Germany’s soldiers of misfortune


BERLIN — Fighter jets and helicopters that don’t fly. Ships and submarines that can’t sail. Severe shortages of everything from ammunition to underwear.

If it sounds like an exaggeration to compare Germany’s Bundeswehr to “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” look no further than the army’s standard-issue assault rifle, Heckler & Koch’s G36. The government decided to scrap the weapon after discovering that the gun misses its target if it’s too hot.

“There is neither enough personnel nor materiel, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage,” Hans-Peter Bartels, a Social Democrat MP charged with monitoring the Bundeswehr for parliament, concluded in a report published at the end of January. “The troops are far from being fully-equipped.”

Once one of the fiercest (and most brutal) fighting forces on earth, today’s German army increasingly looks more like a volunteer fire department — last month, mountain troops were dispatched to shovel snow from roofs in Bavaria — than a modern military machine.

On a recent trip to Lithuania, where about 450 German soldiers are stationed as part of a NATO mission to deter Russian aggression, U.S. officials were dismayed to discover Bundeswehr personnel communicating on unsecure mobile phones due to a shortage of secure radio equipment.

“No matter where you look, there’s dysfunction" — High-ranking German officer at Bundeswehr HQ

Fewer than 20 percent of Germany’s 68 Tiger combat helicopters and fewer than 30 percent of its 136 Eurofighter jets could fly in late 2018. Pilots, frustrated that they can’t fly, are quitting.

“No matter where you look, there’s dysfunction,” a high-ranking German officer stationed at Bundeswehr headquarters in Berlin said.

While Germany’s military apparatus has been in a state of disrepair for some time, the Bartels report and a series of recent revelations over mismanagement at the top of the defense ministry suggest the force’s condition is worse than even the pessimists believed.

With U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration putting intense pressure Berlin to spend more on defense and fulfill its NATO obligations, the sorry state of Germany’s military is bound to be top of mind this weekend when U.S. and European political and military leaders gather for their annual security pow-wow in Munich.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen gets a tour of the Gorch Fock by its commander, Nils Brandt in January. The cost of the iconic ship’s overhaul has ballooned from €10 million to €135 million, according to the latest estimate | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/DPA

Whether Angela Merkel’s government is prepared, or even capable, of tackling the problems is another question. Merkel’s center-right bloc has overseen the defense ministry for nearly 15 years, and critics put responsibility for the Bundeswehr’s problems squarely at the ruling party’s feet.

“This is a battle on multiple fronts,” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said last month as she tried to fend off the criticism. “I also wish things would move more quickly, but 25 years of shrinkage and cuts can’t be reversed in just a few years.”

In recent weeks, von der Leyen has been caught up in a furor over outside consultants, including McKinsey and Accenture, which have been paid hundreds of millions of euros to clean up the army’s mess. So far, the consultants have little to show for their efforts.

Concerns over the outsiders’ role prompted parliament to form a special investigative committee last month to look into irregularities involving procurement and accusations that the consultants were given sweetheart deals and too much influence.

Pressure is building from all sides on von der Leyen, who has been defense minister since 2013. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, deputy leader of the opposition Free Democrats, warned that if the minister can’t clear the air quickly, it would be time to ask “whether the ministry is being led by the right people.”

Far from shipshape

Most Germans’ eyes glaze over at the mention of the Bundeswehr’s perpetual troubles, but an affair surrounding the Gorch Fock, the navy’s three-masted naval training ship, has caught their attention.

Launched in 1958 to school a new generation of West German naval recruits, the imposing 81-meter ship, which takes its name from a popular seafaring German author’s pseudonym, is more than just a training vessel; to many, the Gorch Fock — whose likeness was etched onto some Deutsche Mark bills — is a symbol of Germany’s postwar revival.

The ship’s iconic status is one reason why few objected when the Bundeswehr announced in 2015 that it needed a major overhaul. Until, that is, the price tag exploded from an initial projection of €10 million to €135 million, according to the latest estimate.

Bundeswehr officials claimed the depth of the ship’s troubles only became clear when it was in dry dock, but few are buying such explanations. “When the repairs cost more than a new ship, something is obviously amiss,” Bartels, the Bundeswehr’s parliamentary overseer, said in an interview.

Given Germany’s size and economic might, Berlin’s attention to security is surprisingly shallow.

The Gorch Fock “is a symptom of the Bundeswehr’s broader problems,” Bartels said. “Everything takes too long and costs too much money. It’s as if time and money were endless resources, and in the end no one takes responsibility.”

Almost overnight, the ship has gone from pride and joy to running gag. Last week, German weekly Der Spiegel pictured the Gorch Fock on its cover under the headline, “Ship of Fools.”

It’s an apt metaphor for Germany’s body politic as well. Given Germany’s size and economic might, Berlin’s attention to security is surprisingly shallow; citizens and politicians alike often seem oblivious to the challenges the country faces. Though Germany faces growing security threats from both Russia and China, one wouldn’t know it hanging around the German capital.

Much of the media now portrays the U.S. as a security threat on par with Russia. Public attitudes have moved in a similar direction. Security discussions are driven by a handful of like-minded think tank analysts who seem to spend most their time on Twitter, fretting about whether Trump will pull the plug on NATO.

More Germans believe China is a better partner for their country than the U.S., according to a survey published last week by Atlantik Brücke, a Berlin-based transatlantic lobbying group. About 80 percent of those surveyed consider U.S.-German relations to be “negative” or “very negative.”

In such an environment, it’s easy to forget that the U.S. has 33,000 troops stationed in Germany and that Washington has guaranteed German security since the end of World War II.

Angela Merkel's party remain solidly in favor of the nuclear alliance with the U.S | David Hecker/EPA

Yet that history might be the core problem when it comes to German attitudes toward defense. Many Germans appear blissfully unaware that their security, and by extension their prosperity, relies to no small degree on the presence of the U.S. nuclear shield.

They may soon be in for a rude awakening. Germany’s aging Tornado fighters, the only planes the country has that can carry nuclear warheads, will be decommissioned in the coming years. Berlin needs to find a replacement in order to fulfill its obligations under its decades-old nuclear defense strategy with the U.S.

Doing so might not be so easy, at least politically. In the wake of the collapse of a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia this month, some officials in the Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, have begun to question whether Berlin should maintain its nuclear commitments toward the U.S.

The SPD, which has been struggling to reverse a collapse in the polls, is likely just testing the waters. Merkel’s Christian Democrats remain solidly in favor of the nuclear alliance with the U.S., and any move to end it would likely hasten the government’s collapse.

Nonetheless, the SPD’s rhetoric reflects a broader skepticism of all things military in Germany that suggests rejuvenating the Bundeswehr is as much about changing the public’s mindset as it is about spending more money.

Germans’ knee-jerk rejection of armed engagement might be rooted in its 20th-century history, but it’s also apparent that decades under American protection have lulled the country into a false sense of security.

Military service carries little pride in Germany | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Given that, there’s little upside for politicians to openly embrace the army as an essential democratic institution. The fact that the Bundeswehr is active in dangerous foreign missions such as in Mali or Afghanistan receives little attention, for example.

Reports of ill-equipped troops in harm’s way are more likely to trigger dark humor than outrage. In a country where military service carries little pride, the soldiers’ fate is of little concern.

In Berlin and other German cities, some Bundeswehr personnel say they prefer not to wear their uniform when traveling to and from work, in order to avoid aggressive stares and rude comments. And in Potsdam, a regional capital near Berlin, local politicians have been debating whether it’s appropriate for city trams to carry recruitment advertisements for the Bundeswehr.

Even Merkel has given the Bundeswehr little love of late. The chancellor hasn’t visited troops in Germany since 2016. “Does the chancellor even care about the Bundeswehr?” mass-circulation daily Bild asked in a headline last week.

Whether she does or not may be beside the point at this stage. With Merkel on her way out, fixing the Bundeswehr will likely be up to her successor. Until then, plans for a “European Army” that includes Germany have about as much chance of getting off the ground as the German Air Force.

Judith Mischke contributed reporting.

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