Bad News: German Pilots Don't Have Enough Warplanes to Fly

Bad News: German Pilots Don't Have Enough Warplanes to Fly

The Luftwaffe remains far from combat-ready.

Here's What You Need to Know: German military strength has declined since the end of the Cold War.

German air force pilots don’t have enough flight time to meet NATO training requirements.

But that’s not because of poor training. The problem is that the Luftwaffe doesn’t have enough flyable planes for its pilots to fly.

“Almost half of the Luftwaffe’s pilots were unable to meet NATO’s target of 180 flight hours last year because their aircraft were grounded by maintenance issues,” according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. Only 512 of the air force’s 875 pilots met the number of required flight hours, German officials told government Bundestag legislators.

“The Luftwaffe is at a low point,” Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, the Luftwaffe’s chief of staff, said last month. “Aircraft are grounded due to a lack of spare parts, or they aren’t even on site since they’re off for maintenance.”

Germany’s armed forces, dreaded during World War II and respected during the Cold War, have been ridiculed in recent years as budget cuts have resulted in a military that seems barely functional. In the summer of 2018, only ten of the Luftwaffe’s 128 Eurofighters were rated fit to fly because of spare parts shortages. In February 2019, “on average only 39 of Germany’s 128 Eurofighter jets and 26 of its 93 older Tornado fighters were available for combat or training last year,” the Telegraph said.

“There are now concerns that pilots are leaving the air force in frustration at being unable to fly. Six pilots resigned in the first half of last year, compared to a total of 11 in the five previous year.”

German military strength has declined since the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that compelled Germany to build well-trained and well-equipped armed forces. The immediate problem is anemic defense spending, at 1.3 percent of GDP rather than the NATO goal of 2 percent (not that many European NATO members are meeting that threshold).

In 2018, German submarines were found to be in no condition to sail, new helicopters and transport aircraft were unable to fly, and armored vehicles have been sidelined. The situation is so bad that if Russia invaded the Baltic States, Germany would require a month to mobilize and transport a single armored brigade to the rescue, according to an American study.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Germany is stuck with poorly trained pilots. Nonetheless, the success of the air forces of America and Israel over the past seventy-five years has rested on well-trained aircrews. Some analysts note that today’s Russian military pilots receive fewer training flight hours than their Western counterparts. Allowing German pilot training standards to lapse will erode a key NATO edge over a potential Russian adversary.

Ironically, lack of training was a major cause for the destruction of the old Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. In 1939, German pilots would go into battle with more than 200 hours of flight time—significantly more than their opponents. This enabled German aces to rack up dozens or hundreds of kills. By 1944, with training crippled by fuel shortages, and with its fighters suffering severe losses against American heavy bombers, the Germans were forced to commit pilots into battle with perhaps 50 or 100 flight hours, compared to 300 or more hours for American and British pilots (Soviet pilots would receive about 100 hours).

The result was a vicious cycle where pilot shortages forced the Luftwaffe to commit untrained pilots, who were quickly killed or wounded, which meant that more rookies had to be sent into battle.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

This article first appeared in August 2019.

Image: Reuters