BERLIN — Three years ago, Germany's military made headlines when it used broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise because of a shortage of equipment. The lack of real weapons in the European Union’s most populous nation was seen as symptomatic of how underfunded its military has long been.
One Russian annexation later, if anything, the state of affairs has only gotten worse, according to the parliamentary commissioner for the country’s armed forces.
He has now reached the conclusion that the German military is virtually “not deployable for collective defense.” Independent commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels also indicated in an interview that Germany was unprepared for the possibility of a larger conflict even though smaller operations abroad may still be possible.
In October, reports emerged that not a single German military submarine was operational — at a time when Russian submarine operations in the Baltic Sea were raising new concerns. Bundeswehr pilots are using choppers owned by a private automobile club to practice because so many of their own helicopters are in need of repair. And about half of all Leopard 2s — the tank which is most common in the Bundeswehr — were out of order as recently as November, which left the country with only 95 tanks of that type. By comparison, Russia is believed to have over 20,000 combat tanks, even though it is not known how many of them are operational.
Defense experts caution that Germany has much higher standards than other countries and may declare a tank nonoperational over minor defects such as a broken blinker. In case of war, they believe, Germany would still be able to mobilize much of its equipment within a short time frame. But Germany's parliamentary military commissioner, who acts as a political advocate for the armed forces, said that measurements of defense capability should not be based on wishful thinking.
“The hard currency, which should be used to measure the success of the minister, is the Bundeswehr’s readiness for action,” said Bartels, a Social Democrat. “And this readiness has not improved over the last four years but has only gotten worse.”
Bartels was referring to the performance of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Christian Democrat. Even though von der Leyen has backed increases in military spending and expansion during her term, the repercussions of decades of funding shortages are only fully becoming apparent now as much-needed repairs are mounting, and the purchase of additional equipment is proving difficult.
In 2011, Germany decided to reduce its equipment to save costs and focus on vehicles and weapons needed for the asymmetrical warfare it has encountered in countries like Afghanistan, rather than on more Cold War-reminiscent submarines and tanks. But within four years, German officials had to revise their decision amid concerns over Russian military operations in Ukraine and elsewhere and new fears of a more conventional war in Europe. "By that time, however, a lot of the equipment was already sold. Now, it has to be bought back,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Germany is also still in the process of transitioning from a conscription-based model to a more professional military that relies exclusively on volunteers. Conscription was only abolished here about seven years ago, at a time when other E.U. countries were considering reintroducing it. But the Bundeswehr has so far been unable to fully fill its ranks with volunteers, and critics fear that equipment shortages could deter even more from joining.
In a history-burdened nation that has been among the most war-weary since reunification in 1990, the military is still viewed with more skepticism than elsewhere. Britain and France have filled the void as Europe's strongest military forces, even though cost-cutting has led to consolidation and layoffs in both countries, as well.
Elsewhere, however, there is a rising awareness that decades of cost-cutting and relying on the U.S. military have damaged Europe’s own defense mechanisms. Sweden, for instance, has reversed its passive military approach and redeployed soldiers to strategically important bases.
Low military spending in Europe has long raised concerns in the White House, with President Trump taking to Twitter in March to publicly accuse Germany of owing the United States “vast sums of money” for NATO. At the time, Berlin rejected his claim while also questioning his understanding of NATO finances. Germany has long demanded that other investments, such as development aid, should also be included in defense expenditure calculations because they may help to make the world safer, too.
“What we want is a fair burden-sharing, and in order to achieve that, we need a modern understanding of security,” von der Leyen said in March. But her critics fear that such calculations mostly hide the extent to which Germany’s military is, literally, out of service.
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