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Germany, Europe’s powerhouse, is rearming – but slowly

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germany was forced to acknowledge the poor state of its military. It's now begun rebuilding its Bundeswehr into a force capable of defending not just Germany but the EU. But it will take time.

(CN) — Slowly, cautiously and proudly, Germany is rebuilding its armed forces and beginning to flex its military muscles – a development long desired by the United States, NATO and hawks in Europe, but regarded with unease by those who dread seeing Berlin's return to militarism.

In a first timid show of global prowess last August, Germany's air force – the Luftwaffe – launched six Eurofighter jets from the Neuburg an der Donau airfield in Bavaria to join Western military exercises in Australia meant to deter China's rising power.

The fighter jets, accompanied by seven massive transport planes that provided in-air refueling, made it to Singapore in just over 20 hours with a stop in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to change pilots.

In Australia, 250 German soldiers took part in the drills and one of the transport planes continued on its way across the Pacific Ocean to circumnavigate the globe – a first for Germany's post-war air force – on its return to Germany after stops in Tahiti and Bolivia.

Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, declared it an unprecedented mission to the Indo-Pacific and a major success.

It was a small, but significant, step for Germany, a nation haunted by its Nazi past but also embarrassed by the poor state of its armed forces, a favorite punchline on late-night comedy shows.

The TV shows have plenty of material to work with.

Last December, 18 of Germany's ultra-modern Puma infantry fighting vehicles broke down due to electronic problems and other defects. Soldiers in one tank had to abandon it after its wiring caught fire, media reported. In recent years, much of its fleet of Eurofighter jets, transport planes and submarines were found unprepared for combat.

And then there's the broomstick incident. In 2015, German soldiers used black-painted broomsticks because they lacked machine guns during a NATO exercise. That took place a year after the Ukraine crisis exploded following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has crushed Germany's post-Cold War illusions about a future of peace in Europe and forced the country to begin making its once-formidable military strong again.

At least, its leaders are talking a lot about doing this.

After the outbreak of the catastrophic war in Ukraine in February 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged an infusion of 100 billion euros (about $108 billion) into the military and a major increase of annual military spending.

Since then, he's had himself photographed sitting on German tanks; pushed to create a transnational European air defense system; and touted Europe's need to defend itself against Russia's autocracy to prevent a new Iron Curtain from dividing Europe.

He also approved training Ukrainian soldiers in Germany and sent German-made weapons, including Leopard 2 combat tanks and howitzers, to Ukraine, thereby breaking a German taboo against shipping arms into a war zone.

Germany has in the past sent weapons to conflict zones, but not one where two sovereign nations were fighting each other. In 2015, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel authorized German weapons to be sent to the Kurds in the fight against ISIS and last year Germany lifted an arms ban to Saudi Arabia in its war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“We aren’t taking Russia’s attack on peace in Europe lying down,” Scholz said last August in a major speech at the Charles University in Prague. “We will not stand idly by and watch women, men and children being killed or free countries being rubbed off the map and disappearing behind walls or iron curtains. We don’t want to go back to the 19th or 20th century with their wars of occupation and totalitarian excesses.”

But the amount of work and investment needed to get the Bundeswehr into fighting shape may take years.


“The Italian military is much more powerful than the German military right now,” said Alexander Clarkson, an expert on German politics at King's College London.

“If you think of it in those terms, there's an element also of the Germans looking and saying: 'How is our army weaker than the Italian army?'” he said. “So, there is also an element of sheer national embarrassment.”

A month ago, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the state of the military is so bad it could not ward off an attack.

“We do not have an army which is capable of defending the country against a military offensive, a brutal war of aggression,” Pistorius told fellow party members in parliament, according to Bild, a German tabloid.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivers a speech marking the first anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the German parliament Bundestag in Berlin on March 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

It's been little more than a year since Scholz made his “Zeitenwende” speech (in German, Zeitenwende means “historic turning point”) in which he promised to do away with Germany's reliance on Russian energy and rebuild the Bundeswehr by spending 100 billion euros ($108.6 billion) on the armed forces and increasing Germany's annual military budget to match 2% of gross domestic product, a NATO target.

But actions aren't matching the rhetoric: So far, only about 30 billion of the 100 billion euros has been earmarked, with much of that going to orders of F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. The Bundeswehr did not immediately reply to a message seeking details about its spending plans.

The defense budget, meanwhile, remains at under 1.4% of GDP and it isn't projected to reach 2% of GDP in the next decade, according to an analysis by Jane's, a British firm that tracks military spending.

“It turned out to be quite a slog,” said Jonas Driedger, an international security researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, a German think tank.

“Now there is a big debate on how to actually spend it and there it becomes very German,” he said. “There's a lot of haggling about this and it takes quite a while.”

Clarkson said rebuilding the Bundeswehr will take a lot more time than Germany's massive shift away from Russian energy. Last August, Germany said it had freed itself from Russian gas supplies, a feat largely achieved by switching to liquefied natural gas imports and increasing supplies from Norway.

“The shift with the Bundeswehr and the military is slower; there are a lot more intractable problems in that context,” Clarkson said. “This is a long-term, 10-to-15-year reform project for the German military.”

The shrinking of the Bundeswehr came after it reduced military spending at the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Germany and Central Europe.

“German society had a lot of reasons not to spend much on NATO and the military,” Driedger said. “One of them was that most Germans were just not very worried about being attacked by Russia.”

The military was shredded even more following the Great Recession of 2007-2008 and the ensuing debt crisis that threatened to destroy the EU's financial stability and crater the euro.

Clarkson said defense budgets were “one of the first things that got cut” because at the time there “was a fairly benign security situation.”

In 2011, the Bundeswehr shrunk even more when Germany ended conscription and moved to create a professional army, a move also meant to cut costs.

“The reason the Bundeswehr is a disastrous mess isn't so much because the Germans are pacifist, they're not,” Clarkson said. “There is this myth in American journalism that the Germans are pacifist. I mean, they've never been pacifists.”

He's got a good point.

Although a defeated West Germany was forbidden from having a standing army immediately after the end of World War II, the Allies quickly changed that stance as the Cold War began and by 1955 Germany's Bundeswehr came into existence as a NATO member with the chief mission to hold off the threat of a Soviet invasion.


Indeed, the Allies welcomed German military expertise and were eager to learn lessons from the Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler's army, according to Adam Tooze, a historian at Columbia University.

NATO's nimble command structure, with a heavy emphasis on rapid mobility and decentralizing decisions to give more leeway to commanders in the battlefield, can be traced in part to German military tactics, Tooze wrote.

By the end of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr numbered 500,000 people. Today, it stands at about 260,000.

Still, there are large segments of German society that are wary of even more military spending, especially among those on the political left. They point out that Germany is already one of the world's biggest military spenders with more than $50 billion going to the Bundeswehr each year.

Support for providing Ukraine with weapons and billions of dollars in aid is much lower in East Germany than in West Germany.

Many of the 16 million people in East Germany still retain a historical affinity with Russia even though 32 years have passed since the end of the German Democratic Republic, the old East German communist state, said Ed Turner, an expert on German politics at Aston University in Birmingham, England.

He said East Germany remains poorer than West Germany and many people there feel that the country's reunification has not benefited them as much as they had hoped.

“There is a sense that we shouldn't be spending money on wars elsewhere, but spending money here,” Turner said. “If there's money for tanks for Ukraine, there should be money for road infrastructure or rail infrastructure or looking after people on low incomes.”

Regardless, it appears certain Germany will continue to beef up its military strength in the coming years.

“Broadly, the political mainstream is supportive” of increasing military spending, Turner said.

Clarkson said Germany has come to accept it must play a bigger role in defending not just its own interests but more broadly those of the European Union.

“Increasingly, the concept of nation and the concept of being European blend together within the EU structure,” Clarkson said. “It's not straightforward, but the idea is that it's not just enough to defend Germany, you have to defend all of the EU, not just NATO.”

“[Germans] have struggled with this since the 1990s,” he added. “The idea that German leadership also involves genuinely taking the lead on security and defense issues and not just sitting back and letting others deal with things for it.”

He said the U.S. wants to see Germany and the EU as a whole take more responsibility for European security and rely less on American military strength because that frees up American firepower and allows it to be shifted toward Asia and the growing conflict with China.

“The idea of Europe and Germany becoming more self-reliant is very much something Americans are no longer hostile to. It has become central to the U.S. foreign policy agenda now,” he said. “A stronger German military, which is friendly to the United States, means the Americans don't need as many troops and equipment, they don't need the presence in Europe that they have now. An increase in Italian ships means they need to put fewer [American] ships into the Mediterranean.”

Still, Driedger said he doesn't think Germany will turn into a military might – or bully – intent on carrying out foreign ambitions.

“What you're seeing is not that Germany is now saying, 'Right, we are now a warfaring nation, we have a strategic great power outlook,'” he said. “Germany will not become a newly aggressive military hegemon in Europe for all sorts of reasons.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
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