The West German Cabinet performed its annual ritual last week meeting at the Defense Ministry on the suburban Hardt Hill overlooking Bonn. But after listening to the nation's top soldiers report that the Bundeswehr (armed forces) will be unable to fulfill its assigned tasks in the 1990s on the present budget, the Cabinet still adjourned without giving the armed forces any more money.
The Cabinet promised noncommittally to look at the issue again in December. But the center-right government has made a point of honor of its tight fiscal policy, and chances still look slim that it will loose the purse strings for defense.
If not, points out one military planner, the 1988 defense budget - for the first time since West Germany began fielding an Army three decades ago - will fall below three percent of gross national product. This is the level that Bonn always argued is the dividing line between those European countries (like West Germany) that are serious about defense and those (like Denmark) that aren't.
What the currently projected drop in military spending would mean concretely, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports the generals as having told their political bosses, is that the Army would be able to equip only six divisions and not the planned twelve between now and the end of the century. This would seriously degrade NATO's defense capability, since the West German divisions constitute the backbone of the alliance's front-line defense.
The official stressed two conspicuous ironies in the present state of affairs. The first is that despite years of polemical charges by conservatives that the Social Democrats are soft on defense, it is a conservative government that would be letting the commitment drop below the danger point, and well below the funding of past Social-Democratic governments.
The second, related irony is that Washington, which regularly reproached West German governments in the early 1980s for slacking off in defense, scarcely seems to have noticed the present decline.