BERLIN — When Germany dispatched a navy ship to the Horn of Africa last week for joint anti-
piracy operations with other European powers, the vessel arrived without a vital mission component. Its Sea Lynx helicopters — meant to search for seafaring thugs — were home in Germany, grounded because of maintenance problems.
For Germany’s military, hobbled helicopters were only the beginning. A parliamentary report leaked to the German press last week and obtained by The Washington Post detailed the shocking state of disrepair of Germany’s military hardware. Only one of its four submarines is operational. Only 70 of its 180 GTK Boxer armored vehicles are fit for deployment. Just seven of the German Navy’s fleet of 43 helicopters are flightworthy.
For a country that has professed a willingness to play a greater role in world affairs, the bad news just keeps coming. Last week, German instructors en route to Iraq to train Kurdish fighters were stranded in Bulgaria because of an aircraft malfunction. So great are the problems that the Defense Ministry is considering renting extra planes if mechanical problems — which have already led to flight delays — hamper Germany’s mission to aid Ebola patients in West Africa.
Particularly with a newly aggressive Russia rousing in the east, the revelations here are fueling a heated debate over German military preparedness. At the same time, the revelations are highlighting this nation’s complex relationship with military power in the decades after World War II.
Few here are envisioning a quick ramp-up in military spending despite the public disclosures of widespread equipment problems and the military’s struggle with equipment that in many cases dates back to the Cold War. With public opinion still firmly against a major new role for the German military in overseas deployments, doubts are also surfacing about the vows of German leaders to ratchet up Berlin’s profile on the world stage, at least when it comes to military operations.
“I think in Germany there is a difference between our level of ambition, what is being articulated at all political levels, and our actual capabilities,” said Patrick Keller, coordinator for security policy at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a Berlin-based think tank associated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “This clearly shows to us that we cannot live up to our ambitions at this very moment.”
Since the end of the Cold War, and with one eye always firmly fixed on the horrors of Nazi Germany, Berlin has tested the waters of modern military deployments without getting in too deep.
German troops made significant contributions to the 1999 war in Kosovo and made up one of the largest foreign contingents during the war in Afghanistan. But more recently, Berlin opted to sit on the sidelines when allied bombs fell on Libya. And although Germany has made the significant decision to provide arms to the Kurds in Iraq after weeks of heated debate, it has opted not to join in the airstrikes by the United States, France and other allies against the militants of the Islamic State.
Given the problems plaguing the military here, some are questioning Germany’s ability to engage in more complex missions even if it wants to. German defense officials have insisted that the hardware problems are not severe enough to affect NATO missions or Germany’s short-term crisis response. But in an interview Monday with German public radio, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen conceded that the military faced hurdles.
She blamed a legacy of procurement problems, including a lack of replacement parts and slow maintenance and repairs. She also insisted that the troubles were showing up now because of increased German military commitments around the world.
“Now that Germany is taking more responsibility . . . this shows,” she said.
This year in particular, senior German politicians have increasingly spoken of shouldering more of the burden so often carried by the United States, France and Britain. And in the world of European diplomacy, Berlin has done just that. Merkel has emerged this year as Europe’s major lever with Russia in the crisis in Ukraine. And German economic leadership in Europe — although often resented — remains unparalleled.
Not even von der Leyen, however, is insisting on an immediate rise in military spending to deal with hardware problems, instead calling for increases over the “medium term” while implementing a series of quick fixes now, including improved inspections.
German military spending has more or less hovered for years at around 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product — substantially less that Britain, France and the United States. Merkel has backed a nonbinding pledge by NATO members earlier this year to increase spending to 2 percent of GDP. But few expect she will quickly make good on that promise.
That is largely due to German public opinion, which remains resoundingly against more foreign combat missions for a military that, in the decades after World War II, was reconstructed largely for territorial defense. Even though the United States and other European allies have pulled thousands of troops from German bases in recent years, the long-term role of the military here remains very much a matter of debate.
And despite sniping from Washington and European powers that Germany should increase military spending, many here insist that if they did, Berlin would only rekindle old fears. With Germany already the dominant economic player on the continent, an expanded military role would perhaps cross an unspoken line.
“Not all NATO partners would be happy if Germany spent the second-largest amount on defense after the United States,” said Rainer Arnold, a member of the German Parliament’s defense committee from the Social Democratic Party. “Germany looks towards Great Britain and France when it comes to defense spending.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.