The German government has been working hard to persuade a reluctant public to back a bigger role on the world stage for its military. But – as a recent string of embarrassing equipment failures has highlighted – even when Berlin does win political backing for military interventions, it is struggling to fulfil its commitments.
In the latest setback in deploying the military in response to a global crisis, a German transport plane en route to Senegal to assist the battle against the rapidly spreading outbreak of Ebola in west Africa has been stranded on the Canary Islands, because of a technical defect.
The incident comes just days after Germany’s first shipment of arms to Iraq’s Kurds – to help in the fight against extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – was delayed when the designated transport plane broke down. The defective plane was Dutch but was leased because of the lack of a suitable German aircraft, underlying the lack of military preparedness in the country highlighted by a recent parliamentary report.
The fiasco over the shipment of arms to the Kurds resulted in Ursula von der Leyen, defence minister, flying to the Iraqi city of Erbil, the regional Kurdish capital, last week for a ceremonial handover of the weapons that had yet to arrive.
Ms von der Leyen’s PR fiasco highlights the point that the Bundeswehr, as the German federal army is known, lacks deployment-ready equipment.
This shortage was laid bare in a recent confidential defence inspectors’ report given to parliament last week.
According to reports in the German media, the report said that only 24 out of 43 Transall C-160 transport planes were operational. With helicopters, the situation was even worse – with only 41 of 190 machines ready to be deployed.
The technical problems were repeated across the armed services with 42 out of 109 Eurofighter fighter jets not available; one of four U212 submarines were non-operational and 280 of 406 Marder tanks were out of use.
While military planners always expect a proportion of equipment to be out of action, Ms von der Leyen admitted in a weekend interview with Bild, the country’s biggest selling tabloid, that Germany was falling short of its Nato commitments.
Nato’s 28 members are supposed to spend at least 2 per cent of their annual economic output on defence but currently only four of them hit that target.
Germany only spends 1.3 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence.
“With our airborne systems we are currently below the target figures announced one year ago, defining what we would want to make available to Nato within 180 days in the case of an emergency.”
However, Ms von der Leyen insisted Germany could fulfil any short-term crisis-response Nato commitments and manage its current deployments. Currently there are some 3,700 German soldiers, out of a 180,000 total, serving abroad, including in Afghanistan.
Hans-Peter Bartels, the social democrat chairman of the parliamentary defence committee that commissioned the equipment report, told the Financial Times: “We can manage a few thousand soldiers. The issue is the rest, including those needed to meet our Nato alliance obligations.”
Despite Germany’s strong economy and public finances, there is no political will to increase the military budget from the current level of 1.3 per cent of gross domestic product. Nato has warned recently that member countries are falling behind their Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on military spending. The UK, US, Greece and Estonia are currently the only countries that are meeting this target – and with spending cuts, Britain is set to fall below the agreed level.
Ms von der Leyen has said the problems stem from accumulated shortages of spares – and cannot be quickly resolved by throwing money at arms suppliers.
Mr Bartels, whose party is in government with chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservatives, blamed successive CDU defence ministers for cuts in spares purchasing and failed organisational reforms.
He added that parts procurement could be boosted even without raising military spending by simply using funds unspent from the current equipment budget. Last year, some €1.3bn was left over from a budget of €6bn.
But this will not ease the shortage of transport planes. The Transall is a Franco-German aircraft dating back to the 1960s and is long overdue for retirement. But the replacement Airbus A400M planes have been dogged by technical glitches. The Luftwaffe, the German air force, is expected to take delivery of its first aircraft in the next few weeks – five years later than expected.
All this is especially difficult for Germany because the government – mindful of the nation’s deep-seated reluctance to deploy combat soldiers – has pledged to make air transport one of the country’s key military specialisations.
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