President of the Reservist Association: Are we fit for war? “None of us in Europe are ready yet”


President of the Reservist Association: Are we fit for war? “None of us in Europe are ready yet”

Mr. Sensburg, what did you think when Boris Pistorius said that the Bundeswehr must now become "war-ready"? The word war scares us all off because it is something we want to prevent with all our might. But that's exactly what it's all about: deterrence. Anyone who wants to avoid war must be able to credibly show that they would be able to wage it, endure it and win. National defense starts with the message: You better not even mess with us!

So far, defense politicians have preferred to speak of “defensive” rather than “war-ready”. We have to be aware of the threat that could await us. And what consequences it will have if we don't rethink things now. If you want to see how brutal war is, you just have to look at Ukraine. When in doubt, you kill yourself with a folding spade if you have nothing else left. It's all about this.

They think it's really good that the Defense Minister said it so clearly. The term is suitable for opening everyone's eyes to what we are actually talking about here. Yes, the danger in the room is war. Nothing else. Pistorius' choice of words was a wake-up call.

How suitable for national defense is the Bundeswehr in its current state? None of us in Europe are ready yet. Over the past 30 years, countries like Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain have also believed: Everything will be fine and we will only be surrounded by friends. Russia was at the table on important issues, and China became an increasingly important trading partner. So at some point, people thought, North Korea would just have to become nice and then the world would be good.

Now you're exaggerating. Just a bit. That was pretty much how we felt. Things were positive for a long time. First reunification, then the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. We all thought: there would never be big tank battles again. Artillery is no longer needed. We have almost completely abolished them. That left budget for other tasks. We denied that the Bundeswehr had to provide national defense: that no longer exists. That's why we no longer need such a large number of soldiers. This is how we justified the suspension of compulsory military service in 2011.

And today? “Command back” applies. We have now been focusing more on traditional national defense for some time now. This was also a consequence of the Russian attack on Crimea in 2014.

Let's go through this: When you hear that the Bundeswehr should become "war-ready", what does that mean for the reserve? It's best to start with the active reserve. These are the approximately 33,000 men and women who regularly practice at a so-called mirror site.

In other words, those who are permanently assigned to a service post as replacements for professional or temporary soldiers who would be transferred to the front in the event of an alliance. Correct. In the case of alliance defense, it would probably be about repelling a Russian attack on NATO's eastern flank. This would tie up many of the active troops, whose tasks here in Germany would then be taken over by reservists at their respective mirror posts. That would be the first wave.

But it wouldn't stop there, would it? That depends on how quickly the attack can be repelled. If too much time passes, there would certainly be a second and a third wave, yes. This would then affect everyone under 65 who was once in the Bundeswehr, from former conscripts to ex-professional soldiers - regardless of whether they had contact with the troops again afterwards.

For most of them, it must have been a long time since they had a rifle in their hands. That's why it's important for long-term sustainability that we can train people here in the country in parallel. At a certain point we would also send reservists to the front, where the war continues to rage. We see this in Ukraine, where more than 70 percent of the troops on the contact line are now reservists. In the event of an alliance, the question would also arise as to what tasks we as reservists would have to take on in homeland security.

What does that mean specifically? Homeland security is a classic task of the reserve. That was also the case during the Cold War. This is about security tasks, i.e. the protection of military and military-relevant civil infrastructure, important power plants, for example. The police can't do all of that.

And the reserve can do that? Last year we put the first homeland security regiment into service in Bavaria, and this year two more in Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. There will be six in total, each with 1,000 soldiers. It's going well so far, it's a start that we want to learn from.

How strong would the reserve realistically have to be in order to be suitable for war? Wars are started with the active troops and ended with the reserves. That's an old saying. But that still applies. Therefore, I would first like to have a sufficiently large active force that is well equipped. And I would like it to be recognized that we need a significant number of reservists to shoulder the tasks that could come our way. It is not for nothing that Israel has called up 300,000 reservists. It's not for nothing that we already have so many reservists in Ukraine. So we have to talk about numbers: in a few years we should have around 100,000 reservists practicing regularly.

That would be more than three times as many as today. Yes, but they don't all have to be in practice for several weeks every year. That's not what it is about. But I need a sufficient number of reservists, i.e. those with military training, to make them fit for deployment again in an emergency.

Isn't it unrealistic that almost 70,000 people will suddenly volunteer in the coming years? That's of course ambitious, but in the end the 100,000 won't even be enough. For a third wave we will need a lot of redeployed reservists. As a rule, they have not practiced with the Bundeswehr for a long time. The reservist association has always looked after them over the last few decades and that is now a stroke of luck. We are seeing a growing interest in engagement in the reserve. The reservist association is also currently gaining more members.

How do you explain this? With the new focus on alliance and national defense. Many who come to us say: We have never been able to really explain why the troops were in Afghanistan or Mali for so long. And they also say: Now I want to help defend my country. The usefulness of the reserve is apparently much more evident than in the two decades of the Bundeswehr as an operational army.

Given the lack of equipment among professional and temporary soldiers, it is difficult to imagine that the Bundeswehr would be well prepared for an influx of reservists. Yes, you have to be very clear about what is not going well. We also have reservists directly in the units, so no mirror positions, but rather, for example, our own reserve company in a battalion. They are closest to the active troops and would probably even go to NATO's eastern flank in the event of an alliance. However, they don't have their own equipment. They have to collect all of this and almost beg for weapons, vehicles and ammunition to practice with.

Doesn't sound particularly motivating. People come to the reserve voluntarily. And if you experience something like that again and again, you might look around somewhere else and see: At THW they have all the vehicles they need in the garage. And the volunteer fire department has real fire drills. Then some prefer to switch there.

What would have to change to prevent this from happening? We are demanding one percent of the special fund on top for the reserve. It cannot be the case that reservists are always the last to receive the new radio and warm winter equipment or ammunition for practice or that there is nothing left for them at all. If the worst came to the worst, we would be challenged in the same way. And it would also be counterproductive in terms of deterrence.

Why?You could, for example, purchase 10,000 G36 rifles for 100,000 reservists and say: Then reserve units always practice in turn and use this pool. You could think about it that way with all the equipment. But an aggressor also sees that and says to himself: Well, then the 90,000 will probably come to war without any guarantees or vehicles to defend their country. That's not a deterrent! I also have to purchase the appropriate equipment for all reserve soldiers who are to be deployed.

Patrick Sensburg, 52, sat for the CDU in the Bundestag from 2009 to 2021. The reserve colonel has been President of the Association of Reservists of the German Bundeswehr since November 2019.