A “power for peace” without power: relaunching the German military

di Michelangelo Freyrie

Germany has one of the strongest economies in the world and can count on a state-of-the-art industry and technological basis. The federal republic has been one of the key pillars of the NATO in Europe since the rearmament in 1955 and today plays a hegemonic role in the European framework. The Bundeswehr (Federal Army) has however been pointed out as an embarrassment not only for the country, but for Germany’s allies in Europe and abroad. The dire state of its equipment stocks and the decline in manpower have been a recurring topic for little over two year, especially with the influx of crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East calling for the eventuality of foreign interventions. Berlin finally decided to relaunch the Bundeswehr as a competent combat force; this will however take money and time it doesn’t have.

Many of the problems the Bundeswehr needs to tackle can be traced back to the profound changes it went under since the end of the Cold War. The transition from its role to respond to an eventual Soviet attack through the Fulda gap to the peacekeeping operations starting in the mid-90s has been interpreted by the administrations of unified Germany as the chance to perform one of the many budget cuts during the profound restructuring of the German economy between 1990 and 2005. The subsequent reduction of funds had a concrete impact on the Bundeswehr’s ability not only to renew its assets but also maintain existing vehicles and material.  The Luftwaffe, despite counting 114 Eurofighters, can only deploy 38; similarly, the Heer (ground army) is estimated to stock only 70 percent of the needed operational equipment. The deficiencies are not only due to economic constraints: the parliamentary report of 2017 puts emphasis on the difficult relations between the Army and the companies it relies on for additional maintenance of vehicles and hardware. The years of lethargy of the German army has caused a great deal of unresponsiveness of hardware manufacturers, which currently struggle to adapt to the new fast-paced plans of Berlin when it comes to dealing with the great influx of repairing and oversight requests especially by the navy and air force.  While the proposed solution of propping up the army-owned workshops would certainly enhance the Bundeswehr’s autonomy on such matters, this is only but a patch on the large voids suffered by every branch and it could lead to additional pressure on the available manpower.

The best employer of the republic


Maybe it’s the perception of this part of the defense sector as a dead track of the otherwise booming German economy that has also led to the emergence of a second, dangerous deficit: the struggle to recruit specialized manpower in strategic fields like healthcare and IT puts a great burden on the capacity to stay up to date and operate in difficult scenarios. It’s not surprising that one of the initiatives presented by minister Van Der Leyen in her “White Book” is to transform the Bundeswehr in “the most attractive employer of the federal republic”. The proposed strategy is to imitate the offer of the private defense industry in terms of professional growth, adding social bonuses like free Kindergartens, a generous pension plan etc. to the mix. The greater challenge remains that of being able to “sell” the Bundeswehr as an open and flexible employer in which it’s possible to build a career; an aggressive marketing campaign ranging from  YouTube series to sponsored pizza cardboards is already in full swing, and the ability to open up to EU citizens has been considered. When it comes to the Army however it’s the less spectacular parts of a very unglamorous occupation that mark the difference between attractiveness and professional suicide: as stated by the 2015 report, excessive bureaucracy often represents a sufficient reason for many recruits to revert to the civilian life or transition to private security. This is true especially of more traditional roles also suffering from the manpower shortage: a lack of officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) is starting to severely hinder deployment and operativity, as multiple roles have to be covered by single individuals, for example on matters of fiscal services for the soldiers. Although the life conditions of the soldiers have German soldiers are far more under pressure than many of their NATO colleagues, and surely not for the right reasons. This also becomes blatantly obvious when considering loopholes and weakness in the army bureaucracy, like the fact that deployment in non-combat zones (prominently the Baltic States) is payed less than in Germany,

The “Weissbuch” shows that Berlin is ready to try embracing a more encompassing and strong foreign policy based on the ability to alternate diplomacy and hard power, although it recognizes it will always be limited by having to rely on a “Single set of forces which has to cover the whole operational spectrum of the Bundeswehr in its plurality, parallelism (sic) and different temporal scopes”. To relaunch the concept of a European common defense has thus become one of the pillars of the future development of the German Army, although the accent has been interestingly moved from the collaboration between units from different nations to the creation of a shared military industry with projects launched by “Lead Nations” in areas where they can count on competence and know how. This would not only lay the groundwork for future technological development but also quickly close present gaps: the launch of the joint Franch-German collaboration to build and maintain new Hercules C130J transport planes is an excellent example, as it is set to allow the Luftwaffe to partially substitute the US Airforce in the transfer of troops and material to the German deployments in Syria and Iraq. Such initiatives not only bring technical advantages and compensate the national deficiencies, but also help improve the transparency in the relationship between the political world and the weapon industry, an ever-returning theme in German politics whose last incarnation involved a muddy affair regarding the defected G36 and the unlawful cancelation of a massive shipping in 2015.

A carrot without a stick


It doesn’t surprise that the desire for a strong Bundeswehr has only recently started to gain traction. For historic reasons Germany has always resorted to project its influence abroad with little focus on ability to strike its enemies: great exercise of soft power has played a major role on the international stage in the most different scenarios, from the Mejii Restoration to the foundation of the European Union. The understandable diffidence towards the military and the consequent emergence of the critique towards the Bundeswehr as a concept in itself rather than towards an imperfect tool or the government wielding it has however created the misconception that soft power could completely replace the prospect of military intervention as an instrument of political bargaining, in other words that the carrot could work without the stick. Since Germany has emerged as the leading country in Europe this logic has however shown its limits, especially thanks to the politics of disengagement of the Obama administration. The Ukrainian conflict and to a certain extent the refugee crisis have shown that a Friedensmacht, a power for peace, also needs to be a military power able to operate beyond the “simple” garrisoning of critical areas. If and when this transition to the pursued Mehrrollenfähigkeit (ability to cover multiple roles) will happen depends much on how the next German legislature will look like. For once, even the victory of a coalition between Social-Democrats and the pacifist Green Party is unlikely to put a halt to the relaunch of the Army, as a strengthening of the European pillar of the NATO is an evergreen of German electoral commitments. It’s however up to debate if rhetoric will also be followed by the much-needed budget increase: while anything linked to the military is often seen with suspect by the more leftist elements of the political spectrum, even the parliamentary commission warns from a possible reversal of the budget increase in 2018. The rise of old and new alternative political forces like the Alternative fur Deutschland or Die linke, which both made anti-globalism and collaboration with Russia pillars of their policy proposals, pose a threat to the further integration the Bundeswehr badly needs in its allies’ strategic network.  With few months left until the election, the need to rapidly bring forward the taken initiatives has become more and more pressing, as the ever-changing international scenario risks to outrun the efforts made by Berlin and put the republic in the situation of not being able to intervene when and where it becomes necessary. Germany needs to further strengthen its position as democratic force if Europe as a whole ought to stay relevant on the international stage.




Unterrichtung durch den Wehrbeauftragten – Jahresbericht 2016 (58. Bericht des 24.1.2017) und 2015 (57. Bericht des 25.1.2016)


Michelangelo Freyrie

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