strong armed Might Is Right

End the stranglehold on Germany’s defense industry, otherwise risk weakening other sectors too, argues Kurt Lauk.
Weaken the military at your own peril.

Germany’s future standing in foreign affairs is at stake. We are fourth in a worldwide ranking of gross domestic product and the third largest export nation. The preservation of our level of prosperity is synonymous with the preservation of our position as a reliable international partner. It should be of vital interest to our policies.

Since overcoming the division of our country and continent, Germany’s relevance has grown. Since both the German and European domestic markets are too small for an economy of our size, Germany must protect free trade in the world. A third of our jobs depend on the success of our exports. Meanwhile, two thirds of our exports go to countries outside the euro zone. Without our export, our living standards would be half as high.

At the same time, as a great Western democracy, we have the duty to resolve conflicts and to maintain security and human rights. However, only when Germany carries its fair share of the burdens associated with all these interests can it fully perform its role on the international stage.

The “peace dividends” after the fall of the wall have been used up. Tanks are no longer facing off in the valleys and forests of Saxony. Instead, German soldiers must be ready for duty in the world’s new, asymmetrical conflicts.

In its time, the governing coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens made a big step by approving deployments outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But anyone who agrees to foreign deployments must also act accordingly in terms of outfitting the German military and maintaining technical capabilities. Today, pacifist critics are not as opposed to NATO and the German military, but rather the “evil arms industry,” which has become a favorite target. Policymakers sometimes shy away from these issues; export authorizations – even to traditional partner countries – are unpopular.

Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, the German economics minister, is exploiting this unpopularity by tightening conditions for export. As the “minister of technology,” he wants to pass on his responsibility for the most high-performance high-tech industries to the foreign minister. The foreign ministry always decides with the defense ministry and the federal chancellery on sensitive exports. The importance of an export business to Germany’s standing in the world must also be evaluated by the economics ministry – based upon factual, not ideological criteria.

The defense and security industry does not deserve the role of scapegoat. In  reaction to explicit policy mandates from various federal coalition governments since the rearmament of the German military, the industry developed enormous capacities to deliver home-grown technology to the armed forces. The defense and security sector can continue to do this only if policy makes a clear commitment – and puts words into action.

For various branches of the defense industry, the military budget is no longer economically sufficient. Companies must be allowed to export. Restricting German security and defense industry's access to certain partners and export markets, as the economics ministry is doing, makes it harder for the sector to develop technical competencies. Over 300,000 jobs in all the German states depend directly and indirectly on this sector.

The industry’s developments have non-military applications, too, such as the automobile industry’s head-up displays – the displays in cars above the dashboard, outside the driver's line of sight; or the mechanical engineering sector’s highly sensitive control instruments; or crypto-applications for the communications industry. Modern engines for airplanes or special materials for spaceships would not have been developed without military contracts.

The defence industry still has much to offer, from military technology on marine platforms to aerospace.

A dual-use application for drones is being tested: The aircraft should close the last gaps in the Internet infrastructure or revolutionize the delivery of goods. Companies such as Google, Amazon or DHL want to use the technology. Whether German companies will take part in  developments benefitting civil as well as military ends remains a completely open question.

No European Airbus would fly today in a competition with an American Boeing if Airbus’ technical capabilities had not been built up through big procurement contracts with the German military. Moreover, successful programs for civilian airplanes, ships and special vehicles show that Germany needs such large system integrators.

The industry still has much to offer, from military technology on marine platforms to aerospace. Hardly any German suppliers would participate in foreign programs today if they had not first proved themselves as providers on national defense projects. In this context, the threat made by defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to order airplanes, tanks and submarines from abroad was not thought through. That or a major change of course is ahead for the whole industry in Germany.

The last defense ministry assessment shows German military procurement has been chronically undefinanced for years now. The prices for projects are set too low and the projects are then overloaded. If the German military wanted to order a carrier pigeon, somebody would add lead weights to it. Partner countries are needed for larger procurements, and they then want to be included in the decision process – and wind up adding their own weights to the poor carrier pigeon. The upshot is that NATO-Europe spend the equivalent of 50 percent of the U.S. budget on defense, but gets only 20 percent of its efficiency.

The only solution would be a European solution. For exports, we need a binding “European code of conduct” for shared procurement projects like export policy. In this case, Germany would not be allowed to use a veto to force its allied partners onto a special course. Otherwise, that would mean more and more projects without German participation, displacing German manufacturers, including many small- and medium-sized enterprises. The current uncertainty regarding what is allowed and what is not should be resolved as soon as possible.

If German politicians continue to weaken defense technology capacity, then they must allow companies to switch and focus abroad, as our partners depend on German technology. But nobody should make the mistake of thinking that Germany can obtain better prices and technology and can decree when goods are delivered by ordering from a third party. Once industrial capacities are lost, a customer will fall behind the others. Ideally, a country's armed forces are best equipped through their own technical competencies. Politicians can only make this happen if they have the necessary means.

However, it is not very clear today which of the government's statements are binding; there is no clear line in in its export policy: Germany is – rightly – ready to deliver German military weapons to the oppressed Kurds in Iraq, even in the midst of a war-like conflict. At the same time, however, German exports are stopped in allied or West-oriented countries and even deliveries of components for shared projects are hindered.

What should the industry conclude? How far can our alliance and partners count on us? If we don't have a sound technical base, we will weaken our position in NATO, and we rely on that as the conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Ukraine show. Germany’s foreign-policy standing will only be preserved if we are ready to pay the costs associated with it. Whether we like it or not, our defense industry plays a role in that.


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