Defense Spending The Hole in Germany's Defense

U.S. President Donald Trump seems determined to force NATO members to up their military budgets. While Germany could afford it, the country lacks a strategy to quickly overhaul its armed forces.
Germany's military is understaffed.

In normal times, being parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces in largely pacifist Germany isn’t the most glamorous of jobs. But Hans-Peter Bartels is serving during a time of unprecedented growth in military budgets and a complete overhaul of the German military.

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen last year asked for an additional €130 billion ($139 billion) by 2030 to vamp up the German military by replacing outdated equipment and vehicles. That’s on top of the annual budget of €36.6 billion ($39 billion).

And despite Mr. Bartels calling the modernization far too slow, demanding more and faster hires in his latest annual report, the first resources are actually reaching the troops. The first purchases under the new plan have already been made.

Germany is arming itself again, with the support of all mainstream parties – a novelty in the country’s post-war history. Still, despite all these sharp figures, there’s one number that looms over the German military more than any other: 2 percent.

If U.S. President Donald Trump gets his way, Germany would need to spend an additional €20 billion per year on its armed forces. Despite last year's boost, the country’s defense budget currently totals only about 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product – far from the 2 percent that all 28 NATO members committed to aim for by 2024.

The years to come will likely be marked by the carrot-and-stick tactics of two opposing forces in the new administration.

The new American president might lack diplomatic tact, but he has a point when he criticizes the Western defense alliance.

“For many decades, we have … subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” he said during his inaugural address less than two weeks ago.

That was a direct hit at Germany. For decades, the poorly armed country has relied heavily for its security on America and its promise to protect its Western allies.

Mr. Trump could now fully insist on NATO members meeting the 2 percent target, or threaten to withdraw American troops. In the latter scenario, if U.S. soldiers were to start leaving Eastern Europe, European governments would be forced to rapidly ramp up their own defense spending to plug the gap left by Uncle Sam’s departure.

Christian Mölling, an expert on security policy with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said he hopes that Mr. Trump’s statements will “force us Europeans to strategically evaluate what we need to be able to do without the United States.”

The years to come will likely be marked by the carrot-and-stick tactics of two opposing forces in the new administration. On one side, there is Mr. Trump’s impulsive rumbling and belief that NATO – and with it one of the cornerstones of Western unity – is “obsolete,” as he repeated in a recent media interview recently. On the other hand, U.S. Defense Minister James Mattis is a former general with a clear commitment to the military alliance. Mr. Mattis knows the organization from the inside: he was one of the highest-ranking NATO generals before making the switch into domestic politics.

Still, Mr. Mölling thinks Germany doesn’t need to panic quite yet. “With all the contradictions and rumbling, I don’t expect the United States to have a security strategy by summer,” he said.

If Mr. Trump does make good on his threats and withdraws some American troops, Europe’s security could be in jeopardy, said Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

“There are many military tasks like strategic transport where E.U. nations can’t do without the United States,” she said. The E.U. may have more soldiers than the U.S. in total, but the member state armies barely cooperate, Ms. Major added. Without U.S. leadership, European troops probably wouldn’t even be able to manage a deployment.

So should the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, put additional billions into defense? Even if the resources were available, it’s not that easy to invest, said Tobias Lindner, a lawmaker from Germany's left-leaning Green Party and member of the budget committee in the Bundestag.

“Defense Minister Ms. von der Leyen already has trouble investing the additional resources sensibly,” he said. Pouring even more money into the military would be “a waste,” he said, adding that this makes NATO’s 2 percent goal “fatuous” and unattainable.

Despite rejoicing over their record budgets, no one at the armed forces knows how to spend an additional €20 billion per year.

Some members of the German government even regret ever having signed the NATO provision. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly said her government will “strive” to achieve the goals. And Ms. von der Leyen recently told Handelsblatt there was a clear political commitment to comply, but that such things take time.

Behind closed doors, officials at Germany's defense ministry are looking for ways out of the spending dilemma. Despite rejoicing over their record budgets, no one at the armed forces knows how to spend an additional €20 billion per year. The army has been understaffed ever since Germany halted conscription. Right now, there are too few personnel to staff some submarines. So the Bundeswehr really needs new soldiers before it can buy new equipment.

Mr. Bartels said the military needs more than 14,000 new employees to patch up all these shortages. But projections see only 7,000 new recruits by 2023. And even if more soldiers were to join, there’s no strategy for procuring additional equipment, nationally or together with European allies.

One of the other main questions for the German Bundeswehr is to clarify what exactly it needs to be able to do itself, and where it should rely on other countries for specialty tasks like de-mining, for example.

“First we need to take stock of what resources we still have: how many tanks, airplanes, special forces, ships – and whether they are combat-ready,” said Ms. Major of SWP. “E.U. countries should know what they can stem and what not, and then ideally we can fill the gaps together.”

But the analyst said she doubts whether that will happen. In Libya, even France and Britain realized how weak they are without the United States, she said, and the Ukraine conflict made that brutally clear to all Europeans.

“There were enough wake-up calls,” Ms. Major said. “But cooperation only progresses slowly.”

For now, Germany may have to distract from the 2-percent issue and stress some of its strengths instead. For instance, the country makes more than 90 percent of its capacity available to NATO. And almost 20 percent of the government's operating budget, which excludes fixed costs like social security, goes into defense – another NATO requirement.


This article first appeared in the German weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]