Cast your minds back, Dear Readers, to the good old days when you knew who your enemy was. The Cold War was always going to be an “all or nothing” affair once it turned hot – and in 1 BR Corps, there was always the odd crash-out to remind you of what it might all be about. Whenever we went on large NATO exercises we were generally dwarfed by the numbers of German APCs and tanks on the move. At one point it is recorded that the German Army had just under 5,000 tanks and tank-destroyers in service. The army had six tank divisions, four armoured infantry divisions, a mountain division, six home defence tank brigades and 6 home defence armoured infantry brigades.
The Bundeswehr (the army, navy and air force), was about 550,000-strong, with twice as many reserves and another 170,000 civilians (many of whom would have donned the uniform in the event). In West Berlin alone, for example, it was reckoned the police were 28,000 strong and that many were trained in the use of anti-tank weapons. They were truly impressive and run with a clean efficiency that was marked by a determination to defend Germany. They were, after all, living on the front-line and defending their own territory against what we later understood to be a fairly substantive plan to overrun the West before further NATO reinforcements could arrive.
After unification, and as part of the general trend to ease tensions in Europe, the Bundeswehr was reduced to some 370,000. The Army component was reduced to its present strength of just under 180,000, along with just 27,000 reserves. It had just 225 tanks as of the beginning of 2018 – a reduction of over 90% from its Cold War levels. On paper, there are still a few combat brigades, but the lists of German formations is misleading as a number contain substantial elements from other European armies.
Germany came in for increasing criticisms from its NATO partners as it reduced its forces. Some believed the resulting savings were a way of helping to boost German finances even at a time when it was being accused of dominating the European marketplace as a whole, and more specifically some national economies such as that of Greece. More explicitly military comments came from the US after a number of high-level visits indicated that Germany’s armed forces had deteriorated to the point where the Bundeswehr was finding it hard to muster enough forces to meet some its most basic NATO commitments. One such visitor compared the Bundeswehr to a massive scrap-heap.
Germany is due to assume leadership of NATO’s Very High-Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and this entails having a minimum number of troops and equipment ready to move at short notice. By the middle of 2018, the 9th Armoured Brigade due to deploy in early 2019 was reportedly having great difficulty mustering more than nine fully-operational Leopard 2 tanks of the 44 promised, and more than a few Marder APCs. Other shortages reported include night-vision kit, body-armour, infantry support-weapons and winter uniforms. This last point might be a particular problem given that the VJTF’s main role is to help ward-off a Russian attack on the Baltic States.
This is a quite extraordinary state of affairs, and there have been various reports of units having to scavenge spares and cannibalise vehicles from other formations to achieve even a basic level of readiness. The term “Availability”, however, is one of the most important statistics when considering the operational capability of any force. It is a measure of what forces a commander can rely upon having at any given point; for example, a 50% availability rate implies you need twice as much equipment on the establishment to achieve any given task. It is likely that the commanders in the 9th Bde will be looking anxiously over their shoulders as they deploy. Some of us remember doing this as we drove out of camp in the 1980s, leaving a trail of pale-blue coolant vapour and broken down Chieftains!
The Army is not alone in its woes. The air-force has problems maintaining its front-line fighter force which is said to be fully operational for only a few months each year due to a shortage of spares, downtime for repairs and maintenance, as well as a lack of fuel. Of the 93 Tornadoes currently in commission (out of a total of 128 purchased), only 29 are said to be combat-ready. Some reports earlier this year suggested that even this figure was optimistic and that, in May 2018, only four aircraft were actually combat-ready, due mainly to a shortage of missiles (with a total of just ten aircraft that did not have major defects in their onboard defence-systems).
The new head of the air –force, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, admitted in late June that: “The Luftwaffe is at a low point. Aircraft are grounded due to a lack of spare parts, or they aren’t even on site since they’re off for maintenance by the industry”. General Gerhatz went on to describe how a 400-hour inspection regime supposed to take four months ended up lasting fourteen months. His view is that lack of finances is the main culprit and that the Luftwaffe is unable to make long-term plans. However, as some have pointed out, there has been a higher than normal turnover in senior officers and his predecessor was apparently fired after refusing to retract his demands for the Government to agree to replace the obsolescent German Tornado fleet with the new (and extremely expensive), American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (the Lightning II which is now entering service with the RAF and RNAS).
The UK might have had its Nimrod, but the Germans decided in 2005 to replace their old Atlantique early warning aircraft with second-hand Dutch P-3C. The only problem was that almost as soon as they entered service it was discovered that they were basically worn out and needed new wings and tactical systems; it was said the paint was the only thing keeping them in one piece. (Apparently, no-one asked the Dutch why they might be getting rid of them.) However, rather than competing the contract for the upgrades, a sole-source contract was given to one company to sort matters in 2017, with the work to be completed by 2022. Some have suggested that this shows that the Germans no longer have the will or capacity to effectively manage such complex projects. It is reported that none of the German P-3C is currently operational.
The German Navy, previously responsible for protecting large areas of the North Sea and Baltic-Approaches is seen as a shadow of its former self with most of its Type 212 submarine force out of action, a naval air arm struggling to keep elderly helicopters in the air, and a disastrous attempt to introduce a new class of heavy frigates. Some commentators are now asking whether the German navy even has a future. Citing official explanations for the submarine problem (“Germany can no longer afford to stock spares for these expensive submarines”), military observers are asking why this rich nation seemingly lacks the will to support its naval forces in an increasingly unstable world. After all, Type 212 subs continue to be a good export-earner and a number of other navies operate these boats quite successfully with more on order.
The new Baden-Wurttemberg (B-W) frigates were ordered to replace the 1980s-era Baden class ships of which only two are still in service. The first of the $4bn B-W class of ships were due to commission in July 2017, but the decision to pack it full (as in 90%) of largely untried and tested electronics to reduce crew sizes has backfired and the ship is so fundamentally unworkable that it has been rejected by the navy – the first time this has ever happened. The ship also lists to starboard, is overweight and cannot achieve its designed speed.
The integration of the sensors and weapons hardware with the command and control system has been a particular problem, and the idea of a small nucleus of crew-members being able to control almost all aspects of the navigation and fighting systems from a central command room has simply not worked to date. Much of this centres upon the command and control computer system, the Atlas Naval Combat System (ANCS), built by Atlas Elektronik GmbH of Bremen. Germany’s Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology, and In-Service Support (BAAINBw), has made it clear that it will not accept the ship unless all these issues are addressed – but it seems hard to fathom out how the weight issue – or indeed that 1.3 degrees list, can be sorted without a major rethink of the design – which is unlikely ever to be implemented on the first of class.
The reduction in the size of the Germany navy means there is no reserve capacity on one important area of support – namely the ability to resupply at sea. In June this year, Germany’s naval chief, Vice Admiral Andreas Krause admitted, “We cannot make up for the unavailability of the tankers. The navy has become too small. This is another example of how urgent the modernisation and financing of the navy is.” This followed a Navy announcement at the end of June that its two replenishment tankers were not available due to wear and tear and engine problems. Given that its only other operational vessels were committed to the EU’s Operation ‘Sofia’ migrant-monitoring mission in the Aegean, it meant that the Navy could not even provide a tanker for Standing NATO Maritime Group One.
So where does all this leave the once strong and impressive Germany Armed Forces – the Bundeswehr? In a rather “delicate state” has to be the answer. The fingers of blame are many and generally point to the leadership of the two politicians at the top: Chancellor Merkel and the Defence Minister, Ursula Von der Leyen who has been in post since 2013. Some have openly accused them of wanting to change the image of Germany’s military by presenting a more “caring front”, working with the UN on peacekeeping and humanitarian tasks. As one critic said recently: “A tank is a fighting machine, pure and simple. But a man in a jeep is a peacekeeper, a humanitarian aid worker, a disaster-relief worker; and that is the image the new Germany wants to portray of its armed forces.” Others go even further, accusing the Germans of always taking care to keep their troops out of harm’s way even on UN ops.
Both Merkel and Von der Leyen seem to be content to play games with statistics, using them to cover up further reductions in the forces. Merkel has said she “welcomes increases already planned”, but also says the amounts involved are not sufficient. So she and Vol der Leyen pledged to increase Germany’s defence spending to a whopping 1.5% of GDP – by 2024! Von der Leyen has boasted that she has presided over four successive increases in spending and that these amount to a 30% increase since 2014. She has not officially commented on how she squares the 1.5% with the 2% minimum agreed at the Wales conference in 2014.
Von der Leyen also avoided saying that even with the planned 2019 increase it still means German defence spending will be just 1.31% of GDP. She has further problems with explaining why current spending plans actually include a reduction back to 1.23% by 2022. At the same time, the Chancellor is on record as saying “It would be reckless not to prepare for Alliance defence” – whatever that means.
Even the German Green Party believes the situation is a mess. According to their party defence spokesman, Von der Leyen should: “ask herself what she’s been doing for the last legislative period. Apparently, it is politically more opportune to constantly announce armament intentions and trend reversals, rather than finally addressing the problems of spare parts and maintenance. Von der Leyen is fully and totally responsible for the current problems.”
One expert observer has summed up the problem as follows: “For a long time, Germany has under-spent dramatically, and, let’s be honest, wrapped itself in the mantle of its non-militarist foreign policy.”