I strongly disagree with Donald Trump’s oft-expressed view that NATO is obsolete. I strongly disagree with his trade war, and I think it’s repugnant that he often seems eager to publicly dress down friends even while he flatters foreign tyrants. It’s ridiculous how often he gets his facts wildly wrong, and it’s even worse that he seems indifferent to his own ignorance. The strength and preservation of the NATO alliance is in America’s vital national interest, and to the extent that Trump undermines that view in the GOP electorate, he’s doing the Republican Party (and, far more importantly, the nation) a great disservice.
But, with all that said, he is absolutely, positively right to be upset at the state of the German military. It’s indefensibly weak and unprepared. NATO isn’t a social club. It’s a military alliance, and even if one posits that Germany shouldn’t reach its full potential military strength (for obvious historical reasons), can’t we at least ask that it not be a pale shadow of its recent, West German past?
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Bundeswehr fielded half a million men (along with immense reserve forces). NATO documents described it as “the backbone of NATO’s conventional defence in Central Europe.” It was indisputably one of the best armies in the world. Without West German strength, it’s an open question whether NATO could have maintained conventional military deterrence in Western Europe.
So what about now? In September, 2015, a story in the National Interest asked, “Is Germany’s Military Dying?” It painted a terrible picture of decline, outlining a lack of readiness in the air and on the ground. For a dose of perspective, consider the loss of Germany’s armored firepower. During the Cold War, it procured 2,125 Leopard II main battle tanks. By 2015, just 225 remained. Readiness reports showed that only a fraction of its fighter force was operational.
Has readiness improved? An April 2018 Business Insider story contains some disturbing paragraphs:
Germany’s Tornado fighter jets may not be able to join NATO missions due to technological deficiencies, according to an army report seen by German magazine Spiegel at the end of March.
The confidential report, prepared by Germany’s Bundeswehr, said 93 Tornados need immediate, extensive upgrades, as “the readiness to operate with the increasing age of the weapon system is clearly risky,” according to Spiegel.
As of February, only five of Germany’s 16 A400M transport planes were ready for use. An early 2016 report found that German jets fighting ISIS couldn’t operate at night because their cockpit lights were too bright for pilots. A report in early 2015, when Germany was preparing to send jets to Syria, said only 66 of 93 commissioned fighters were operational — and just 29 were combat-ready.
Since the end of the Cold War, Germany’s military and defense budget have shrunk. Troop numbers have fallen from almost 500,000 in 1990 to 180,000 now— some 21,000 officer positions are vacant, adding to readiness woes.
I can link reports like this all day. Some are extraordinarily embarrassing. Consider this January report in the Washington Post:
Three years ago, Germany’s military made headlines when it used broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise because of a shortage of equipment. The lack of real weapons in the European Union’s most populous nation was seen as symptomatic of how underfunded its military has long been.
One Russian annexation later, if anything, the state of affairs has only gotten worse, according to the parliamentary commissioner for the country’s armed forces.
He has now reached the conclusion that the German military is virtually “not deployable for collective defense.” Independent commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels also indicated in an interview that Germany was unprepared for the possibility of a larger conflict even though smaller operations abroad may still be possible.
In October, reports emerged that not a single German military submarine was operational — at a time when Russian submarine operations in the Baltic Sea were raising new concerns. Bundeswehr pilots are using choppers owned by a private automobile club to practice because so many of their own helicopters are in need of repair. And about half of all Leopard 2s — the tank which is most common in the Bundeswehr — were out of order as recently as November, which left the country with only 95 tanks of that type. By comparison, Russia is believed to have over 20,000 combat tanks, even though it is not known how many of them are operational.
Trump’s rhetoric is harmful to NATO. But the American military remains its most potent force. Germany’s verbal support for the alliance is helpful, but you know what’s more helpful? A powerful, functioning military in the heart of Central Europe. Donald Trump — or any American president — has an obligation to be angry about Germany’s decline. There are better and more productive ways to express that anger, but the underlying feeling is amply justified.
And yes I know that Germany is increasing its defense spending, but not fast enough and not effectively enough. American deployments in Europe are at a fraction of their Cold War levels, and the former “backbone” of NATO’s defense has turned to tissue paper. If you care about NATO, then you must care about Germany’s profound and indefensible military weakness.