Readiness problems plague Germany’s armed forces – and may cast doubt on the country’s credibility as a military partner.

Urusula von der Leyen in Lithuania. Credit: KAY NIETFELD/AFP/Getty ImagesBy Jonas Neugebauer, Research Assistant, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

In a 21 March speech in parliament following her re-appointment as German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen asked for patience, and money, in addressing the operational readiness problems that continue to beset the German armed forces. Von der Leyen also identified credibility as a key maxim: successfully tackling these readiness issues is a pre-requisite to sustaining this.

A potential problem for von der Leyen is that in 2017, following her first term as defence minister, the armed forces’ issues with readiness and equipment availability remained, and in the view of some worsened. She has cautioned however, that the effects of a near quarter-century of cuts cannot be undone in a few years:

‘You cannot catch up in two years 25 years of cuts … Not one large organisation would be able to strategically realign itself in only two to three years, and completely reorganize its human-resources strategy, largely renew or modernise its over €200 billion (US$177.4bn) inventory, and maintain a high level of digitisation.’

The defence minister argued that the direction of travel is correct, but that time will be required to deliver results.

If von der Leyen was in any doubt about the extent of the task she still faces, a recent report and the accompanying domestic press coverage will have made sobering reading. 

The latest study to identify the continuing issues with operational readiness and equipment availability was the work of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels. His view was that the overall equipment and supply state of the Bundeswehr was poor, and that this had worsened in 2017. Presenting his report to parliament on 20 February, Bartels identified ‘large gaps concerning personnel and materiel’ and highlighted a range of issues with regard to equipment availability and support.

Bartels’ report found that a lack of equipment availability was evident in all of the services. This included all of the German Navy’s 212A-class submarines being out of service since October 2017. All six were undergoing either maintenance or upgrade work, at least some of which has been prolonged by problems with the supply of spares. The report identified similar issues concerning the army’s 244 Leopard 2 main battle tanks. In November 2017, just over one third of these were deemed ready for operation. The end of 2017 also saw all of the Luftwaffe’s 14 A400M heavy transport aircraft grounded temporarily.

Bartels wants to see the introduction of fast-track projects aimed at quick and visible results, in addition to the ‘Trendwende’ (trend-reversal) long-term modernisation concept that the German Ministry of Defence has introduced in the last few years. The latter project is intended to improve the overall situation by the mid-2020s, but Bartels argues more action is required to address the Bundeswehr’s immediate problems. There is some support for this position within the armed forces, with a German Army paper from 27 March arguing that the procurement process is too slow and cumbersome to keep up with the pace of innovation, in particular in the area of digitisation.

Bartels’ report also underscored the effects on morale of poor operational availability. According to the report, soldiers had to frequently deal with delays and cancellations of flights to and from deployments because of a shortage of operational transport aircraft. It also claimed some military helicopter pilots had to rely on civil companies and flying clubs to top up helicopter flying hours in order to maintain training and skills.

In the report, Bartels argued that the planned funding increases to 2021 would only cover the anticipated growth in personnel and equipment-operating costs, as well as the maintenance budget for the latter. By the end of the next decade, Bartels suggests, up to a further €10bn will be required annually to provide for additional capabilities. Minister von der Leyen, while not endorsing Bartels’ calculation, acknowledged in parliament that additional spending was necessary.

Stories on the travails of the armed forces have appeared repeatedly in Germany’s domestic press, feeding the public debate over the state of the Bundeswehr. Some NATO member states have been closely following Germany’s operational readiness problems, and there is a risk to Berlin’s credibility as a military partner should the issues not begin to be addressed more successfully. Ensuring that Berlin’s credibility is not undermined will be a key task for von der Leyen in her second term.

This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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