Morale: Collapse of Confidence in the Military


May 27, 2024: Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, American military forces have been constantly involved with other conflicts. The most recent one was in April 2024 when an Iranian missile attack on Israel was defeated, with the help of American air defense weapons and U.S. Air Force aircraft and U.S. Navy warships off the Israeli coast shooting down some of the Iranian missiles. Currently American ground, air and naval forces are working with the Philippines military to block disruptive Chinese activities in Filipino waters. Despite international agreements China signed and an international court ruling against China, the Chinese continue to insist, often with military and paramilitary forces, that the Philippines no longer has jurisdiction over portions of the South China Sea that were never controlled by China. China protests the presence of Americans and those of local allies Japan and Australia.

At the same time the United States provides financial support to pro-American forces in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.

Despite these continued successes, U.S. opinion polls indicate that 81 percent of Americans have confidence in their military. This is down from 90 percent twenty years earlier.

This decline might not seem like a big deal were it not for the fact that major U.S. allies have lower confidence ratings for local armed forces. The one exception is Britain where the confidence rating is 83 percent. In Japan, 80 percent of Japanese have confidence in their military. In Italy it’s 79 percent, Canada 78 percent, and Germany 58 percent.

The low German confidence rate is the result of two situations unique to Germany. First, there is Germany overestimating how long peace would last after the Cold War ended in 1991. The war in Ukraine caused Germany, and most Germans, to revise their defense policies. This is nothing new, the revisions began in 2016 when Germany announced that 25 years of budget and personnel reductions in the military had ended. The then current force was to be increased 7.5 percent to 199,000. Defense civilian workers increased 7.7 percent to 60,000. This was all about the growing threat of Islamic terrorism and the return of Russian aggression. All that was old was new again.

During the Cold War, the West German army was 400,000 strong, well equipped and trained to fight. There were another 250,000 troops in the communist East German armed forces. Then the Cold War ended in 1991, the two Germanys united and East German forces were disbanded with the West German military absorbing some of the East German troops and weapons. Then the united German forces began to shrink. With the Soviet Union gone, and the former Soviet allies in East Europe clamoring to join NATO, Germany no longer had any threatening neighbors. The Cold War German army of mechanized troops had lost its mission. During the next 25 years German armed forces were reduced over 70 percent from their combined 1991 strength of 650,000 to 185,000. Earlier in 2016 Germany announced it would increase its defense budget to $41 billion, which is what it was in 2011.

All this came after 2011 when major changes were implemented for the armed forces. The main change was that the armed forces went all- volunteer with the end of conscription. That caused the armed forces to shrink from 220,000 to 185,000 troops. In 2011 about 22 percent of the troops were conscripts, in service for only six months, although many could, and did, volunteer to stay in for up to 23 months. The number of civilians working for the armed forces also shrank from 75,000 to 56,000. The number of staff at the Defense ministry shrank from 3,500 to 2,000. This was a big change from what had been going on for half a century. With the end of conscription Germany managed to find enough effective troops for peacekeeping and special operations, but not much more. The generals had long asked for an all-volunteer force but for a long time the politicians, and public opinion, were opposed to this. The reality was not what everyone expected. The all-volunteer force had no shortage of volunteers for peacekeeping duty, even in dangerous areas, but it was soon discovered that with a purely volunteer force it was very difficult to obtain all the troops needed for tech jobs. This was mainly because there is high demand for these people outside the military where the money was better and the working environment safer.

There were other changes. In 2002 German troops saw combat again in Afghanistan, for the first time in nearly 60 years. German troops have been in Afghanistan since 2002. Over 5,000 have served there, mainly as peacekeepers. But one percent of the German troops serving in Afghanistan were killed there.

The 2011 plan was to create an army of peacekeepers. Well, only 5-10,000 of them were involved in peacekeeping at any one time. Not only was the army smaller, but it had older equipment, and less of it. Not much purchasing of new equipment after 1991 and much of what was bought was to support peacekeeping missions. The peacekeepers, particularly in Afghanistan, were given more modern gear and the expense of this was another reason for shrinking the size of armed forces. The reduced budget meant there was not enough for maintaining existing equipment or updating it. By 2022 it was embarrassing when warships could not go to sea, or combat aircraft fly, or for armored vehicles to move under their own power, all for lack of maintenance and spare parts, let alone updates.

The 2016 upgrades were made to deal with a return of Russian aggression. In early 2022 the Russian aggression returned with an invasion of Ukraine. That prompted Germany to allegedly plan to upgrade its army to combat status and be capable of winning in combat.

The German voters and population in general indicated they supported these changes. Opinion surveys in the years before the Ukraine invasion showed that nearly 70 percent of Germans wanted American nuclear weapons withdrawn from Germany. These were in Germany to discourage an aggressive Russia from making convincing nuclear threats against Germany. By 2020 the threat of Russian aggression was not convincing enough to change German attitudes towards American nukes, but it did permit claiming to “sometime soon” spend money to put their military back in shape to fight and win. German attitudes towards nuclear power were shutting down German nuclear power plants with the power now supplied by Russian natural gas imports. This approach failed when the gas was no longer available because Germany could not support the Russian military by purchasing Russian natural gas. That decision became final in September 2022 when someone destroyed the two natural gas pipelines from Russia. No one took credit for the attack and speculation continues about who it was and why they did it. German public opinion soon changed about keeping nuclear power plants operational, because without them there would be insufficient electricity to keep the entire economy going and heat homes and businesses during winter.

While Germans were divided about nuclear energy, 72 percent backed remaining a NATO member. This might bring back American nuclear weapons, which Germans supported when an aggressive Russia threatened to use theirs. Now, most Germans supported military readiness even if it meant a much larger defense budget.

In late 2022, when it became clear that the war in Ukraine might last for years, Germans accepted the fact that this war, the first since World War II when major powers armed with similar weapons fought each other, had changed the nature and degree of Russia’s threat to Germany. The Ukrainians were doing the fighting, but mainly with modern weapons provided by NATO countries. Russia invaded to stop Ukraine from joining NATO. The Ukrainians halted the Russians and within a year were on the offensive themselves, armed with NATO weapons. This effort assures Ukraine NATO membership once the war is over. Once in NATO, another Russian invasion would face soldiers from many NATO members fighting alongside troops from fellow NATO member Ukraine.

The Ukrainians had been improving their armed forces since 2012, two years before Russia seized Crimea and portions of two provinces in eastern Ukraine. East European NATO members agreed with the Ukrainian warning that a lot of Russian aggression was coming. After 2014 many NATO members agreed to support Ukrainian efforts to upgrade their armed forces. By late 2021 there were signs that Russia was planning on a larger war. Germany and the other original NATO members in Western Europe were dubious but the more recent East European NATO members agreed with the Ukrainians that Russian aggression was coming. Germany was sufficiently alarmed to repeat planning for acceleration the upgrading of their armed forces. Most Germans agreed with this alarming assessment and their fears became reality when the Russians invaded in February 2022.

While Germany pretended to accelerate upgrading its own military, most Germans agreed that the Russian invasion indicated a major change in attitudes towards military preparedness and the risks of another major war on the scale of the two World Wars. The Ukraine War provides useful practical advice on how such a war would be fought. It would be more violent and create more costs and casualties than most people believed likely. Many more people died in the World Wars than anyone expected, and Ukraine is demonstrating that that the situation has not changed and that losses are even higher because of the more effective modern weapons. Now it is easier for NATO militaries to ask for expensive new weapons, like F-35 aircraft and replacing unguided rockets and shells with more expensive guided ones.

As the Ukraine War has demonstrated, using more guided weapons wins battle more often and more quickly. While most Germans would prefer that the situation had revealed a need for more military spending and preparations for a war everyone hoped would never come, history reveals a less optimistic assessment. Throughout history, major wars have started when one side came to believe that they were better prepared than their potential opponent and could win a quick and inexpensive victory. It rarely, i.e. almost never, works out that way. The victims of such optimistic aggression turn out to be quite formidable themselves after the initial surprise. The problem is that these lessons, or reality checks, have a short shelf life. National leaders forget and eventually stumble into another war their wiser predecessors would have avoided. One thing Germany learned after a century of their own military catastrophes is that going to war is a bad thing, unless you have no choice because you were attacked.




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