Germany’s failing military infrastructure bears a stark warning for Chancellor Scholz, namely that in case of war, the country won’t be able to defend itself.
Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has largely believed that the era of global or at least regional wars is over, which has led many European states to de-prioritise defence spending and instead focus on building civilian infrastructure.
But as the Ukraine-Russia conflict intensifies, with several NATO countries delivering tanks and other weapon systems to Ukraine, there are fears of a wider Russian retaliation and that the conflict could spill over. As a result, many European governments are urgently dusting away their rusty war machines only to find themselves well short of boots, supplies and manpower.
Germany is falling behind in its preparations. There are concerns among German media, politicians and military leaders that the country may fall short of strategic weapons, arms and ammunition in the event of a spillover from the conflict.
Faced with pressure from all quarters, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a special $106bn (100bn Euro) fund in June 2022 to modernise the country’s military, calling it a ‘zeitenwende’ or a turning point in the country’s post Second World War military and security policy.
Scholz’s ‘zeitenwende’ has come under intense pressure after a spat of recent media reports revealed Germany’s lack of war readiness.
No bullets, no tanks, no guns
In October 2022, Business Insider, quoting unnamed sources, reported that Germany only has ammunition for two days of the war, while such details of military readiness are mired in secrecy. If true, Germany falls well behind NATO’s requirement of holding at least 30 days of ammunition – to make up the shortfall, an estimated $21bn to $31bn (20-30bn Euros) needs to be invested.
When Germany’s defence minister asked for an extra $10.6 bn (10bn Euros) to increase the military budget, he was told that the exchequer could only provide an extra $3.19bn (3bn Euros).
Then there are the ‘problem tanks’, as they have been nicknamed: in December last year, reports emerged that the country’s main infantry tanks, the Pumas, have serious operational problems.
Costing $18bn (17m Euros) each, the Pumas took more than 10 years to develop as its engineering and design was marred with several technical issues, including a leaky roof hatch, restricted sight-lines for the driver and other issues related to electronics. The Pumas technical and functionality problems raise serious alarm as the tanks are supposed to be inducted in NATO’s ‘Very High Readiness Joint Task Force’ later this year.
During last year’s NATO exercise, none of the deployed 18 Puma infantry fighting vehicles were able to complete the drill in operational form.
The shambolic state of the Bundeswehr’s affairs has long been known in military circles. Stories of dysfunctional tanks and helicopters, rifles that fail in hot weather and soldiers having to train in the cold without thermal underwear have been sidelined for years.
Many of the German military’s problems don’t always stem from lack of funding, but also from unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles in procurement and poor planning. The thermal underwear shortage stems from the latter.
In 2015, a German broadcaster quoting a confidential military report said that German soldiers tried to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise in 2014. After painting the wooden sticks black, the German soldiers swiftly attached them to the top of armoured vehicles.
In short, the war in Ukraine has shone a disturbing light on the German military’s critical unpreparedness.
Shocking to think that Germany’s own military chiefs had to personally plead for more funding.
Lieutenant General Alfons Mais recently told local media that “the army that I have the duty to lead, is more or less bare”.
Yet there is a deep disconnect. While Scholz’s $106bn (100bn Euro) is set to modernise the military, there are reports that no procurement has been made so far – one assessment suggests bureaucratic delays and politics over tender awards.
Arms procurement must comply with EU rules on tenders, as well as with political decisions, which are often very tedious bureaucratic affairs.
All this while panic grows among the population, even most of the weapons sent to Ukraine haven’t been replaced yet in the German arsenal.
Experts at think tanks and former generals continuously appear in the media calling on the government and the bureaucracy to speed up the matter.
If legal frameworks and bureaucratic processes are simplified, weapons purchase could speed up.
But then again Scholz’s three way coalition is creaking with ever expanding fault lines. His foreign minister’s slip suggesting Germany was at war with Russia didn’t go down well with some parts of the Germany population where the anti-Ukraine war narrative is fast catching pace.
Another problem plaguing the German military is the shortage of men of fighting age, the Bundeswehr stands at around 183,000 strong for a population of over 84 million.
There are fresh calls for mandatory conscription to be brought back but for Germany’s aging population, that is going to be a challenge. Also, since mandatory conscription was cancelled in 2011, Germany’s young have preferred other professional avenues.
That’s something the defence minister recently lamented, saying “back in the day, there was a conscript at every second kitchen table, which meant there was always a connection to civic society at large”.
Fear of war with Russia is a major talking point in German living rooms now. Should Ukraine–Russia conflict escalate into a regional war, Germany will find itself in a very tight corner.
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Source: TRT World