by Michael Trinkwalder
In its current state, the German Armed Forces, or the Bundeswehr, are neither “structurally capable nor equipped” for the military defence of the NATO alliance. This is the damning verdict of the former German Parliamentary Commissioner of the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels. In recent years, stories about the Bundeswehr’s poor level of readiness have become an all too familiar tale, with at times none of the country’s submarines being operational or Germany having only enough ammunition to arm just four of its Eurofighter aircraft, to name just some of the more egregious examples. Consequently, the current state of the German Armed Forces has not unjustifiably been characterised as “nothing flies, nothing floats, and nothing runs.” What is to blame for the embarrassing state of the German Bundeswehr?
A Funding Problem or an Efficiency Problem?
Internationally, coverage of this issue has mostly focused on Germany’s continued failure to reach the NATO military spending target of two per cent (as measured against the country’s GDP) – and the severe strain this has put on the German-American relationship. However, with the help of COVID-19, Germany’s 2020 defense budget of about €50.4 billion ($55,43 billion) is set to rise to 1.58 percent of its GDP. Even back in 2019 at just 1.36 percent of its GDP, Germany’s military budget exceeded that of every single member of NATO except the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet, for instance, France maintains a larger military, with thousands of troops deployed abroad, a nuclear strike force, etc. – with a defence budget that was €3 billion ($3.5 billion) lower than the German one. So, why does the German military get so little value for its money?
Accordingly, the German military does not just have a funding problem, it has an efficiency problem, with defense reforms and their lack of political direction often being the source rather than the remedy of the Bundeswehr’s problems. Since virtually all of these reforms were aimed at saving cost, with little thought being directed towards the retention of conventional warfighting capabilities. Thus, after reunification, military functions were privatised, conscription was suspended and the Bundeswehr was gradually reduced to its current strength of fewer than 185,000 soldiers. The German military went from being solely focused on territorial and alliance defence towards an almost exclusive focus on out-of-area missions in Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq, or Syria. Arguably, it was only the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s increasingly belligerent behavior that prevented further cuts. Additionally, the post of the Minister of Defense is infamous for being a graveyard for promising political careers. Indeed, in the last two decades, only a single defense minister has managed to spend more than a single term on the aptly named ‘ejection seat.’ Therefore, those opposed to change could simply wait-out any serious reform attempt.
Bureaucracy Strangling Everything and Everyone?
However, Germany’s military efficiency problem goes beyond half-baked reforms or a frequently changing political leadership. In his recent reports to parliament, Commissioner Bartels blames a culture of overregulation within the Bundeswehr for smothering “everything and everyone” in thousands of self-imposed regulations and rules. It is not as if armament projects of other militaries weren’t also prone to delays and cost overruns, but in Germany the Bundeswehr’s culture of overregulation is compounded by a lack of qualified personnel in its procurement agency the BAAINBw.
As a result, virtually none of Germany’s military lighthouse projects, like the armored personnel carrier Puma, the A400M transport aircraft, or the F125 frigates were completed in time or on budget. Even routine repairs and maintenance is often impossible due to a lack of stored spare parts and the byzantine procurement process. Leading to serious technical problems down the line and forcing soldiers to cannibalize other weapon systems for parts. In fact, the Ministry of Defense estimates that it will take until 2031 to fully equip all of its soldiers – a prediction that is already looking increasingly shaky. Particularly, since the Bundeswehr might be heading for a new round of major budget cuts – courtesy of the COVID-19 recession.
Cause for Optimism?
Nonetheless, there is some reason for optimism, in April a new law went into effect aimed at facilitating the procurement of new equipment. The current Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been unwavering in her calls for Germany to meet the two per cent spending commitment – even if only by the year 2031. Arguably just as important is her announcement of a major upcoming reform of military procurement and maintenance that could among other things decentralize parts of the procurement process and return certain maintenance and repair capacities to the different armed services. Additionally, the German military has also distinguished itself in the current health crisis, which could spare the Bundeswehr from bearing the brunt of the coming COVID-19 budget bust-up.
Because of the lengthy time-frame of its military reforms, the German military will have to tackle its efficiency as well as its spending problem simultaneously. Considering, Trump’s plans to withdraw almost 10,000 soldiers from the country, Berlin better figure out how fast. Germany and NATO can no longer afford a Bundeswehr that is at best only capable of “conditional operationality.”
Disclaimer: The author was a civilian employee of the German Armed Forces. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the German Armed Forces, the German Government, or the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Michael Trinkwalder is the 2020 Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Europe Fellow; he is a Research Assistant at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where he focuses on EU-NATO cooperation, defense innovation, and the implications of the rise of China. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from the KU Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and a B.A. in International Business Studies from the FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg. You can follow him on Twitter: @m_trinkwalder