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Germany is finally focusing on defending NATO, but its military ‘lacks almost everything’ it needs to do it, a former German general says

Germany Bundeswehr NH90 helicopter AN-124A Bundeswehr NH90 helicopter is unloaded in Germany during redeployment from Afghanistan in May 2021.

Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

  • Like other Western countries, Germany has scrambled to support Ukraine against Russia.
  • That has highlighted “the neglected state and outdated focus” of Germany’s military, a former general says.
  • Before Berlin can support Kyiv or defend NATO, it will have to refurbish its own forces.

Before Germany can arm Ukraine, it’s going to have to rearm itself.

That’s the warning from a former German general who argues that Germany must refurbish its badly neglected armed forces — though this will take years to accomplish.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Germany’s attempt to supply weapons to Kyiv have “highlighted the neglected state and outdated focus of the German armed forces,” Erich Vad writes in a recent essay for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

In the early years after the Cold War, the military of the reunited Germany — comprising the West German Bundeswehr and parts of East Germany’s National Volksarmee — was a large, well-trained, and well-equipped force.

In 1990, that force had almost 500,000 personnel. Today, the German military is just 183,000-strong, and it can’t meet its recruiting goals. In 2018, half of its jet fighters and none of its six submarines were rated ready for combat. In 2022, German commanders complained that their Puma infantry fighting vehicles were plagued by defects.

Germany Bundeswehr Boris Pistorius Puma infantry fighting vehicleGerman Minister of Defense Boris Pistorius in a Puma infantry fighting vehicle in January.

Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

Finding spare Leopard 2 tanks and other armored vehicles that are in good mechanical condition to send to Ukraine has been a challenge. Many of the tanks that Germany sent came from the Bundeswehr’s own stocks, thus reducing its tank strength.

“There is a lack of armored and mechanized units, which have been severely cut back over the years, a shortage of ammunition and weaknesses in the logistics of depot stockpiling,” writes Vad, who served as former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s military policy adviser. “Many facilities, including barracks, are in poor condition.”

The problem is that Germany is juggling multiple commitments. It is being pressured to send arms to Ukraine and to fulfill commitments to NATO and European defense, all while meeting its own national defense requirements.

Like other Western nations, post-Cold War cutbacks and the end of conscription deprived the Bundeswehr of funding, equipment, and manpower. In 2020, German defense spending was only 1.4% of GDP, well short of 2% goal that NATO members have pledged to hit by 2024.

“Every past military reform in Germany has been intended not to make the Bundeswehr better in terms of national and alliance defense — but to make the force smaller and cheaper,” Vad writes.

Germany Bundeswehr army recruit lunch rationsGerman army recruits break for lunch during basic training near Prenzlau in November 2022.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In addition, German defense policy focused for years on scrounging personnel and equipment to sustain a few thousand troops that were part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

“Armament procurement concentrated on armored transport vehicles rather than on battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles,” Vad writes.

Germany now finds itself having to switch from low-intensity counterinsurgency warfare to high-intensity mechanized warfare. The US suffers from the same affliction: The Pentagon has belatedly realized that two decades of counterinsurgency has left it unprepared for conventional warfare against major powers such as China and Russia.

After being criticized for a slow response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Berlin is trying to correct the deficiencies. In February, it announced that a 10 billion Euro increase in the 2024 defense budget. This would be on top of a 100 billion Euro increase in 2022. Nonetheless, German officials have said it may take five years to reach the 2% goal.

As the US has discovered, ramping up a nation’s defense industrial base is a huge challenge.

For example, boosting production of artillery ammunition will take years. In the US, only a handful of plants make that ammunition, but the US has been able to act unilaterally, unlike many of NATO’s European members.

Bundewehr self-propelled artillery howitzer ammunitionSelf-propelled howitzer ammunition at a Bundewehr training area in October.


Despite years of calls by France for pan-European defense, coordinating German defense procurement with other EU states — each with distinct military needs and political priorities – is difficult.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is trying to revitalize defense production, but “numerous bureaucratic obstacles — such as directives on EU-wide tendering procedures, the awarding and acceptance of contracts, and the final approval of produced material — continue to hinder his efforts,” Vad writes.

Europe’s combined defense spending is far greater than Russia’s. “And yet no one is taking the Europeans seriously in the military field,” Vad argues, lamenting the EU’s waste of “enormous sums in the defense sector” through duplicative production and certifications, lack of synergy, and “general egoism.”

Nonetheless, “Germany cannot go it alone” and other European NATO states should also increase their defense capabilities, Vad writes, adding that the US, while shifting its focus to the Pacific, “will remain indispensable” to Europe’s defense: “It is clear that without the United States, Europe cannot strategically balance powers like China or Russia, or even NATO partners like Turkey.”

Vad also believes that “enhancements of military capabilities alone won’t make Europe secure either now or in the longer term.” Ultimately, Europeans will have to work together to find a political solution to the Ukraine war.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider