How war in Ukraine convinced Germany to rebuild its army

Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the German government said it would spend €100bn on modernising its army, the Bundeswehr. For Renzo Di Leo, a captain in Germany’s 37th armoured infantry brigade, the big question is: what took it so long?

“We’ve known about the threat from Russia at least since it annexed Crimea in 2014,” he says. “The political response to that could have come much sooner.”

Di Leo is part of a multinational Nato force that held a major training exercise in northern Germany earlier this month. For days, tanks and artillery guns pounded the moors and forests of the Lüneburg Heath, stirring up clouds of dust so high they blocked out the sun.

The exercise, involving 7,500 soldiers from nine nations, was a showcase for a military alliance that has been instilled with a new sense of purpose since war returned to Europe at the end of February. It was also a chance for the Bundeswehr to show off some of its best kit — the armoured howitzer 2000, for example, one of the world’s most powerful artillery systems, which can fire 12 rounds a minute and hit targets 40km away. This month Germany announced it would provide seven of them to the Ukrainian army.

Yet, speaking in the German parliament just a few days before that show of strength took place, the country’s defence minister had painted a quite different picture of the current state of the Bundeswehr. Christine Lambrecht said the army was out of ammunition and had a massive shortage of combat-ready equipment. “For years all we did was make savings,” she said. “We have to put an end to that.”

A Bundeswehr armoured transport vehicle takes part in Nato international joint military exercises in Germany this month
A Bundeswehr armoured transport vehicle takes part in Nato international joint military exercises in Germany earlier this month © Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

It looks like the government is listening at last. The €100bn fund promised by German chancellor Olaf Scholz marks the biggest increase in the country’s military expenditure since the end of the cold war. It was accompanied by a commitment to spend more than 2 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product on the military. The goal, Scholz told MPs, was “a powerful, cutting-edge, progressive Bundeswehr that can be relied upon to protect us”.

It was a bold move. Pacifist sentiment is strong in Germany, where many remain wary of their country’s army, mindful of the Wehrmacht’s role in Nazi atrocities. At a May Day event in Düsseldorf, protesters called Scholz a “warmonger” for sending heavy weapons to Ukraine.

But the reaction within the army was one of unconcealed delight. “The fact that 80 per cent of MPs stood up and applauded Scholz when he said it’s time to bolster the armed forces — to me that was an important moment,” says Brigadier General Alexander Krone, commander of the 37th armoured infantry brigade, who oversaw the Lüneburg Heath Nato exercise.

For Krone, news of the investment comes just in time. Next year Germany will lead Nato’s “very high readiness joint task force”, a rapid response force designed to deploy anywhere in the world within days. The country last led the force in 2019 at a time when the cracks from years of underfunding were beginning to show. Officers routinely complained that they lacked the necessary equipment for the assignment and had to scrounge kit from other parts of the army.

Hundreds of demonstrators from DGB labor union take part in labor day demonstration march in Dusseldorf,
At a May Day event in Düsseldorf, protesters called Chancellor Olaf Scholz a ‘warmonger’ for sending heavy weapons to Ukraine © Ying Tang/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Bureaucrats resorted to gobbledegook to explain the shortages. “They came up with the concept of ‘dynamic availability management’,” chief of defence General Eberhard Zorn recalled in a recent interview. “We’re world champions in inventing such euphemistic platitudes.”

Since the Russian invasion, though, there’s a sense that the army should get everything it needs, with no questions asked. “There’s a lot more support,” says Krone. “It’s also more sustainable — we won’t have to give stuff back at the end of our mission. The system’s working much more smoothly.”

‘We forgot how to defend ourselves’

For years, Germany has been pilloried for its parsimony on defence. Former US president Barack Obama’s 2016 quip about “free-riders” exploiting America’s security guarantees and not paying their fair share towards Nato’s collective defence was partly aimed at Angela Merkel, Scholz’s predecessor. During his own presidency, Donald Trump doubled down on that jibe, telling Merkel: “Angela, you gotta pay”.

Trump’s logic was simple. At a Nato summit in 2014 Germany had promised to move towards spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, but it never achieved that goal: the current level hovers at about 1.5 per cent. The result: a perception that Berlin never really pulled its weight.

Years of austerity had left the Bundeswehr strapped for cash. On the day of Russia’s invasion, Alfons Mais, chief of the army, said the Bundeswehr was “broke”. As a result, he added, the options it would be able to offer in support of Nato efforts were “extremely limited”. “We all saw it coming but couldn’t get through with our arguments to draw the right conclusions from the annexation of Crimea and implement them,” he said.

In her April speech to parliament, Lambrecht seemed to agree with Mais’ bleak assessment. Only 150 of the army’s 350 Puma infantry fighting vehicles were actually operational, she said, and only nine of its 51 Tiger attack helicopters could fly.

But it was during the national debate about offering heavy weapons to Kyiv that the true state of the Bundeswehr became apparent to the wider public. Army commanders said there was no way Germany could provide tanks and howitzers without dangerously compromising its own defences and its commitments to Nato — its cupboards were bare. “In the short-term we have nothing available that we can supply really quickly and promptly,” said foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

“We have to recognise that our options here have reached their limits,” Scholz said last month.

German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht stands next to a Puma infantry fighting vehicle
Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht, pictured with a Puma infantry fighting vehicle, told parliament that only 150 of the army’s 350 were operational © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The destruction being wreaked on cities just two hours’ flying time from Berlin has made the problem headline news and started to change public attitudes. Suddenly Germany has begun to appreciate its army, an institution that it had previously treated, in the words of then president Horst Köhler in 2005, with a “friendly lack of interest”. A poll by Der Spiegel soon after Scholz’s announcement of the €100bn fund found 78 per cent of Germans supported his promise of more money for the armed forces.

“Now people are saying, damn, maybe we need the army for its core mission after all,” Krone says.

But the effect of the war goes much deeper. “The happy-go-lucky German — surrounded by friends, with a rising standard of living, not worried about security, if there’s a problem the Americans will take care of it — that’s a thing of the past,” says Ekkehard Brose, president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy. “Now more of us see the world as a place where we have to stand up for the things we care about.”

It is a painful adjustment. “Germans lulled themselves into a false sense of security, into this belief that there would never be another war in Europe,” says Armin Papperger, chief executive of the arms manufacturer Rheinmetall. “The upshot is that over two generations we forgot how to defend ourselves.”

The transformation of the German armed forces has been truly dramatic. At the end of the cold war in the early 1990s, the Bundeswehr had a troop strength of half a million, making it one of Europe’s most formidable fighting forces.

But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, that army became a shadow of its former self. Compulsory military service was abolished in 2011 and manpower fell 60 per cent between 1990 and 2019.

According to a recent report by Ifo, a Munich-based think-tank, defence spending adjusted for inflation fell 34 per cent between 1990 and 2014. Military equipment was either put into storage, sold off or scrapped. The number of German battle tanks fell from 6,779 to just 806 over the past 30 years, and the number of combat aircraft and helicopters from 1,337 to 345.

Yet, over that period, the international role of the army grew, with high-profile deployments to the Balkans and Afghanistan. Troops and resources were spread ever more thinly. “Nowhere was the peace dividend after reunification as generous as it was in Germany,” wrote Friedrich Merz, leader of the German Christian Democrats, in March. “The price we paid for that is an army that is largely dysfunctional.”

Things changed somewhat after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Defence spending rose between then and 2020 from €32.4bn to €45.6bn. But, as Ifo points out, that is still $10bn less than what it was at the end of the cold war.

The depleted state of the Bundeswehr has not gone unnoticed by Germany’s allies. A recent report by the German parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces said soldiers returning from Lithuania complained that comrades from other countries “made fun of them” about the state of the Bundeswehr’s radio equipment.

“There was no one German soldier who was familiar with the radio system used there or had been instructed in how to use it,” the report said. “When it comes to the equipment available in international exercises, the Bundeswehr is regularly the ‘weakest link in the chain’.”

The report also notes that soldiers elsewhere are still waiting for new battle helmets ordered years ago. The state of some barracks, sanitation facilities and kitchens is described as “desolate”. The army’s main cargo helicopter, the ageing CH-53G, which has been in service for almost 50 years, is “particularly prone to breakdown because of its age and . . . the absence of the necessary spare parts”.

Four soldiers in camouflage stand with their backs to the camera watching a CH-53G cargo helicopter land
The Bundeswehr’s CH-53G cargo helicopters, which have been in service for almost 50 years, are likely to be replaced in the new defence spending © Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Germany’s highly bureaucratic, slow-moving military procurement process is one cause of the problem. Ordering replacements for everything from heavy equipment, ships and tanks to body armour “all takes too long”, the report said.

Meanwhile, there is a dire shortage of ammunition. “It’s not enough for me . . . to say the war can’t last longer than eight days because I don’t have enough ammunition for longer,” says Papperger of Rheinmetall. “That’s just not on.”

The shopping list

Now the lean years are set to end. Speculation is already swirling as to what the €100bn fund — debt-financed and separate from the normal German budget — will be spent on.

There is no definitive shopping list yet, but the rough contours are already clear. A chunk will go on the 35 American-made F-35 fighter jets that Germany announced it will buy in March. These jets, which are capable of carrying nuclear bombs, will ensure Germany’s continued role in Nato’s system of nuclear sharing, replacing the country’s Tornado aircraft that have been flying since the 1980s.

Other potential big-ticket items include a new cargo helicopter to replace the ageing CH-53Gs and new Puma infantry fighting vehicles. Some €20bn from the fund is expected to go to restock the army’s severely depleted stores of ammunition. Another €2.4bn will be spent on new body armour for the troops, Lambrecht has said, as well as night vision goggles and modern radio equipment.

F-35A fighter jets on a runway
Germany plans to spend a chunk of the €100bn defence fund to buy 35 American-made F-35 fighter jets, which are capable of carrying nuclear bombs © Reuters

But already concerns are being raised about how best to use the cash. “I’m very worried that we won’t spend this money wisely,” says Claudia Major, a defence analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

The fund has also sparked intense political clashes between the government and opposition. Military experts fear the government will simply use it to top up the defence budget, in order to reach the 2 per cent Nato spending goal. That would exhaust the entire fund within about four years, they say, with the risk that once it’s spent, defence expenditure will fall again.

The opposition Christian Democrats reject that idea, demanding instead a long-term commitment to higher military outlays. Their opinion matters: creating the fund will require a constitutional amendment, and any such change needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to pass.

Alexander Dobrindt, a senior conservative MP from the opposition Christian Social Union, insisted that Scholz had made two separate promises — to provide €100bn for the armed forces and to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. “That’s the benchmark for us,” he said this month. “We are insisting that this double promise is kept.”

Defence experts concur. “If the fund is supposed to give the Bundeswehr long-term financial security then it makes sense to spread the money over eight to 12 years,” says Major. “Then you can ensure that all the big projects are fully financed, including servicing and maintenance. It just doesn’t make sense to burn through this money in four years.” Krone feels the same way: “It has to be sustainable.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz waves as he leaves the Bundestag with Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann,  chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on defence
A poll soon after Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement of the €100bn fund found 78 per cent of Germans supported his promise of more money for the armed forces © John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Others warn that the fund won’t be big enough to turn around the Bundeswehr’s fortunes. “The €100bn is just an initial downpayment in a longer-term investment in strengthening Nato’s eastern flank and Germany’s own territorial defence,” says Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund, an American public policy think-tank.

The experts at Ifo take a similar view, saying Germany’s core defence budget should be raised by €25bn a year on a long-term basis “to build up and maintain a sustainable defence capability”. Others say the defence outlays are already too high, dwarfing federal spending on health, education, energy and the environment. A public appeal launched by a group of NGOs, academics and leftwing MPs against the fund in March has received nearly 50,000 signatures.

It warned Germany was embarking on its “biggest rearmament programme since the end of the second world war” — one that “will not help the people of Ukraine” and “will not make our world more peaceful or safer”.

Whatever is finally decided, the Bundeswehr is enjoying an almost unprecedented moment in the sun. Krone hopes that will continue, but sounds doubtful that it will. “I just hope we don’t have a situation where people move on to the next problem and the armed forces and their needs slip out of the public consciousness again,” he says.

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