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Germany Seeks to Make Military Service Attractive

Germany’s defense minister plans to equip the country’s newly all-volunteer military with better childcare, more attractive barracks and Internet access – giving it a face-lift as it competes with business for new recruits in a humming economy.

Ursula von der Leyen, who became Germany’s first female defense minister in December and is widely considered a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, on Wednesday set out plans to put 100 million euros ($136 million) over the next five years into dusting off the Bundeswehr’s starchy image.

German solidier Tim Grunewald plays with one year old Carl at the army child-care of the Theodor-Kaerner-Kaserne, barracks, in Lueneburg.( AP Photo/dpa/Philipp Schulze)

They include more daycare facilities for children, new furniture and Internet access for all in military barracks, more flexible working hours for some, extra computers and easing the practice of regularly moving servicepeople.

Germany abandoned conscription in 2011, a relative latecomer to a trend in Europe toward largely professional armies. The military needs to aim for about 60,000 young applicants a year, von der Leyen said.

“We want the best,” she said. “People who are young and qualified have a multitude of offers today … and they choose the employer who, among other things, makes the most interesting offers.”

Unemployment in Germany stands at 6.6 percent – far below double-digit rates in many other European nations.

The push comes as other allied countries are facing the opposite problem. The U.S., for example, is in the process of cutting tens of thousands of troops from its military with the winding-down of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Von der Leyen’s so-called “attractiveness offensive” has received a mixed reception.

Retired Gen. Harald Kujat, once Germany’s top military officer and chairman of the NATO Military Committee, said the plans appeared to have been “drawn up by people who don’t know the Bundeswehr” and argued that modernizing Germany’s military equipment is more urgent.

“Rather than kindergartens, it would much more helpful to a soldier’s family if they knew that everything is being done for his safety in deployment,” Kujat told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Von der Leyen sharply dismissed that criticism. It’s right for Germany to invest billions in good equipment, she said, “but is that a reason not to think about at least investing millions in the people who have to operate this highly complex equipment?”

Von der Leyen inherited a long-term military reform plan that will see the military comprised of 170,000 full-time professionals and up to 15,000 short-term volunteers, better-adapted to deployments in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Africa rather than the earlier priority of defending West Germany on the Cold War front line.

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