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Why Germany’s army is in a bad state

Economist 2018-08-09 09:41:08

DONALD TRUMP says it is “not fair” for Europe’s largest economy to spend proportionally so much less on defence than America does. Germany spends just 1.2% of its GDP on defence, and it shows. A report released in February showed that less than half the country’s Leopard tanks, 12 out of 50 Tiger helicopters and only 39 of its 128 Typhoon fighter aircraft were fit for action. At the end of last year, none of the country’s six submarines was at sea. In short: Germany’s armed forces are barely fit for purpose. Why?

Throughout the cold war West Germany was NATO’s eastern border state, the first line of defence against the Eastern Bloc. Though pacifist in culture following the traumas of the second world war, it invested heavily in territorial defence. By 1990 it had more than 5,000 battle tanks, some 500,000 personnel and was spending almost 3% of GDP on defence. Then the Berlin Wall fell and the reunified Germany suddenly felt insulated. Military investment plunged, and the Bundeswehr was reshaped into a force capable of only limited expeditionary deployments. In 2011 Angela Merkel’s government ended conscription, hoping to replace a large standing army with a small, surgical one (today it numbers little more than 180,000). Then came the fateful year of 2014. Russia intervened in Ukraine, annexing Crimea. Germany committed forces to expeditionary missions in Iraq and Mali. It pledged at a NATO summit in Wales to spend 2% of its GDP on defence by 2024. Germany’s sense of geopolitical stability was suddenly challenged; Ursula von der Leyen (pictured), the recently appointed defence minister, realised that the Bundeswehr was hopelessly under-prepared and started trying to overhaul it.

Mrs von der Leyen gets much of the blame for the slow progress—mostly unfairly. The defence minister has battled against all sorts of inertia in her bid to modernise the Bundeswehr. One is the German public’s resistance to defence spending: last year’s election campaign saw even the moderate-left Social Democrats characterise the pursuit of the 2% target as a dismal capitulation to Mr Trump. That Mrs Merkel recently affirmed that Germany would be spending 1.5% of GDP on defence by 2024, and would hit the 2% target around 2030, marks an achievement for Mrs von der Leyen and a challenge to public opinion (merely 15% of voters approve of the increase, according to one recent poll). Then there is the culture of the armed forces. Still used to a post-cold-war age, when the Bundeswehr was awash with superfluous equipment and personnel, planners, procurers and contract lawyers are not used to expanding Germany’s military capacity at speed. Finally there are personnel shortages: the Bundeswehr lacks trained troops to bear some of the new arms it is buying. Plans to increase the manpower to 200,000 will be hard to implement because, in such an anti-militarist country, careers in the armed forces remain unpopular. 

It would be wrong to dismiss Germany’s gradual progress out of hand. The Bundeswehr’s readiness levels have been improving for several years now. The scale of Germany’s current expeditionary deployments would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, as its new NATO responsibilities—like the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and its role leading NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” battalion in Lithuania—would have been, too. The additional investments taking the country to 2% by 2030 will, from such a huge economy and combined with the ongoing integration of the Bundeswehr with the armies of nearby countries like the Netherlands and Norway, mean a massive contribution to common security that could make Germany the hub for European territorial defence. But this will all take time. Do not expect Mr Trump to change his own tune any time soon.