The Corner

Germany’s Military: Looking a Little, Well, Obsolete

In a post the other day I mentioned how German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel (a Social Democrat from the left-hand side of Angela Merkel’s governing coalition) seemed to hint at foot-dragging over his country’s commitment to boost its military spending up to the NATO target of two percent of GDP (the EU’s richest nation currently spends 1.2 percent). Well, Gabriel has  (Spiegel Online reports) since taken things up a notch, counseling against “blind obedience” to the US:

Gabriel is now using the battle over increased defense spending as a symbol of resistance against the unpopular President Trump, a man who most German voters view with a significant distrust. For the SPD, the debate has great potential: the enemy is clear and, at its core, the debate is about morals and values. It also has the advantage that it pushes Merkel’s conservatives into the Trump camp and puts them in the uncomfortable position of having to insist on spending more money on arms, which has never been politically palatable for a broad swath of the electorate.

Gabriel has warned of a ‘rearmament spiral’, wording that implies that Germany is already spending plenty on defense and that, therefore, the military is in pretty good shape, a claim that is hard to sustain. In 2015 I noted this report from the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, German broadcaster ARD revealed that German soldiers tried to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise last year. After painting the wooden sticks black, the German soldiers swiftly attached them to the top of armored vehicles, according to a confidential army report which was leaked to ARD.

But back to 2017 and Spiegel Online:

The best overview of the state of the German military is provided once a year in a report submitted by Armed Forces Commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels. As an SPD member of parliament for many years, Bartels is a credible voice from the perspective of the Social Democrats. And the image that he paints of the Bundeswehr is dark indeed.

One year ago, he described how the Saxony-based 371st tank battalion, prior to taking on its role as “spearhead” of the NATO Response Force, had to borrow 15,000 pieces of equipment from 56 other German military units. In another example, the 345th artillery training battalion, based just west of Frankfurt, was officially supposed to have 24 armored artillery vehicles at its disposal. In reality, though, it had just seven, of which six were on standby for NATO and could not be used. And the seventh was in reserve for the six on standby. Troops reported to Bartels that they hadn’t been able to carry out training exercises at the site for the last three years.

There is an endless list of such examples: A mountain infantry unit had only 96 pairs of night-vision goggles available instead of the 522 it had been allotted — of which 76 had to be loaned out to other units. Which meant they only had 20, of which 17 were damaged.

The lack of equipment, Bartels wrote in his most recent report, has led to a system of sharing by necessity. “It is often the case, with Navy units that are returning from a mission, for example, that as soon as they dock in their homeport, pieces of equipment are immediately dismounted from ships and then remounted on those vessels heading out to replace them, such as (radar devices). The components wear out much more quickly due to the frequent mounting and dismounting, such that the process becomes self-reinforcing.”

One can imagine the Bundeswehr as a fire department which, due to a lack of money, has no hoses, too few helmets, hardly any ladder trucks and no oxygen masks. But the department isn’t eliminated entirely just in case a fire breaks out.

Following cabinet consultations back in 2010, then-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, rejoiced at the government’s decision to cut 8.3 billion euros from the defense budget by 2014, referring to it as a “unique opportunity” for “realignment.” The German military still hasn’t recovered.

Angela Merkel has been Germany’s chancellor since 2005. 

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