Pulling Germany's Military Back from the Brink

The coming years will show if Germany is truly ready to underwrite its alliance commitment and a greater engagement abroad by raising the country’s international security profile and boosting its military capabilities.

In his recent article “Is Germany's Military Dying?”, Kyle Mizokami worries that massive underfunding might sound the death knell for the long-suffering German armed forces. But for the Bundeswehr, an old German saying might apply: Those declared dead live longer. Embarrassing news in recent months about repeated equipment failures, grounded helicopters and units scrounging for equipment in order to deploy seem to have provoked a somber reassessment of the importance of military readiness among the German political and media elites.

A seemingly endless string of bad news started in September 2014, when it became publicly known that none of the German navy’s twenty-two Sea Lynx anti-submarine warfare helicopters were operational. Only days later, a 1960s-vintage Luftwaffe Transall cargo aircraft broke down in Turkey during a mission to deliver German weapon shipments to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq. A similar incident stranded another German Transall en route to Senegal during a mission to support relief workers combating the Ebola virus in West Africa.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. An official Bundeswehr report on the “Material readiness of the Armed Services” revealed serious readiness challenges with almost every major weapon system in the German inventory. Out of the German army’s thirty-one Tiger attack helicopters, only ten were operational while only eight out of thirty-three NH-90 transport helicopters were ready for duty. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe could only deploy forty-two of its 109 Eurofighter Typhoon multirole fighters and only twenty-four of the fifty-six remaining Transalls were available at any given time.

These problems were further compounded by the fact that desperately needed replacement systems were delivered years behind schedule, considerably over budget and with only limited capabilities. The Luftwaffe, for example, has only received one out of the fifty-three new A-400M transport planes it has on order to replace the ageing Transall fleet. But the A400 has only just reached initial operational capability (IOC). It’s not yet able to drop paratroopers nor can it be send on international deployments since it is lacking a missile defense system.

The Bundeswehr’s equipment problems come at a time when Germany seeks a greater role in international crisis management. Particularly, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen seems willing to test the country’s traditional postwar “military reticence.” Shortly after taking office, von der Leyen used a speech at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014 to advocate for greater German engagement. “To sit and wait is not an option. If we have means, if we have capabilities, we have the obligation and we have the responsibility to engage,” she declared. But von der Leyen is not alone. In his opening remarks at the conference, German president Joachim Gauck declared: “When the last resort - sending in the Bundeswehr - comes to be discussed, Germany should not say 'no' on principle.” Moreover, the German government is expected to release a new national security white paper in 2016 that will likely stress the nation’s growing international role and increased security responsibilities.

The German government seems to be reassessing the so-called “peace dividend” that led to Germany’s defense budget shrinking to just 1.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2015. In March 2015, the Merkel government announced a 6.2 percent increase in the defense budget over the next five years, which provides for an additional €8 billion (US $8.5 billion) by 2019. While a large portion of the money will be used to compensate for higher personnel costs, there would also be substantial portion will go towards modernization, maintenance and improved training. As a result, this year the German military is expected to send 154,000 of its roughly 180,000 active soldiers abroad to participate in military exercises. That’s a marked increase from 73,000 send abroad in 2013.