Too Many Missions, Too Little Money Germany's Army Feels the Pinch

With deployments in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Africa and now the Middle East, Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, is fast becoming the global service provider for German foreign policy. But the force is insufficiently prepared for its new tasks and, as it is about to embark to Lebanon on its next foreign mission, remains underfunded and poorly equipped.

By and Alexander Szandar

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is here to send a message. After climbing on board, she now stands in the brisk morning wind on the deck of the frigate "Saxony" to address a group of sailors. It makes for good TV imagery on Thursday evening, imagery dominated by a chancellor who clearly has a special place in her heart for Germany's troops. Why else would Merkel be paying a visit to the German navy at its base in the Baltic seaport of Warnemünde?

After Merkel had spoken with the Lebanese prime minister by telephone the day before, it now seems clear that a German naval fleet will sail for Lebanon in the next few days. About 1,800 soldiers from the German air force and navy will likely take part in the mission, provided the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, approves the measure this week, as it is expected to do. Here in Warnemünde, Merkel tells the assembled sailors that she is confident that "the navy is prepared to assume responsibility."

Out at sea the navy was showing off the capabilities of two of its speedboats, the "Zobel" and the "Frettchen." One of the two craft shot magnesium flares into the air to demonstrate the navy's latest method of distracting enemy rockets. Germany has promised to send three or four of these boats to Lebanon as part of the United Nations peacekeeping contingent being assembled there.

It's a daring promise on Germany's part, given the problems the boats have experienced on previous missions in the Mediterranean. At high speeds, the crafts' ribs broke in the Mediterranean's heavy swells. Since then, the ships are no longer permitted to travel with full fuel tanks and have been forced to reduce their weapons payloads while in the region. Higher water temperatures have wreaked havoc on cooling systems for the vessels' electronic systems and diesel engines, forcing the speedboats to travel at reduced speeds.

The journey to the Levantine coast will be a long one. Because the boats cannot be operated without their full 34-man crews, they'll be forced to put in to port every two days. The trip for these so-called "speedboats" will be everything but speedy and will take an estimated two weeks. But no one is likely to care much about the delay, because these are not the types of ships that will be needed for one of the peacekeeping force's key tasks in Lebanon, which is to search other vessels. The rocket launcher on the afterdeck takes up so much space that there is no room for a rubber dinghy that would enable the German sailors to board a suspicious ship. The two frigates' "Sea Lynx" helicopters, which will also be redeployed to the eastern Mediterranean in the coming days, will handle the task instead. But even these helicopters are not designed for such use and will have to make two flights to carry a complete twelve-member search and inspection team.

The equipment difficulties the Lebanon mission highlights are symptomatic of the Bundeswehr's overall condition and of the fact that Germany's armed forces have not been properly equipped for their changing duties for some time now. This chronically underfunded, poorly outfitted and physically exhausted force is now embarking on a new foreign mission, with ten others already underway.

German troops are helping secure the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, are stationed in Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan, are patrolling the Horn of Africa and serving as military observers in Georgia and in the border region between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Sixteen years after the end of the Cold War, the German government is increasingly using the armed forces as a global service provider for Berlin's foreign policy. Germans themselves are reluctantly getting used to the fact that their reunified country is now also assuming the military role of a medium-sized power.

But the demand for the Bundeswehr has grown faster than its capabilities. While countries like Australia, France and Great Britain have increased their military spending in recent years, Germany's defense budget has declined almost continuously since reunification. "Germany is among the countries that spends a relatively small percentage of its budget on defense," says the chancellor, succinctly summing up the problem.

Indeed, Germany spends just over one percent of its gross domestic product of about €2 trillion on defense, which puts it at the tail end of NATO countries in terms of military spending. Although the Bundeswehr's €24 billion budget will increase by €480 million next year, its own costs will rise by €300 million as a result of the increase in the value-added tax later this year that has already been approved by the Bundestag.

The defense minister is virtually the only prominent politician willing to stand up for the Bundeswehr. "Many members of parliament have lost interest in the Bundeswehr," says former Defense Minister and Social Democrat Hans Apel. "Supporting the military does nothing for their careers."

Despite its growing importance internationally, the German military continues to play the role of a stepchild in German domestic politics. Despite opinion polls that show the armed forces, together with the Federal Constitutional Court and the police, enjoying the highest level of public confidence among all government institutions, this hasn't convinced politicians to open the national pocketbook when it comes to military spending. Besides, two-thirds of German citizens say that Germany has plenty of problems of its own that should be addressed before turning to problems in other countries.

This apathy within the public and the legislature means that experts are the only ones who are currently addressing key defense issues. How big should the country's armed forces be? Is compulsory military service still appropriate today? Which of Germany's national interests urgently require the deployment of its armed forces? What should the army of the future look like?

The last of these questions has been systematically ignored for years. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's last defense minister, Volker Rühe, dragged his feet when it came to transforming the Bundeswehr into an intervention force, because he wanted to avoid the domestic political controversy he feared such a change would trigger. Only his successors, Rudolf Scharping and Peter Struck, both Social Democrats, launched the overdue reforms starting in 1998.

Germany's security "also needs to be defended in the Hindukush," said Struck. "Our field of operations is the whole world." Struck envisioned the new intervention force replacing the old Bundeswehr, which was still designed to repel the powerful armies of the former Soviet bloc, by 2010.

The current defense minister, Franz Josef Jung, continues to stand by his predecessor's goal. In the draft version of his new "White Paper on Germany's Security Policy," Jung, a Christian Democrat, proposes a rigorous restructuring and re-equipping of the military to suit its "more likely tasks" -- international crisis control instead of tank battles on the northern German plains.


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