy could contribute to NATO’s ability to send reinforcements to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with landing ship tanks (LSTs). Finally, the German air force could focus its resources on filling an air-superiority role (which it apparently already has begun to do), rather than a more offensive ground-support role. Such an air force would have the added benefit of being able to enforce future defensive no-fly zones.
Even so, if the Bundeswehr is to be seen as non-threatening to its neighbors, one must also consider its force structure. The Bundeswehr should be appropriately sized relative to those of its neighbors, France and Poland—small enough that they would not find it menacing, but large enough that, when combined with the capabilities of other NATO countries, it would be useful to fend off a foreign threat to the alliance.
Within those criteria, one could envision an expanded German army that includes two armored brigades equipped with Leopard 2A7 MBTs and six mechanized brigades equipped with a new generation of missile-armed Marder AIFVs. When operating alongside Poland’s heavily armored units (which include 900 MBTs), the German force could help respond to any aggression from the east. Similarly, a German navy equipped with 12 coastal diesel-electric submarines, 12 corvettes, and 36 minesweepers could help NATO keep its sea lines of communication open to its Baltic member states. Moreover, the navy could help NATO develop a credible sealift capability with 12 LSTs that could transport relief forces and supplies to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Finally, the German air force—if equipped with 240 air-superiority fighters (a mix of European-built Eurofighters and American-built F-22 fighters)—could help ensure that NATO controls the skies over Central Europe.
Such a Bundeswehr would be a largely defensive force, essentially incapable of offensive action without the support of its NATO allies. But it would be one that could make a meaningful contribution to the security of Central Europe and the integrity of the NATO alliance. Of course, this sort of transformation would not be costless. It will consume every bit of the military spending increase that Germany promised its NATO allies in the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration. But in making that investment, Berlin could create a force that is worthy of praise from its allies and, perhaps, Germans too.
 “Consultants list Bundeswehr blunders,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 6, 2014, https://dw.de/p/1DR9m; “Merkel peeks over Bundeswehr shortfall parapet,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 3, 2014, https://dw.de/p/1DPdX; “A German army museum reopens,” Economist, Oct. 15, 2011.
 Anton Troianovski, “Ukraine Crisis Spurs Calls in Germany to Reverse Years of Trimming Army,” Wall Street Journal, Mar. 9, 2015, p. A10.