BERLIN --- For years, the Bundeswehr suffered downsizing. The army, which is only partially operational, is to be made fit again under high pressure. Ironically, the authority that is supposed to help significantly is considered a problem itself.
On the Bundeswehr homepage, the world of the military is still in order. There, the Bundeswehr sums up its self-image in three words: "We. Serve. Germany." But "serving Germany" is anything but easy. The army, air force and navy have been suffering from incomplete equipment for a long time – a lack of operational tanks and helicopters, protective vests, backpacks and night vision devices. Even warm underwear for the troops on NATO's eastern flank is in short supply.
Bundeswehr is only partially operational
Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) denounced the situation: "On paper, we have 350 Puma infantry fighting vehicles, of which 150 are actually operational." The situation is similar with the Tiger combat helicopter - only nine of 51 machines could take off, Lambrecht said at a Bundestag debate in late April, which dealt with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Germany's newly awakened need for security.
Now the federal government wants to get the troops back on their toes. It is providing a debt-financed special fund of 100 billion euros for its equipment and rearmament. The modernization of the Bundeswehr should not fail because of money. But possibly because of the authority responsible for procurement, say critics: the Federal Office for Equipment, Information Technology and Use of the German Armed Forces, or BAAINBw for short.
There are 6,500 jobs at their headquarters in Koblenz alone. A total of around 11,000 employees work at the procurement office at 116 locations. They regulate the acquisition of everything from high technology to socks.
An inflexible mammoth authority?
The BAAINBw has been in urgent need of reform for years, but several defense ministers have failed to do this. The accusation is that it is a planned economy-oriented administration juggernaut that delays processes rather than speeds them up.
"We live in one of the richest countries in the world in the middle of Europe, we have 184,000 soldiers, and they don't still have everything they need as men and women. It's a scandal," criticized military commissioner Eva Högl a few days ago. Her position is to act as parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces.
The paratroopers, for example, have been waiting for a new helmet for ten years, Högl told "Tageszeitung." The problem is that the helmet, which is used in the USA, "must first be extensively tested again to see whether it also fits on German heads and really protects as expected according to German standards," she complained.
On German TV’s Channel 2, the military commissioner also reported on a visit to a tank battalion that had to work with 30-year-old radios and was therefore "not able to command and communicate" with other NATO units during maneuvers.
Years of legal battle over new assault rifle
Another problem: the infighting around the G36. In 2015, then Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) decided to end the current assault rifle. From 2017 efforts were made to find a successor. “Today, in 2022, the whole process is in a legal dispute that will not allow a decision until autumn at the earliest. That is simply too long for a relatively simple product like an assault rifle,” writes Frank Sauer from the Bundeswehr University in Munich on request the DW.
Germany Coalition and Union agree on special assets for the Bundeswehr
So, is the procurement system the cause of all equipment evil because it pushes German regulatory and quality standards to excess? Is the BAAINBw partly to blame for the fact that the Bundeswehr is "more or less blank", as Army Inspector Alfons Mais surprisingly wrote on the LinkedIn network when the Russians invaded Ukraine?
"Of course, the German defense bureaucracy is absolutely monstrous," says Sauer. "But just passing the buck to the BAAINBw doesn't really get us anywhere." The procurement office can only operate within the framework of the applicable law, with little leeway.
Dependent on policy requirements
Because the authority must adhere to EU rules on tenders as well as to political decisions. "Many problems lie outside the procurement office because it essentially does what it is told to do," Christian Mölling from the German Society for Foreign Relations, DGAP, told DW. If the legal framework and political requirements change, processes could be simplified and accelerated.
Another, but more difficult option would be to push the limits of what is legally possible, explains Mölling. "But the experience of the employees is that if you use this leeway and something goes wrong, you get no cover from politics. If something goes wrong, you end up in court in case of doubt and nobody has your back free."
Furnished too comfortably in peacetime
The causes of the equipment debacle are also based on the recent German past. After the end of the Cold War, politicians prescribed austerity measures for the armed forces, and the defense budget shrank. Many weapons and weapon systems became obsolete. The equipment was neglected, while the administration grew more and more bloated.
"Overall, we have settled down very comfortably in Germany in times of peace and in the process have made a lot of things completely over-bureaucratic. We are feeling that painfully now," says Frank Sauer from the Bundeswehr University.
The first reform steps have been taken. The Federal Cabinet has decided that urgently needed goods can be procured directly without major procedures in accordance with an EU exemption regulation. Direct purchase also applies to all products that cost less than one thousand euros.
But that's not enough, says Sauer. There is a lack of better processes and clear assumption of responsibility. "Without leaner and faster procedures, the procurement of the large pieces of equipment, in particular, will take too long again."
Sauer calls for a fundamental change in mentality and structure. The turning point proclaimed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz also means "finally rethinking, becoming more flexible and agile - as required by the security policy challenges of the 21st century. This has to start in the Ministry of Defence."
Everything right and yet wrong
Christian Mölling from the DGAP is also pessimistic about the future. He sees the projects, which the special fund worth one hundred billion euros, as a huge logistical challenge. "Ahead of us lies a mountain of procurement that requires an incredible amount of attention, control and fine-tuning, for which the apparatus is obviously not prepared." There is therefore a large potential for error. "We will experience unpleasant developments over many years," predicts Mölling.
He worries that the focus may not be on the quality of procurement, but rather on following prescribed procedures. "In the end, it's like this: all the regulations have been complied with and, overall, we've found that the Bundeswehr isn't capable of being defended or deployed."
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The current defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, at least seems to have taken stock of the problem. In her statement regarding the €100 billion Special Fund, she noted:
“A key factor in equipping our troops quickly and efficiently is procurement. We have to get a lot better at that. Our women and men at the BAAINBw do an excellent job. But they have to deal with complicated and time-consuming procedures.
“This is where we now come in with the Procurement Task Force:
--We have raised the award threshold. This alone saves us around a fifth of the time-consuming tenders. This frees up extensive capacities.
--We're increasing the petty cash for commanders. That gives more leeway locally.
--We use the opportunity to deviate from European public procurement law when national security is an urgent issue.
--And before the summer break, we will present a law with which we want to further accelerate procurement.
“But it's not just about procedures. It's also about our own mindset: We have to stop looking for gold-plated solutions that in reality take too long, are too expensive or can hardly be implemented in a realistic time frame.
“We will therefore focus primarily on tried-and-tested products that are available on the market and multinational cooperation.”
As in many other countries, one of the keys to successful defense procurement is to avoid “gold-plated” solutions that unnecessarily add costs and cause delays, to keep programs simple and straightforward, and to veto changes once contracts are awarded.
Simple to say, but difficult to implement, as successive German defense ministers have found.)