Germany's military is falling behind, and the US is putting it on notice

  • Germany’s armed forces have faced a number of equipment shortages and problems in recent years.
  • The deficiencies come as Berlin debates how much to increase defence spending and amid growing tensions between NATO and Russia.
  • The US has pressured Germany and other members of NATO to increase their military expenditures.

Over the past several months, the entirety of Germany’s submarine fleet has gone out of action, the Bundeswehr, its armed forces, has outsourced helicopter training to a private company because its own helicopters are in need of repair, and more than half of the Bundeswehr’s Leopard 2 tanks, its most common model, were out of order, with just 95 of 244 in service.

Those are only the latest reports of German military deficiencies.

In spring 2017, the Bundeswehr contingent deployed to a peacekeeping mission in Mali was left hamstrung when heat, dust, and rough terrain knocked half its vehicles out of commission. In early 2016, it was reported that German reconnaissance jets taking part in the fight against ISIS couldn’t fly at night because their cockpit lighting was too bright for pilots.

In early 2015, as Berlin was preparing to send fighter jets to Syria, a military report emerged saying that only 66 of the air force’s 93 commissioned fighters were operational – and only 29 were combat-ready. In 2014, German troops tried to disguise a shortage of weapons by replacing machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise.

Germany has high standards for its military equipment, experts say, and it’s believed that the country could mobilize much of its equipment in a short period if needed. Berlin also drew down its forces in 2011 in order to focus on asymmetrical warfare. It reversed course years later in light of Russian action in Ukraine and renewed concerns about conventional warfare, but much of that equipment has to be reacquired.

Those shortages of gear may hinder recruiting efforts, as the German military transitions from a conscripted force to an all-volunteer one. (The Bundeswehr’s recruitment drive has been criticised for targeting 16- and 17-year-olds.)

But the German military’s shortcomings have added to the country’s internal political debates, and Germany’s contribution to Europe’s collective defence is also facing scrutiny.

Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for Germany’s armed forces, has said while more limited operations may still be possible, the country’s military is not prepared for a larger conflict.

“The hard currency, which should be used to measure the success of the minister, is the Bundeswehr’s readiness for action,” Bartels told The Washington Post of Germany’s defence capacity, referring to Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “And this readiness has not improved over the last four years but has only gotten worse.”

Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party, of which Bartels is a member, was part of a governing coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, of which von der Leyen is also a member, but the SDP moved into the official parliamentary opposition after a disappointing showing in the September elections.

The SDP and CDU agree that Germany’s military – with 178,000 personnel and much outdated equipment – needs improvement, but the SDP has balked at the CDU’s push to increase the defence budget to 2% of GDP by 2024. Industry estimates put 2017 defence spending at about 1.13% of GDP.

Such an increase would require Germany to grow military spending from 37 billion euros in 2017 to more than 70 billion euros by 2024, according to Deutsche Welle.

The two parties reached a preliminary agreement in early January that would boost defence expenditures to 42.4 billion euros in 2021, but the projected expansion of Germany’s economy would mean that sum would still only be a little over 1% of GDP. (The agreement did not specifically mention NATO members’ agreed-upon defence-spending target of 2% of GDP.)

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, an SDP member, has called expanding defence spending t0 2% of GDP a “pretty crazy idea,” and the SDP is not the only party resisting such an increase. The legacy of World War II and the Cold War have made some in Germany wary of military expansion, and others have argued the German military doesn’t have enough uses for such a rapid influx of defence funds.

Spending 2% of GDP on defence would bring Germany to the level agreed upon by NATO member countries, but the country’s political parties disagree on whether that agreement is actually binding.

President Donald Trump publicly scolded NATO members for “not paying what they should be paying” in 2017 and admonished Germany for owing the US “vast sums of money” in March that year. Berlin dismissed that assertion, but the US and other officials have continued to push Germany over its defence spending.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and Germany’s former envoy to Washington, echoed accusations that Germany wasn’t contributing its fair share, saying it was “undignified” for Germany’s only contribution to the fight against ISIS to be reconnaissance flights.

“The biggest European Union state is all for victory over Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; we take photos, but we leave the dirty business of shooting to others,” he told Reuters in late January.

“We should not develop the reputation of being one of the world’s best freeloaders,” he added.

The debate has not been limited to German voices.

During a visit to Germany at the end of January, US Army Secretary Mark Esper, a former Raytheon executive, said he would take the German government at its word that it would increase defence spending to the 2% target, but he cautioned against falling short.

“It’s important for all of our NATO allies to live up to their commitments,” Esper said. “If not, it weakens the alliance, clearly, and Germany is such a critical member of NATO.”

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