The German army has faced a shortage of equipment for years, but the situation has recently become so precarious that some soldiers took matters into their own hands.
On Tuesday, German broadcaster ARD revealed that German soldiers tried to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise last year. After painting the wooden sticks black, the German soldiers swiftly attached them to the top of armored vehicles, according to a confidential army report which was leaked to ARD.
A defense ministry spokesperson said the use of broomsticks was not a common practice, and that the decision of the involved soldiers was "hard to comprehend." According to the ministry, the armored vehicles were furthermore not supposed to be armed. It remains unclear how many broomsticks were substituted for machine guns.
The awkward revelation on Tuesday came at the worst possible moment for Germany's defense ministry. The same day, Ukraine's army was about to suffer a defeat in the town of Debaltseve, putting a renewed focus on the question whether Europe's NATO allies would be able to manage the crisis militarily – without an American intervention, if necessary.
To make matters worse, the broom-equipped German soldiers belong to a crucial, joint NATO task force and would be the first to be deployed in case of an attack. Opposition politicians have expressed concerns about Germany's ability to defend itself and other European allies, given that even some of the most elite forces lack basic equipment.
The central European country was the world's third-largest arms exporter in 2013, but when it comes to Germany's own defense politicians have been unwilling to invest. In 2013, Germany spent only 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense -- a ratio which was below the average spending of the European members of NATO.
In an interview with local German newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, the head of the country's green party Cem Özdemir argued that it was not only the lack of funding that posed a problem. "The financial resources are not being used efficiently," Özdemir said last September. According to him, Europe's armies only have one tenth of the strength of the U.S. Army, although they cost half of the defense budget of the United States.
The lack of equipment does not come as a surprise to close observers of the German army. Last year, the parliamentary defense committee was informed that out of 89 German fighter jets, only 38 were ready for use. The list of damaged items also included helicopters, as well as a variety of weapons.
After the lack of arms and vehicles was made public, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen vowed to upgrade and repair the equipment. According to some soldiers and officers, the minister has so far failed to deliver on her promises.
According to the confidential report that was leaked on Tuesday, the German NATO task force would face serious problems if it had to intervene abroad. More than 40 percent of the task force's soldiers would have to do without P8 pistols, and more than 30 percent lacked general-purpose machine guns, known as MG3. Operating at night would be particularly difficult for Germany's armed task force, given a lack of 76 percent of necessary night viewers.
Germany's continuous equipment problems hardly match von der Leyen's public rhetoric. On Tuesday, she announced that Germany would overhaul its security strategy and become more active internationally and in eastern Europe in the coming years.
According to Reuters, von der Leyen said that Germany's new policy had to take into account the Kremlin's attempt "to establish geo-strategic power politics and military force as a form of asserting their interests." Critics, however, say that such statements remain pure rhetoric, as long as the financial resources dedicated to the German army are insufficient.