It is not hard to think of times when German military weakness would have been lauded as good news across the rest of Europe, but perhaps not when the German minister accused of running her country’s armed forces into the ground has just been named as the next president of the European Commission.
The most recent embarrassment for the Bundeswehr — the grounding of all 53 of its Tiger helicopters this month due to technical faults — is just the latest in a long series of humiliations to have sprung from Ursula von der Leyen’s spell as defence minister. A country once feared for its ruthless military efficiency has become a joke among European powers.
If von der Leyen can be transposed on to the British political scene she might be seen as a teutonic Chris Grayling — attacked from all sides, not least her own, for her chronic mishandling of her brief. To quote fellow Christian Democrat Rupert Scholz, who served as Helmut Kohl’s defence minister: ‘The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic. The entire defence capability of the federal republic is suffering.’
It is not fair to blame all the problems of the German military on von der Leyen, who has been defence minister only since 2013. For understandable reasons, the German military was a little constrained in its development between 1945 and 1990, when defence was in any case effectively contracted out to foreign powers. Even now Germany remains bound by military constraints — under the Treaty for the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which returned the country’s sovereignty in 1991, German armed forces are limited to 370,000 personnel, of whom no more than 345,000 are allowed to be in the army and air force. It cannot have nuclear weapons. After the Cold War, German governments of all colours did not consider defence a priority — unwilling to see that Russia could ever rise again as a threat.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t excuse some of the inadequacies of the military which have come to light under von der Leyen’s leadership. Under her watch, German military exercises have been reduced to a laughing stock. In 2014, a battalion on a Nato exercise in Norway was forced to use a painted broomstick to simulate a gun because it didn’t have a real one. Nearly half the soldiers involved in the exercise could not be issued with pistols.
Things were no better this year when Germany took control of Nato’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, charged with combatting the threat from Russia. Germanypromised to have 44 Leopard 2 tanks and 14 Marder armoured infantry vehicles available for the task, yet in the event could only muster nine and three respectively. A leaked document revealed that the Luftwaffe’s Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets, along with its transport helicopters, are only available for use for an average of four months per year — spending the rest of the time laid up for maintenance and repair.
As for the F-125 Baden-Württemberg frigates which were supposed to be coming into service two years ago, the navy refused to commission them. They failed their sea trials after problems with radar, the flameproof coating on the fuel tanks and the central computer system. Nor did the frigates have any torpedo tubes or sonar — essential for tackling the threat from submarines.
Last year’s annual report by the Parliamentary Armed Forces Commissioner — the German equivalent of a defence select committee report — confirmed the inability of the military to keep its equipment in use, adding that for a period from October 2017, when a Type 212A submarine damaged its rudder, none of the country’s six submarines were available for use.
This year, the government overcame the embarrassment by making information on the availability of equipment classified, so that it was left out of the report. The Commissioner, Dr Hans-Peter Bartels, was not impressed. He described the Bundeswehr — the equivalent of the armed forces and Ministry of Defence combined — as a ‘bureaucratic monster’, citing the example of the commander of a tactical air wing with 1,500 military and non-military staff and flying assets totalling €3 billion under his command — and yet who was trusted to spend only €250 a year without getting approval from above.
Not that centralisation of funding has helped promote carefulness with money. One of the scandals laid at von der Leyen’s door is that of the Gorch Fock, a naval training ship which was sent for an overhaul in 2016 and which has yet to be returned to its duties. Meanwhile, the arc of estimated costs will be familiar to anyone who follows British public sector projects — it has risen from €10 million to €135 million.
What von der Leyen has done is increase the military budget, which rose sharply last year from €38.5 billion to €43.5 billion. A further €3 billion a year is planned by 2024. But even at that level, Germany will fall well short of its obligation as a Nato member to spend 2 per cent of GDP per year on defence — it will merely take its spending from 1.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent. True, few of Nato’s European member states fulfil this obligation, but of all of them you might expect the continent’s largest economy to be setting an example. Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has found it all too easy to exempt itself, or play only a token part, in joint military operations around the world — its aggressive past serving as a convenient excuse, as if it is telling the world: now, you wouldn’t want a Germany which was flexing its military muscles, would you?
Spending money is one thing; spending it well is another. The German military has never really made a successful transformation from a conscript force to a smaller professional force. Conscription was suspended in 2011, two years before von der Leyen’s arrival as defence minister. But several times since then the government has toyed with the idea of reviving it — more for social ends than military ones. Germany’s armed forces are of a similar size to Britain’s — 173,000 personnel compared with our 155,000. Yet not all are being kept in adequate training. In 2017, 19 out of 129 helicopter pilots lost their licenses because they were unable to meet the required number of flying hours.
There is a question of how committed von Leyen has been to maintaining an independent German defence force. In 2014, she told Der Spiegel that a single joint EU defence force ‘would be a logical consequence of an increasingly close military cooperation in Europe’ — an idea which appals even staunch British europhiles such as Vince Cable. Since being proposed as Commission president, von der Leyen has retreated on that idea — perhaps aware that her record of running the German military will not inspire confidence.
In 1945, the US military sent a team to Germany with the aim of capturing Albert Speer before the military police did — they were so impressed by the ability of the Nazis’ armaments machine to recover from bombing raids that they were desperate to debrief him. We may no longer be at risk of Germany putting its military to aggressive use. But there is little sign that it has the organisation and competence to fulfil its role as a Nato member, let alone form the heart of a European defence force.