Early next year, Germany is scheduled to take over the leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF).
The VJTF is a 5,000 strong force set up by NATO in 2014 to bolster the defenses of the Baltic States in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
Not only is the force based on deterrence. Speed is supposed to be one of its big advantages. The aim is to mobilize some of the forces within 48 hours.
Under German command, which takes over the force in 2019, that’s certainly not going to happen. This is because Germany’s armed forces are in such bad shape that its soldiers lack basic equipment such as protective vests and winter clothing. They don’t even have enough mobile accommodation units for the VJTF. The Bundeswehr promised to make over 10,000 available. Currently it only has 2,500.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to a report recently published by Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces. “The army’s readiness to deploy has not improved in recent years but instead has got even worse,” Bartels said. “At the end of the year, six out of six submarines were not in use. At times, not one of the fourteen Airbus A-400M could fly,” he added, referring to aircraft specifically designed to transport troops and military equipment.
Just to add to this catalogue of woes, the Bundeswehr has only nine operational Leopard 2 tanks, well short of the 44 needed for the VJTF. Forget about having fourteen Marder armored infantry vehicles. There’s only three to hand.
As for the Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets and the CH-53 transport helicopters, they can only be used on average four months a year. They are in constant need of repair. And by the way, there’s a shortage of spare parts for maintenance. Just to add to the miserable state of the armed forces, the troops lack night-vision equipment and automatic grenade launchers.
This sorry state of affairs is actually a recurrent one that raises serious problems about the ability of the Bundeswehr to modernize the armed forces. It also raises many questions about Germany’s commitment to pull its weight in NATO and EU missions, as if the defense ministry wasn’t aware of these shortcomings.
Back in 2014, a year after Ursula von der Leyen became defense minister, the armed forces were lacking such essential equipment that the aircraft that was supposed to take 150 German soldiers home from Afghanistan broke down. There wasn’t a back-up one available. That same year, at one stage during a NATO exercise, because they lacked machine guns, tank commanders instead used broomsticks. They had them painted black. This was not a joke.
There are any number of reasons behind the poor state of Germany’s armed forces.
One easy explanation is that the Bundeswehr has been subject to stringent cuts over the past two decades. But that’s hardly the real reason. After all, Germany spent €37 billion on defense in 2017. That’s about 1.2 percent of gross domestic product. Even though it’s well short of NATO’s 2 percent goal, the fact that the country spends so much money must say something about how that budget is allocated. Bartels’s report refers to very high maintenance costs but also the lack of focus on priorities and inadequate leadership.
Then there is the issue of political culture. Ever since the end of World War II, Germany has adopted a non-militarist foreign policy. While it has joined NATO missions in Afghanistan and EU missions, the armed forces were subject to many caveats that placed restrictions on their movements. These are about avoiding casualties. The caveats were also about Germany’s reluctance to embrace any kind of hard power.
Yet even the country’s soft power is open to question, judging from the fact that the armed forces lack basic soft power equipment such as the heavy transport aircraft to transport humanitarian relief supplies and accommodation units.
In short, for all the talk about Germany taking more responsibility and pledging to pursue a more active foreign policy, it lacks the basic tools and credibility to deliver on any of these proclamations.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who rarely talks about defense, or NATO, or security issues, intends to keep von der Leyen as defense minister.
In her second stint as minister, von der Leyen has one last chance to modernize Germany’s armed forces. So far, she has tried to shake up the procurement procedures in order to create more competition and transparency. She has tried also to change the command structures and professionalize an army that abolished military conscription in 2011. But the Bundeswehr is still plagued by poor planning, argued Bartels.
The defense ministry has tried to play down these serious shortfalls, especially Germany’s contribution to the VJTF: “the Bundeswehr is ready and able to fulfill its commitments,” Jens Flosdorff, defense spokesman said. The missing items, he added, “are being procured.” Then it will be bye-bye to the broomsticks.