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Towards the end of last year, the European and British press reported on a catalogue of concerns and problems faced by the German armed forces and their political masters. In many ways, this was merely a continuation of a regular drip-feed of horror stories relating to the shortages of trained soldiers, and other service women and men, shortfalls in the necessary numbers of recruits, a lack of functioning equipment, significant gaps in technological and industrial competencies across the national defence supply chain, as well as a failing procurement function and the political discourse around contested ambitions towards – and failures to meet – the NATO 2% of GDP expenditure target.
What was significant perhaps in the cluster of stories ahead of last Christmas was the number of officials speaking out, both publicly and off-the-record, to confirm the poor organisational state of the Bundeswehr and the profound embarrassment this was causing its political leadership. For example, General Eberhard Zorn, the German armed forces’ General Inspector, openly discussed the need for the German military to seek to recruit substantial numbers of personnel from beyond its borders if the shortage in recruits was to be addressed, particularly across specialist technical and engineering trades.
Ursula von der Leyen, the defence minister, stated in the Rheinische Post daily, that the size the German military should reach would depend upon future threats and defence tasks. Therefore, discussions on shortages in numbers were, according to her, allegedly premature. This sat uneasily with commanders who could point to substantial gaps in the ranks, cancellation of individual training courses and operational training, and an uninspiring and insignificant pool of potential recruits. This, though, appears to be but one visible sign of the disconnect between official statements and realities.
In 2018, the annual Report on the Operational Readiness of the Bundeswehr’s Primary Weapons Systems was made available to Parliament. Of 128 typhoon aircraft, 39 were available for operations but a number of these, remarkably, without any weapons or effective communications. Of a mixed fleet of 130 CH-53 and NH-90 transport helicopters, only 29 were available, though there were varying degrees of concern expressed around pilot availability and a shortage of engineers. Only three out of 15 A400M transport aircraft were available for deployment and, of six submarines, none were ocean-ready. The Ministry of Defence argued that this shortage of operational capability was due mostly to an enhanced drumbeat of operations and training, occasioned by the Russian annexation of Crimea, which had caused equipment to wear out and exceed safety tolerance levels ahead of scheduled maintenance.
In a commentary for the Bild am Sonntag weekly, Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, argued that it was a disaster for the German Navy, and for German prestige more broadly, that no submarine would be operational until well into 2019. Mirroring this difficulty, the Luftwaffe was having to flush the fuel tanks of a number of Tornado aircraft as the wrong fuel-mix had been used, adding to aircraft maintenance schedule and compounding a lack of aircraft availability for pilot training.
It is this mix of perceived under-performance and reputational damage that appears to be hurting German political and military leaders. Furthermore, in 2019 Germany’s leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force is focused on the Alliance’s eastern flank. This analyst understands that the Bundeswehr’s ninth tank brigade was to be the spearhead of this effort but is struggling to field tanks and infantry vehicles due to the unavailability of spares and lack of timely maintenance. Not that it mattered too much, of course, because the brigade was woefully under-strength and would struggle to man the equipment even if maintained and available. The military leadership of NATO is chastened by a mix of German operational failure and fudge.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged her country to the NATO target committing member countries to a 2% spend of GDP on defence during the next decade; signposting the direction of travel intended for Germany is a promise by government to spend 1.5% of GDP by 2025 on defence capabilities. This is a tall order: Germany currently spends about €37 billion on defence. To get to the 1.5% target it would need to spend, in-year, an additional €9.25 billion per annum. To reach the 2% NATO figure, it would have to spend an additional €25 billion. How is Germany going to achieve its more modest ambition let alone the NATO target figure?
The answer, in part, should be the country’s defence procurement arm – Bundesamt für Ausrüstung, Informationstechnik und Nutzung der Bundeswehr (BAINBw) – but few defence analysts are convinced that the department is up to the job. Arguably, in a further blow to German prestige, BAINBw has a reputation for inefficiency, bureaucracy and, sometimes, outright incompetence and perpetually struggles to recruit and retain staff. Of a notional workforce of 6,500 personnel, over 1,100 billets, or about 17% of the total workforce, remains vacant. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Bundeswehr struggles to meet current, critical procurement requirements. Last year, for example, some 10% of the equipment budget, or about €600 million, went unspent due to management bottlenecks and a lack of qualified and effective procurement staff. In particular, acute shortages exist within the contracts branch and among financial specialists and defence commercial lawyers. Very few serious people believe that that the BAINBw will be able to scale-up to meet 2025 spending commitments. Indeed, some wags in Berlin would have it that a deep recession, curtailing the need for a financial uplift for defence, would be in Germany’s strategic interest.
The systemic problem is that, as defence systems become ever more complex and technologically rich, so German military requirements become more bureaucratic and unrealistic. Some user and systems requirements documentation for capabilities sought from the commercial sector can run to several thousands of pages. This seems to be the opposite direction of travel from other comparable states which seek leaner, more flexible requirement statements at the outset of major programme procurements. This will become inevitably messier and more dysfunctional as Germany seeks alliances and commercial partners to develop future capabilities. Very few businesses, even within Germany’s borders, look forward to a rewarding working relationship with BAINBw. Compounding this, sadly, many non-German businesses find the experience bruising and expensive. The very governmental structures which should be deployed to improve and develop Germany’s ability to meet Alliance obligations, and counter peer-state threats, are those which will hold her back and frustrate its partners.
As a consequence, Germany has to reform profoundly the manner in which the country decides on the capability requirements it needs. This depends, in turn, in articulating what role the country wishes and needs to play in the world, especially within its regional location, and what force structure meets this ambition and deters or defeats state opponents. Once this is understood, in harmony with allies, it should resource its defence forces to meet this capability level, and invest within an industrial base to secure, develop, deliver and amend exquisite, technology-rich capabilities – possibly developed with state and commercial partners. Central to this is a requirement to generate a defence management system that is flexible, efficient and programmatically competent. This presents as a major change programme which, in turn, needs significant political sponsorship. Whether the parliamentary arithmetic in the Bundestag permits such a commitment is highly questionable. Instead, Germany might remain simply as a partner of promise with a big wallet and substantial appetites.
John Louth is Director for Defence, Industries and Society at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Germany Army personnel in Georgia, August 2018. Courtesy of US Army Europe/Kris Bonet
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.