Pressure grows on Germany to up its game in NATO

18 May 2018

Pressure on Germany is growing after a series of exposés in February this year showed the German military to be one of the least combat ready in NATO. First, Germany's parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces urged the navy to stop deploying frigates to NATO, EU and UN missions because the military simply doesn't have enough ships. German vessels have played key roles in anti-smuggling and migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Second, the Bundeswehr is due to take over leadership of NATO's multinational Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) at the start of next year, but doesn't have enough tanks, according to a leaked Defence Ministry document. Specifically, the Bundeswehr's ninth tank brigade in Münster only has nine operational Leopard 2 tanks — even though it promised to have 44 ready for the VJTF — and only three of the promised 14 Marder armoured infantry vehicles. A lack of spare parts and the high cost and time needed to maintain the vehicles was given as the reason for the shortfall. It added that it was also lacking night-vision equipment, automatic grenade launchers, winter clothing and body armour.

Additional gaps in combat readiness that have come to light include the fact that none of Germany’s submarines are currently operational, there are insufficient military helicopters for pilots to fly and only four of its 128 Eurofighter jets are combat-ready.

Germany spent 1.13 percent of its economic output on the military in 2017, well below the alliance’s agreed 2 percent target, according to January 2018 analysis by the BDI industry association. The lower 2017 figure was mainly due to stronger-than-expected economic growth, which lowered the percentage. Similarly, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated German defence spending in 2017 as $44.3 billion (1.2 per cent of GDP), which still placed the country as the 9th largest military spender in the world overall.

In April, it was reported that German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen had requested an additional $14.6 billion for the country’s military budget, saying the current budget of $45 billion is vastly inadequate for the military modernization Germany needs. The request is facing resistance from Germany’s finance ministry, which has planned a roughly $6.6 billion increase over four years. Under current plans, German military spending is expected to reach 1.5 percent of economic output in 2025, which would mean that Berlin would default on a pledge it made in 2014 when NATO members agreed to hit the 2 percent mark within a decade.

Levels of German defence spending and the lack of readiness of its armed forces are likely to re-emerge as a contentious issue between Berlin and Washington when President Donald Trump attends a NATO summit in July. German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded on 14 May that German “credibility” was at stake and that defence spending must increase. Yet during last year’s election campaign she also said that spending on Germany’s welfare state would continue to take precedence over the increased military expenditure demanded by President Trump.

Another aspect of Germany’s reluctance to significantly increase its military investment is a broad historical and cultural uneasiness with the idea of trying to re-establish itself as a military power. An October 2017 survey in Germany by the Pew Research Centre found that 51 percent of those polled wanted defence spending to remain at the same level, while 13 percent wanted cuts. Only 32 percent wanted to increase spending.