German soldiers no longer scare

Once Europe’s strongest military power, Germany is no longer prepared to fight.

F or some time now – and even more so as the conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria worsened – both NATO and the United States have been dissatisfied with Germany’s reluctance to take on a greater share of military responsibility. Yet there are no precise guidelines on “how our security and defence policies should be implemented,” according to one German veteran.

This failure to come up with clear objectives has in some instances – like Afghanistan – forced German soldiers to run for cover, when they found themselves under-equipped to carry out tactical maneuvers.

And the reluctance can be partially explained by recent history, though another factor is politicians’ fear of losing votes should they prove too hawkish.

The only ones who don’t seem to have any qualms are the Greens, who backed the arms consignment to the Kurdish Peshmerga and voted to green light United Nations military operations against Islamic State (IS) terrorists.

Yet there has been a change of step, albeit a small one. Last February at the annual Munich Security Conference, Germany’s head of state Joachim Gauck warned his country not to shirk away from responsibility. Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, voiced similar views and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Christian Democrat, called for a more sprightly and interventionist Bundeswehr (German armed forces).

Following the barrage of front-page headlines that the Bundeswehr has made, the road ahead looks pretty bumpy. In an extended article published just before the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, the German weekly Der Spiegel outlined the progressive cuts in defence funding: this year’s budget dropped by €400 million to €32.8 billion while further cuts will lower the maximum expenditure ceiling to €32.1 billion by the end of 2016.

This was soon followed by the news, released by the Green Party, that over the last three years the Defence Department has spent €3 billion less than its budget. “This partially explains the reason for these budget cuts,” says Harald Kujat, former Bundeswehr inspector general and chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 2002 to 2005. “We continue to rely completely on NATO, rather than actively contributing to security and safety, at least where Europe is concerned.”

This lethargy is deplorable, especially given that there are, in fact, defence policy guidelines (Verteidigungspolitische Richtlinien) outlining the duties of the German armed forces, as Kujat points out. The document states that the Bundeswehr must be able to face conflicts of different scope and intensity “so that Germany may be in a position to make an adequate political and military contribution in accordance ... with its economic and political role.”

The security policy calls into question the armament policy. Which leads to the next sore spot: much of Germany’s military equipment is showing advanced signs of fatigue and thus cannot be deployed.

In a recent report, the Bundeswehr itself admitted that only 42 of its 109 Eurofighters are combat ready, and only 24 out of 56 Transall C- 160 aircraft carriers and no more than three of its 24 Sea King helicopters are fit for operations. And the list doesn’t stop there.

At about the same time, the World Bank reported that in 2013 Germany invested 1.3% of its GDP on defence as opposed to 2.5% in 1990 (that figure should climb back up to 2% according to an agreement signed in Wales).

In 2012, there were 186,450 German soldiers, compared to the 545,000 serving in 1990. “We must remember that there’s been no compulsory draft since 1 July 2011, but at present there’s no lack of military personnel,” Kujat adds. “Though there could be in the future, if there continues to be no real strategy, and if wages become less competitive with respect to other professions.” As a matter of fact, Ursula von der Leyen singled out the competition problem from her first day in office, and has promised “to turn the military into one of the most desirable employers in the country.”

Minister von der Leyen doesn’t want to hear talk of disengagement. She emphasises that 3,400 German soldiers are currently involved in 17 foreign missions. Although she does admit that she’s inherited a number of problems: not just worn equipment but also serious delays in the delivery of previously ordered material.

The most glaring example is the delivery of A400M transport planes, slated for 2007: so far none have arrived. The delays are often caused by German suppliers and are, therefore, even more surprising considering that Germany, with a 7% share, ranks third in global exports.

The arms industry even calls to task Germany’s head of industry. In a speech held in early autumn at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the country’s network for foreign policy, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, tried to take a broader view. The future objective, he believes, must be the creation of a European Union army, which means that each nation must increasingly focus on its own Kernfähigkeiten, or “core skills.” There’s no point in Germany producing airplanes – the days of the glorious Messerschmitt are long gone – if its strength lies in submarines.

But even this change of perspective reiterates the need for a clear defence and security strategy. Minister von der Leyen admitted as much at the beginning of November when she ordered a new white paper on national security and the future of the Bundeswehr. A revision she hopes to complete within the next two years. 

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