Illustration: Pete Reynolds / DER SPIEGEL

The Bad News Bundeswehr An Examination of the Truly Dire State of Germany's Military

Last February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the country was going to invest substantially in its military. But not much has happened since then. And now Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has been replaced. DER SPIEGEL takes a closer look at what is ailing the Bundeswehr.

Shortly after this story went to print, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht submitted her resignation. It was announced on Tuesday that she will be replaced by Boris Pistorius, a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democrats (SPD) who is moving to Berlin from Lower Saxony, where he was the state's interior minister.

The winter fog clings cold and wet to the hills of the Hunsrück range in southwestern Germany. In the industrial park of Simmern, a right turn leads past a couple of DIY stores and a supermarket, before the destination appears out of the milky-white soup: a large, gray warehouse no different from hundreds of others in Germany.

This is the place that the German defense minister has chosen, on this Saint Nicholas Day, to prove that the massive investment in the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, announced  by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has – thanks to her assistance – finally found its way to the troops. At least it has here, in the Bundeswehr’s center for uniform and clothing needs in Simmern.

DER SPIEGEL 3/2023

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 3/2023 (January 14th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Inside the heated warehouse, a couple of men and women in brand-new combat uniforms are sitting around a table killing time. The soldiers are to be the extras for the minister’s appearance, but Christine Lambrecht is running late. The weather, after all, is atrocious.

Finally, though, she arrives, followed by a large retinue of security officials and staff members. For the next two hours, she has to demonstrate – or at least feign – interest in all kinds of specialty apparel items, from armored base layers to parade-uniform trousers. It’s all part of the show that is planned for the day.

Eventually, she has managed to get through all the PowerPoint presentations, the tour through the warehouse, the discussions with the men and women in their new combat uniforms. Now, it is time for Lambrecht to go before the cameras and finally do what she came to do. Shower herself with praise.

Lambrecht, a member of Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), says that she was responsible, back in April, for getting the Budget Committee in the German parliament, the Bundestag, to earmark 2.4 billion euros for personal protective gear. As a result, she says, it will be possible by the end of 2025 to equip every soldier with new helmets and armored combat vests along with protective clothing for cold and wet conditions. Six years earlier than first planned.

"They are impressive numbers," she says. "I am fully convinced by the impressive equipment, and when I asked the soldiers about it, they used words like 'milestone' and 'quantum leap.'" It is a master class in self-praise. Lambrecht answers a couple of questions before then heading back to Berlin. Mission accomplished.

But the minister left one tiny detail unmentioned. Almost everything presented to her on this Saint Nicholas Day in Simmern was not ordered by her, but by her predecessor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The goods from her own 2.4-billion-euro request, a handful of exceptions aside, won’t be arriving for several months yet, or even years.

A war is raging in Europe and the evening talk shows on Russian state television include "experts" fantasizing about nuclear attacks on European capitals. The Russia policy Germany followed for the last several decades is in shambles and European security architecture for the foreseeable future will have to be designed to oppose Russia and not to include it.

Consequently, NATO’s defensive capabilities are no longer theoretical, they are badly needed – and the German defense minister is spending her time with a field trip to the hills of Hunsrück to witness the arrival of a new series of backpacks that were ordered long before she took over the defense portfolio. Never mind the fact that the new helmets have been delayed because the producer is having trouble with its helmet presses. But she decides to let that detail go unmentioned.

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht

Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht

Foto: Ulrich Baumgarten / picture alliance

A lot has happened in Germany since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The government has shattered a taboo of German postwar policy and delivered heavy weapons to the war zone in Ukraine, even if hesitantly. In just a few months, Berlin has performed the unthinkable, reducing the country’s natural gas imports from Russia to zero following decades of dependence – without destroying the country’s economy.

In June, the Bundestag passed a 100-billion-euro special fund for the German military, and in December the Budget Committee released the first 13 billion from that fund for eight defense projects, including the new F-35 combat aircraft. "It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy," the chancellor said in his February address to the nation.

Scholz also formulated his political expectations: "The goal is a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us." The question is: How much progress has been made on fulfilling that pledge. Since then, after all, the Defense Ministry has been producing little in the way of announcements about restructuring and reform, instead landing on the front pages due to gaffes and catastrophic shortcomings.

One example: The commander of the 10th Tank Division reported to his superiors that during an exercise with 18 Puma infantry fighting vehicles, all 18 of them broke down. It was a worrisome incident given that the ultra-modern weapons systems are a key component of the NATO rapid-reaction force. There is a lack of munitions and equipment – and arms deliveries to Ukraine have only worsened the situation. "The cupboards are almost bare," said Alfons Mais, inspector general of the German army, at the beginning of the war. André Wüstner, head of the German Bundeswehr Association, seconds him: "We continue to be in free fall."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting the troops in October 2022

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting the troops in October 2022

Foto: Fabian Bimmer / REUTERS

The situation is so bad that the German military has become a favorite punchline of late-night comedy shows. And that even before Christine Lambrecht’s embarrassing New Year’s video, in which she discusses – against a background of exploding fireworks – how the war in Ukraine has translated into numerous encounters for her with "interesting and wonderful people."

The German military, to be sure, is no stranger to mockery and ridicule, but it hasn’t been this bad in a long time. It is an accurate reflection of reality? Would the Bundeswehr be effective should the need arise? And if not, what must be done to fix the problem? First and foremost: Who is responsible for the abysmal state of the country’s military?


The Missions

Twice a year, the inspector general of the Bundeswehr, the country’s highest ranking commissioned officer, reports to the Bundestag on the German military’s operational readiness. His report is classified, but that doesn’t mean much. Almost as soon as it is delivered to parliament, it begins making the rounds in the German capital.

In December, Inspector General Eberhard Zorn delivered his most recent report. The 24 pages are full of traffic light symbols indicating for the first time not just the military’s material situation, but also whether there are sufficient numbers of fully trained soldiers available to fulfill specific missions.

On the first pages, there is a lot of green. Mali, Kosovo, the various naval missions in the Mediterranean Sea – it’s all green. When it comes to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), there won’t be a German ship available for a few months. But by spring, everything will be back to normal.

Next on the list is the NATO battle group in Lithuania, which has been boosted to over 1,000 soldiers for the foreseeable future in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For personnel, the traffic light is green, as is the case for training and leadership. But when it comes to equipment, it’s yellow. According to the accompanying explanation, the army is currently unable to send artillery units to Lithuania. The Bundeswehr has for years suffered from a shortage of artillery, a problem made worse by arms deliveries to Ukraine. It will take several years for this deficit to be eliminated.

Anti-aircraft defense is likewise deficient due to parallel commitments to the NATO rapid reaction force. "After the cessation of the multinational contribution, this will lead to a qualified shortage of corresponding organic capabilities starting in quarter I of 2023," the report reads, in a fine example of military bureaucratese.

German troops in Lithuania

German troops in Lithuania

Foto: Michael Kappeler / dpa

The Battle Group’s leadership capabilities "in association with our multinational partners are limited, primarily due to the lack of modern and interoperable radio equipment."

In other words, Germany’s military continues to be reliant on analog radios, communications that can be easily intercepted, for one. For another, they are incompatible with the modern devices used by soldiers from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Norway, all of whom are part of the unit Germany leads.

The situation is no better when it comes to those units that have been committed to NATO, though not yet called upon, for specific tasks – such as the NATO rapid reaction force.

Soldiers securing an Airbus A400M flight carrying Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from Bamako to Gao in Mali in April 2022

Soldiers securing an Airbus A400M flight carrying Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from Bamako to Gao in Mali in April 2022

Foto: Kay Nietfeld / dpa

With almost 17,000 men and women, Germany this year is supplying the greatest number of troops to the alliance’s strategic reserve. And here, there is plenty of yellow to be seen in the report, along with the occasional bit of red. Beyond the navy, almost every other area of the German military – from the air force and special forces to cyber defense and operational readiness – is well short of being fully prepared.

The problems start with transportation, a key capability given that, in an emergency, troop units must be quickly relocated. The fact that the Bundeswehr lacks logistics capabilities has been clear for some time, but the alternative looks no better. "Relying on civilian support when it comes to container transportation is not currently possible," the report notes, because "no offer from a commercial service provider" has been received.

Because important IT projects, such as mobile computing centers and IT units, have run into delays, the report notes, the military’s leadership ability can only be guaranteed by falling back on "old systems." In doing so, however, only "minimal demands" are fulfilled. The report also notes that the Bundeswehr exhibits "severe capability deficits" in air defense, the air force lacks armaments for its warplanes, and anti-aircraft units lack guided missiles.

"Operational readiness to fulfill duties currently assigned is assured, with some limitations."

Eberhard Zorn, inspector general of the Bundeswehr

The navy has insufficient stocks of reserve and replacement parts, while the medical services "are not able to muster sufficient supplies of bandages and medications for military operations," due to delivery bottlenecks from suppliers. The Bundeswehr, in other words, doesn’t even have enough Band-aids.

To avoid any misunderstanding, the inspector general’s report does not address the state of the Bundeswehr in its entirety. It only refers to the over 20,000 men and women who are currently committed to missions and reserve units for NATO, the European Union and the United Nations. The report’s concluding verdict only applies to that group: "Operational readiness to fulfill duties currently assigned is assured, with some limitations."

How, then, must things look for the rest of the German military? For the 163,000 soldiers who are not currently assigned to a specific mission? There is no comparable report for this group, but there are plenty of indications – such as the operational readiness of the military’s most important weapons systems. Precise numbers are classified, but when it comes to the Bundeswehr, not much actually remains secret.

Decommissioned Marder infantry fighting vehicles

Decommissioned Marder infantry fighting vehicles

Foto: Thomas Peter / REUTERS

Of the various helicopter models belonging to the navy, just 30 percent at most were available in mid-November, as were a third of the military’s ancient Tornado fighter jets and just over half of its Marder infantry fighting vehicles. Only half of the CH-53 heavy transport helicopters, also ancient, are operational. Just a shade more than half of the Bundeswehr’s Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled guns are available, two thirds of its frigates and half of its submarines.

The numbers are confusing because the Bundeswehr doesn’t measure the operational readiness of various weapons systems relative to the numbers it has on its books, but relative to the "available inventory." That number is always much lower given that a significant number of vehicles and weapons systems are, at any given time, undergoing refurbishment. For example, the books show that the Bundeswehr possesses more than 300 Leopard 2 battle tanks. Around two-thirds of them are "available," but of that number, just 60 percent – around 130 – are operational.

Because functional weapons systems tend to be prioritized for operational commitments, it’s not hard to guess at how bleak the situation must be for the vast remainder of the military. The inspector general’s report hints in that direction.

"To fulfil the Bundeswehr’s core mission, the defense of the country and the alliance, operational readiness must be reestablished for the entire military," the report reads. "In particular, the lack of necessary material (for example modern heavy equipment, command and control equipment, munitions and replacement parts) must be addressed." Weapons deliveries to Ukraine have also left their mark. "In addition to the delivery of heavy equipment, the continual outward flow of replacement parts and munitions has reached a relevant magnitude."

And pressure is rising. Germany has committed to making 30,000 men and women available to NATO by 2025, and not just for a limited time, but permanently. And that number is set to rise in 2026. That, though, presupposes that they are fully equipped, the report notes, because units that are fully equipped and staffed are immediately available. "The ability to react quickly is key to the alliance’s credible deterrence," the report notes.


The Money

To become fully equipped, of course, the military is going to need quite a bit of money. The 100 billion euros from the special fund won’t be enough. For the Bundeswehr’s "capability profile" – which is still in effect despite being four years old – to be fully implemented, three times as much money would be necessary.

"For the long-term adaptation and comprehensive modernization of the military," a rising defense budget is necessary, the inspector general’s report notes. But it doesn’t look as though he’s going to get his wish. The coalition government’s financial plan for the next four years calls for the Defense Ministry’s budget to be frozen at 50.1 billion euros.

In the February speech in which he announced the 100-billion-euro special fund for the military, the chancellor announced: "We will now – year after year – invest more than 2 percent of our gross domestic product in our defense," as targeted by NATO. Until the end of the current legislative period, however, the gap between the money earmarked for the Defense Ministry by the government’s financial plan and the 2-percent target is to be plugged by the special military fund.

According to a forecast by the German Economic Institute, Germany will fall 10 billion euros short of the 2-percent target by 2026 – and by just short of 40 billion euros the following year.

And it’s not even certain that NATO’s defense spending target will remain at 2 percent. Given the Russian threat, some Eastern European member states are insisting that alliance members raise defense spending to 3 percent of their gross domestic product.

There are a number of indications that NATO is planning this year to turn the 2-percent mark from a target to a minimum. Germany, which sees itself as a leader on security policy, would find itself in a position of having to prove its intent by adequately funding its military.

A boost to the Defense Ministry budget would only be politically palatable, however, if it can be guaranteed that the extra billions for the Bundeswehr would not simply trickle away like water in the desert. And for that, the military would have to be fundamentally reformed, a project that Minister Christine Lambrecht has shown no interest in – even if she bears little responsibility for the predicament in which the Bundeswehr currently finds itself.


The Culprits

The search for the politicians responsible for today's mess quickly leads to two Lambrecht's predecessors, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Thomas de Maizière of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) respectively. Why? The reforms pursued by the two former defense ministers, both of whom were installed by Chancellor Angela Merkel during her long tenure at the top, broke the back of the Bundeswehr. That, at least, is the assessment of most military officers who witnessed the drama at the time. Indeed, compared to Guttenberg and de Maizière, their verdict of Lambrecht's direct predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, is almost favorable.

When Guttenberg, a once high-flyer in the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to the Christian Democratic Union, became defense minister in October 2009, traditional national and alliance defense had long since ceased to be a primary focus. With the Soviet Union having collapsed, Russia no longer seemed to pose a threat. The only decisive factor for the Bundeswehr at that point were foreign missions, such as those in Kosovo and Afghanistan. These also served as the parameters for equipping the Bundeswehr.

It was the period following the international financial crisis and Berlin needed to save money where it could. At a cabinet meeting, Guttenberg offered to squeeze 8.3 billion euros out of the defense budget over the next four years. The savings target was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he gleefully announced. To this day, the Bundeswehr still hasn't recovered from that blow.

Former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg standing in front of a German air force Eurofighter jet in August 2010

Former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg standing in front of a German air force Eurofighter jet in August 2010

Foto: Xaver Habermeier / Bundeswehr

The minister appointed a reform commission that recommended shrinking the Bundeswehr to 180,000 soldiers and ending Germany's compulsory military service. Although he did manage to implement the second recommendation, there wasn't time left for the first: Guttenberg was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had copied significant passages of his doctoral thesis without citing his sources.

It was left to De Maizière to complete what his predecessor had set in motion. Within the Bundeswehr leadership, many believe to this day that his reforms were the nail in the military’s coffin. De Maizière reduced the armed forces to a kind of modular kit from which contingents for foreign missions were thrown together from various units.

Divisions, brigades and battalions remained in existence on paper, but they were equipped with only a fraction of the necessary materiel, which in turn became increasingly obsolete due to budgetary constraints. The units that were scheduled for deployment had to scrounge up equipment from the entire Bundeswehr. "Width before depth" was the new motto, and the shuffling back and forth of the few tanks and howitzers was celebrated as "dynamic availability management."

He also rebuilt the lines of responsibility at the Defense Ministry, with disastrous consequences. Previously, there had been two central controlling bodies in the Defense Ministry. The Armed Forces Staff reviewed whether or not the ministry’s guidance served to improve or maintain the readiness of the armed forces. And the Inspector General's Staff served as the key military advisory body to the defense minster.

The political counterpart was the Planning Staff, which former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had introduced back in 1969 when he was defense minister. The Planning Staff was designed to steer the huge military apparatus politically and, not unlike a mine-sniffing dog, detect conflicts early and, if possible, defuse them.

Former Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière visiting the air force in May 2011 just after taking office

Former Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière visiting the air force in May 2011 just after taking office

Foto: Bernd Wüstneck / dpa

De Maizière abolished both staffs. Since then, the Defense Ministry has effectively been incapable of leadership. Germany is likely the only country in the world with a military that isn’t led by a general staff or a comparable military body. Should a crisis arise, officials would first have to call around to determine who was going to take charge.

The inspectors were ousted from the ministry and shunted off to the commands of the individual branches of the armed forces. And even there, they no longer have much of a say – not even over the use of their unit’s equipment. That responsibility lies with the Bundeswehr's procurement authority in the city of Koblenz. When the chancellor decides to contribute a Patriot anti-aircraft battery to Ukraine, the air force inspector is lucky if he doesn't find out about it from the newspapers. He and his counterparts in other branches of the military are anyway rarely asked for their advice, unless they thrust themselves into the debate.

To the outside world, the inspector general is still the face of the force, but in reality, his domain only includes three of the ministry's 10 departments. The other seven report to the two state secretaries, who are career officials and not political appointees. As a result, there are now at least three centers of power inside the Defense Ministry, each of which is primarily interested in warding off encroachments from the others. A joint management body worthy of the name does not exist.

That means that when the personnel department, which report's to Lambrecht's State Secretary Margaretha Sudhof, issues a new personnel directive to the Bundeswehr, the news may only reach the inspector general by chance. And this despite the fact that his are is directly affected.

This permanent power struggle has paralyzed the ministry. Because the individual areas are blocking each other, new special staffs are constantly being created at the periphery. They are supposed to solve what the apparatus is no longer capable of doing. In reality, though, they merely serve to exacerbate the ministry's dysfunctionality, which increases with each new parallel body. The ministry long ago stretched beyond its target size of 2,500 employees. Well over 3,000 people now work in the bloated ministry.

Among de Maizière's legacies are the Bundeswehr's three monster agencies: one for personnel, one for procurement and one for infrastructure, environmental protection and services. Taken together, many thousands of civil servants and soldiers there are busy harassing the troops with a tightly meshed network of absurd regulations.

The grain-size for sand in shooting ranges is specified, for example, while limits for the exposure to gunshot gas in the combat compartment of infantry fighting vehicles are bickered over so that the threat of "amniotic fluid damage to the female Puma crew" can be strictly ruled out.

Regulators require that gangways on new warships must be as wide as those on civilian ships. Now, you can walk past each other with "two walkers without any problems," as one naval officer scoffs. Meanwhile, though, the Bundeswehr is no more combat ready than it used to be. On the contrary.

The armed forces have lost their core competence over the years as they have become completely bureaucratized: combat. Within the administration, combat isn't even a relevant category – except, that is, when it comes to dealing with the next closest department.

The administration thinks in terms of processes, not results. The most important thing is that decisions be made in accordance with the rules. Every civil servant knows that mistakes can slow down a career and that a project well done doesn't necessarily guarantee further advancement. Instead, risks are eliminated to the degree possible. And time plays no role in the equation.

This combination of regulatory frenzy coupled with risk aversion is stifling the Bundeswehr. Systematically, responsibility has been shifted from the bottom up to anonymous large-scale authorities. In the past, it was up to a battalion to decide who would be promoted to lance corporal. Today it is the Personnel Office of the Bundeswehr that makes that decision.


The Restructuring

Because the ministry is preoccupied with itself and the minister is showing no interest in far-reaching reforms, Bundeswehr staff are now setting about the work themselves. Air Force Inspector Ingo Gerhartz travels regularly to the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and Infrastructure in Koblenz, also referred to as the procurement office, to get things rolling. His colleague Thomas Daum at Cyber Command has slimmed down his staff by one level, and Navy Chief Jan Kaack wants to ensure that his force will soon be able to assume a leading role in the Baltic Sea. But the biggest challenge is faced by Alfons Mais, the inspector of the army.

In recent months, the lieutenant general and former helicopter pilot has been charged with reinforcing NATO's eastern flank. At the same time, though, he has had to hand over howitzers and rocket launchers from his own stocks to Ukraine.

As a department head in the Defense Ministry at the time, he had to endure the reforms pushed through by Guttenberg, which were then continued by de Maizière. He still remembers how the politicians assured each other at the time that Europe was now "surrounded only by friends." National and alliance defense no longer played a role. In the new Bundeswehr world of the two ministers, the force was two provide two infantry units of battalion strength, plus support forces for foreign missions. And that was it.

Alfons Mais, the inspector of the German army, with Defense Minister Lambrecht

Alfons Mais, the inspector of the German army, with Defense Minister Lambrecht

Foto: Philipp Schulze / dpa

Storing ammunition on a large scale for these mini missions was too expensive, so the Bundeswehr, like industry, relied on a "just-in-time" delivery system and closed down several storage depots without further ado. Mais is still suffering the consequences today.

The three German divisions and the eight brigades beneath them "are not immediately deployable" as large units for national and alliance defense – none of them – Mais wrote in a confidential strategy paper in the autumn.

Mais likes to compare the troops to the fire department, which deploys immediately when the alarm is raised. He says the armed forces aren't in a position to do that. The radio, ladder and hose for the fire truck would have to be fetched from various barracks across the country.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Bundeswehr's to-do list has only grown longer. Mais is providing the troops for the NATO presence in Lithuania. Although the combat units are not fully deployed in the Baltics, the mission is tying up soldiers and equipment for the longer term. This year, the Bundeswehr is also the rotating leader of the NATO rapid response force, which must be permanently operational for this purpose and mobilizable within a few days, including all necessary equipment.

Germany has promised NATO even more. Beginning in 2025, a mechanized division should also be able to mobilize within 30 days. The following year, an airmobile infantry brigade is to be added, and from 2027, a second operational division. This Mais, warns in his strategy paper, makes a "fundamental realignment" of the army and a departure from the well-planned cycles of previous foreign deployments urgently necessary.

Mais has already taken the first steps without instructions from the ministry. This autumn, he ordered that the army in the future must focus on response capabilities for national defense. Like his boss, the inspector general, Mais is now calling for the Bundeswehr to finally recognize that, in the future, Germany will have to permanently provide large units capable of a "cold start," with mobilization times dictated by NATO. But that, he wrote, will only be possible by "fully equipping the units."

Mais has begun preparations. The 10th Armored Division in Veitshöchheim will be the first major unit to be fully equipped and thus operational in 2025. That alone is a daunting task. All units previously subordinated to this division that are not focused on alliance defense will be assigned to other units starting in the spring.

The idea behind it is simple. In the coming two years, the division should focus on its 2025 mission and be relieved of units not needed for that purpose. The same model will then be used to make the next division operational later. Step by step.


An Unbudging Minister

Defense Minister Lambrecht is in favor of changes in the forces, but she has categorically rejected major reforms. "We can't preoccupy ourselves for a long period of time with a sweeping general overhaul or be incapacitated for even a short time," she wrote in her daily orders to the troops in mid-December, "so there will not be a single 'major structural reform.' All organization units and locations will be retained."

The Bundeswehr apparatus understood it as a request to sit back and relax. That's what Scholz's "watershed" looks like if Christine Lambrecht has her way. She prefers to "turn the small screws" rather than the big wheel. Otherwise, the order of the day, which Inspector General General Zorn had to co-sign, was so brimming with self-praise that many commanders refrained from reading it out to the troops as is customary practice.

Lambrecht has now been in office for more than a year. To this day, though, it is unclear where she wants to go with the Bundeswehr. How should the force be position for the new threat environment? Which capabilities should be strengthened, and which should be dispensed with? How does the minister envision the division of duties with the NATO allies? Is the army the most important, or the navy, the air force or possibly the cyber force? What does she want? Lambrecht hasn't answered these questions yet.

In recent days, the draft of a "Critical Stocktaking for the Bundeswehr of the Future" has been circulating, a paper that the parties of the coalition government have been urging for months. Significantly, the document was not drafted by the inspector general, but by the Organization and Audit Staff, which is under the auspices of Lambrecht confidant Sudhof. It was thus written by auditors and not by soldiers.

It's 63 classified pages are not easy to digest. The 200 measures proposed are largely limited to orders to perform evaluations. Or there is talk of "further need for examination" and of audits that should be "rigorously pursued."

Bundeswehr soldiers, a Marder armored infantry fighting vehicle

Bundeswehr soldiers, a Marder armored infantry fighting vehicle

Foto: MARTIN DIVISEK / EPA

The authors come to the surprising conclusion that the proposals presented are insufficient for "breaking down the rigidities that have been built up over decades." In truth, the paper is a declaration of political bankruptcy. When Sudhof presented her stocktaking to the ministry's personnel representatives last week, attendees got the impression that she didn’t seem to have read the paper very carefully herself.

What is clear is that Lambrecht doesn't want to restructure the ministry or the notorious procurement agency in Koblenz. Instead, she has had a "procurement task force" toil away for months without much success. The group produces good-looking PowerPoint slides seemingly nonstop, but it hasn't solved the procurement agency problem.

The situation is similar when it comes to recruiting new soldiers. Officials decided in 2018 that the force needed to grow from today's 183,000 to 203,000 soldiers by 2031 to address the growing number of tasks. And that figure didn't come out of nowhere. The military derived it from the force's "capability profile," which spells out what the Bundeswehr should be doing and how many soldiers it needs to accomplish those tasks.

If Lambrecht had carefully studied the thick preparation folders provided by the individual departments at the beginning of her time at the Defense Ministry, she probably would have noticed the problem with the 2031 target. Namely that the Bundeswehr isn't growing, it is stagnating. And it has been for years. At the end of 2022, the number was still only just over 183,000.

Few experts at the ministry believe the situation will improve. Time and again, the political leadership within the Defense Ministry has warned that the its 2031 target is too ambitious and thus unattainable.

The Bundeswehr would have to grow by 18,000 soldiers in less than 10 years, while replacing another 20,000 people a year who are ending their service with the force. Each year, it would have to attract around 22,000 new recruits. Given the country's demographic situation, that's basically a "mission impossible."

It may be true that nearly 43,000 people applied to join the Bundeswehr in 2002. That doesn't sound bad at first, but a comparison with the previous year shows that this figure has been falling for a long time. In addition, the Bundeswehr seems unable to find a way to reduce the stubbornly high dropout rate among temporary soldiers and voluntary conscripts. And how many of the applicants are even suitable?

As is the case for many business enterprises, the personnel problem for the armed forces is one of the crucial issues for the future. But so far, Lambrecht has shown no interest in reform or even a realistic adjustment of the personnel target. Instead, the "Stocktaking for a Bundeswehr for the Future" spends almost 14 pages outlining how the "ambitious challenge" could somehow be achieved through many small measures. It would be better to be honest now and to plan a Bundeswehr that can be operational with fewer personnel.


The Endgame

Under Lambrecht, the Defense Ministry and the leadership of the Bundeswehr have fallen into a deep lethargy. Like sepsis, the first organs are now at risk of dying, says one officer. Another official in the Defense Ministry says his boss has been running the ministry as if it were "palliative care." It would be hard to put it any gloomier than that.

The money from Chancellor Scholz's "watershed" may finally be finding its way to the troops, but the spirit it is meant to evoke has not. "It can't be that we first have to go to war to break up all the ossification," laments one general. He says the Bundeswehr requires no less than a revolution. Not against Lambrecht, but against the bureaucracy under which the Bundeswehr is suffocating.

In corridors of the ministry, people are taking note of how even the minister's closest confidants are now distancing themselves from her. Her public relations adviser and press spokesman Christian Thiels, for example, whom many generals attest to have stood by the minister at every turn in the past with misguided advice and action. Now, word is that he has dropped Lambrecht. After the minister posted her embarrassing video on New Year's Eve, Thiels' press department hastened to clarify that they had nothing to do with the video.

The troops are now waiting anxiously for the minister's next gaffe. And they are at the same time hoping it will be her last.

Editor's note: An earlier version of the Editor's Note at the top of this article stated incorrectly stated that Boris Pistorius was the state's interior minister in Baden-Württemberg. He actually was a member of the state government of Lower Saxony.

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