Germany's Disarmed Forces Ramshackle Military at Odds with Global Aspirations
Germany wants to strengthen its role in international affairs. But recent reports suggest the country's weapons systems are in such disrepair that Berlin actually has very little to offer its partners.
Last week, a single person pushed Germany's air force to the very limits of its capacities: Ursula von der Leyen, the country's defense minister. Von der Leyen requested that two Transall military transport aircraft with missile defense systems be transferred to Amman, the Jordanian capital. The defense minister and a pool of reporters then flew for eight hours on Thursday morning in one of the aircraft to Erbil in Iraq's Kurdish region. Back in Germany, the military had but a single additional Transall at its disposal.
After her arrival in Erbil, von der Leyen proceeded to the palace of the Kurdish regional government's president. Her visit was to be concurrent with the delivery of German weapons, intended to aid the Kurds in their fight against Islamic State jihadists. Unfortunately, the machine guns and bazookas got stuck in Germany and the trainers in Bulgaria because of a dearth of available aircraft. One had been grounded because of a massive fuel leak. What could have been a shining moment for the minister instead turned into an embarrassing failure underscoring the miserable state of many of the Bundeswehr's most important weapons systems.
No other member of the government has been pushing as hard for Germany to increase its role abroad since taking office last year than von der Leyen. From the very start of her term, she has sought to distance herself from the "military reserve" preached by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and by former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. It is an approach which most notoriously manifested itself in Germany's abstention during the UN vote to conduct air strikes against Libya in 2011. At the Munich Security Conference in January, von der Leyen even proclaimed that "indifference is not an option for a country like Germany."
In recent weeks, von der Leyen has made it clear that Germany also has an obligation to intervene militarily if the threat of genocide exists somewhere. "Germany is even damned to take accept greater responsibility," she said, alluding to the country's difficult history. Von der Leyen wants to transform the Bundeswehr, the country's armed forces, into an intervention army capable of mastering deployments like those in Kosovo or Afghanistan. But the idea of deterrence based on powerful combat units and heavy weapons has also gained currency as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.
Little to Offer in Berlin
Against that backdrop and pressure from the international community, the ramshackle state of the Bundeswehr is no laughing matter in Berlin. At the moment, if Germany's allies were to ask it to step up its participation in deployments in the Baltic states or Iraq, for example, Chancellor Merkel would likely have to politely pass, creating a highly embarrassing situation for the country. For the moment, though, most pressure related to the Bundeswehr's ailments has been directed at von der Leyen. Her critics argue that she has pursued a foreign and security policy vision that goes beyond the Bundeswehr's actual capabilities. Now she faces additional criticism that she tried to play down the military's problems to members of parliament even though senior officials in her ministry were well aware of major shortcomings in the armed forces.
"Contrary to her own list of needed equipment, she created the impression in parliament that anything that could drive, fly or float was capable of full deployment," said Rainer Arnold, the defense policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). "But we members of parliament will not be taken for idiots."
The defense minister hasn't exactly been blind-sided by the criticism either -- she's known about the problems since before entering office almost a year ago. On Friday, she summoned the heads of the German army, navy and air force as well as the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr to her office for five hours of questioning, much of it centering on events in parliament last Wednesday.
In a hearing of the defense committee, the Bundeswehr General Inspector and other senior representatives of the military and the defense ministry presented the state of affairs to members of parliament. The committee had sought additional information after SPIEGEL reported in August about major deficiencies in the operational capability of important German weapons systems. On Wednesday, members of the committee reviewed a paper that provided a color-coded green, yellow and red classifications based on an assessment of the operational capability of the 22 main weapons systems used by the army, navy and air force.
It appears that the paper included a considerable amount of misleading information and that the military might even be in worse shape than that presented by the officials.
High-ranking military officials involved had the option of giving a seemingly arbitrary green, yellow or red classification for systems for which their unit had responsibility. Germany's lone deployable submarine (of four) received a yellow rating. Seventy of the country's 180 Boxer armored combat vehicles were deemed unfit for deployment. Defense Ministry sources also told SPIEGEL that Bundeswehr General Inspector Volker Wieker even made last-minute changes to the color codes on some of the systems. Meanwhile, air force chief Karl Müllner made clear in remarks to members of the committee that, despite green dots signifying equipment was working, his forces were only capable of conducting current missions and did not have the capacity for any new ones. Officials at the ministry stated that the "classification system used is based on a combination of availability for deployment and training as well as consideration for the ability to fulfill the mission."
But some of the criteria seemed arbitrary, with no apparent rules on the time frames used for measuring the weapons systems' operational readiness. A good example is the NH90 helicopter. The report measured the operational capability for these aircraft during the months of April, May and June, a time when most were still flying. A current list from sources close to the manufacturer indicate that all but two of 33 helicopters have since been grounded.
The situation is similar with the navy's Sealynx helicopter, of which only four can apparently fly. In order to improve the aircraft's ranking in the overview, the period used for the averaging was October 2013 through September 2014. However, by the end of June, all of the aircraft had been grounded because of construction defects.
Bundeswehr - Operational Capability of Select Weapons Systems
|Weapons System||Total Number||Available||Deployable|
|Sea King helicopter||21||15||3|
|Sea Lynx helicopter||22||18||4|
|Eurofighter fighter jet||109||74||42|
|Tornado fighter jet||89||66||38|
Total stock = all procured units
Available = in operation, including systems currently out of service because of maintenance or repair
Deployable = can be used immediately for missions, exercises or training
*includes pre-production models
Source: Bundeswehr German Armed Forces
It's an assessment not shared by parliamentarians. "We called on the ministry to tell us how this list came to be and the criteria used to produce it," said Tobias Lindner, a fiscal policy expert with the Green Party.
Under the Gun
The minister herself is also reported to be upset about the report, sentiment she shared with the generals reporting to her last Friday. The inspectors were forced to report directly to von der Leyen about their weapons systems and will now be required to appear before the defense minister once every two weeks. She is also demanding that they explain how they reached their conclusions about the operational capability of the weapons systems in question.
The Bundeswehr's general inspector showed von der Leyen the report for parliament before last Wednesday's hearing, but the condition of weapons systems shouldn't have come as a surprise to senior Defense Ministry officials. Heads of the ministry had been alerted to the many problems in a memo dating August 12 that also included a copy of the internal air force report. Ultimately, those figures were not used in the report given to parliament, and critics argue the Defense Ministry should have provided more differentiated information to the elected officials.
In that August letter, officials in the Defense Ministry blamed the bottlenecks on repair times that had been delayed despite commitments to complete them and on the inability to find replacement parts for outdated weapons systems. One inspector even admitted to parliament's defense committee that he assumed the situation would continue for another "two or three years".
- Part 1: Ramshackle Military at Odds with Global Aspirations
- Part 2: Mishaps Mar German Military Operations