Last week, a single person pushed Germany's air force to the very limits of its capacities: Ursula von der Leyen, the country's defense minister. Von der Leyen requested that two Transall military transport aircraft with missile defense systems be transferred to Amman, the Jordanian capital. The defense minister and a pool of reporters then flew for eight hours on Thursday morning in one of the aircraft to Erbil in Iraq's Kurdish region. Back in Germany, the military had but a single additional Transall at its disposal.
After her arrival in Erbil, von der Leyen proceeded to the palace of the Kurdish regional government's president. Her visit was to be concurrent with the delivery of German weapons, intended to aid the Kurds in their fight against Islamic State jihadists. Unfortunately, the machine guns and bazookas got stuck in Germany and the trainers in Bulgaria because of a dearth of available aircraft. One had been grounded because of a massive fuel leak. What could have been a shining moment for the minister instead turned into an embarrassing failure underscoring the miserable state of many of the Bundeswehr's most important weapons systems.
No other member of the government has been pushing as hard for Germany to increase its role abroad since taking office last year than von der Leyen. From the very start of her term, she has sought to distance herself from the "military reserve" preached by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and by former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. It is an approach which most notoriously manifested itself in Germany's abstention during the UN vote to conduct air strikes against Libya in 2011. At the Munich Security Conference in January, von der Leyen even proclaimed that "indifference is not an option for a country like Germany."
In recent weeks, von der Leyen has made it clear that Germany also has an obligation to intervene militarily if the threat of genocide exists somewhere. "Germany is even damned to take accept greater responsibility," she said, alluding to the country's difficult history. Von der Leyen wants to transform the Bundeswehr, the country's armed forces, into an intervention army capable of mastering deployments like those in Kosovo or Afghanistan. But the idea of deterrence based on powerful combat units and heavy weapons has also gained currency as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.
Little to Offer in Berlin
Against that backdrop and pressure from the international community, the ramshackle state of the Bundeswehr is no laughing matter in Berlin. At the moment, if Germany's allies were to ask it to step up its participation in deployments in the Baltic states or Iraq, for example, Chancellor Merkel would likely have to politely pass, creating a highly embarrassing situation for the country. For the moment, though, most pressure related to the Bundeswehr's ailments has been directed at von der Leyen. Her critics argue that she has pursued a foreign and security policy vision that goes beyond the Bundeswehr's actual capabilities. Now she faces additional criticism that she tried to play down the military's problems to members of parliament even though senior officials in her ministry were well aware of major shortcomings in the armed forces.
"Contrary to her own list of needed equipment, she created the impression in parliament that anything that could drive, fly or float was capable of full deployment," said Rainer Arnold, the defense policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). "But we members of parliament will not be taken for idiots."
The defense minister hasn't exactly been blind-sided by the criticism either -- she's known about the problems since before entering office almost a year ago. On Friday, she summoned the heads of the German army, navy and air force as well as the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr to her office for five hours of questioning, much of it centering on events in parliament last Wednesday.
In a hearing of the defense committee, the Bundeswehr General Inspector and other senior representatives of the military and the defense ministry presented the state of affairs to members of parliament. The committee had sought additional information after SPIEGEL reported in August about major deficiencies in the operational capability of important German weapons systems. On Wednesday, members of the committee reviewed a paper that provided a color-coded green, yellow and red classifications based on an assessment of the operational capability of the 22 main weapons systems used by the army, navy and air force.
Total stock = all procured units
Available = in operation, including systems currently out of service because of maintenance or repair
Deployable = can be used immediately for missions, exercises or training
*includes pre-production models
Source: Bundeswehr German Armed Forces
It appears that the paper included a considerable amount of misleading information and that the military might even be in worse shape than that presented by the officials.
High-ranking military officials involved had the option of giving a seemingly arbitrary green, yellow or red classification for systems for which their unit had responsibility. Germany's lone deployable submarine (of four) received a yellow rating. Seventy of the country's 180 Boxer armored combat vehicles were deemed unfit for deployment. Defense Ministry sources also told SPIEGEL that Bundeswehr General Inspector Volker Wieker even made last-minute changes to the color codes on some of the systems. Meanwhile, air force chief Karl Müllner made clear in remarks to members of the committee that, despite green dots signifying equipment was working, his forces were only capable of conducting current missions and did not have the capacity for any new ones. Officials at the ministry stated that the "classification system used is based on a combination of availability for deployment and training as well as consideration for the ability to fulfill the mission."
But some of the criteria seemed arbitrary, with no apparent rules on the time frames used for measuring the weapons systems' operational readiness. A good example is the NH90 helicopter. The report measured the operational capability for these aircraft during the months of April, May and June, a time when most were still flying. A current list from sources close to the manufacturer indicate that all but two of 33 helicopters have since been grounded.
The situation is similar with the navy's Sealynx helicopter, of which only four can apparently fly. In order to improve the aircraft's ranking in the overview, the period used for the averaging was October 2013 through September 2014. However, by the end of June, all of the aircraft had been grounded because of construction defects.
The ministry also didn't distinguish between "full" or "conditional" operational capability. But this is an important distinction, because when the German federal parliament votes on whether the Bundeswehr can engage in a foreign deployment, it only allows equipment to be sent that is fully operational. And that's where the deficiencies start to stack up. For example, on the list given to the parliamentarians, 16 CH53 transport helicopters are listed, but a previous air force internal report distributed to the Defense Ministry in August stated that only 7 were "fully" operational. With the Eurofighter fighter jet, Wednesday's official list for parliament stated that 42 aircraft were ready for deployment, but the August air force report stated that only eight were "fully" capable of operation. Despite these discrepancies, the Defense Ministry is still standing behind its official list, with officials claiming it provides a "meaningful overview of the situation."
It's an assessment not shared by parliamentarians. "We called on the ministry to tell us how this list came to be and the criteria used to produce it," said Tobias Lindner, a fiscal policy expert with the Green Party.
Under the Gun
The minister herself is also reported to be upset about the report, sentiment she shared with the generals reporting to her last Friday. The inspectors were forced to report directly to von der Leyen about their weapons systems and will now be required to appear before the defense minister once every two weeks. She is also demanding that they explain how they reached their conclusions about the operational capability of the weapons systems in question.
The Bundeswehr's general inspector showed von der Leyen the report for parliament before last Wednesday's hearing, but the condition of weapons systems shouldn't have come as a surprise to senior Defense Ministry officials. Heads of the ministry had been alerted to the many problems in a memo dating August 12 that also included a copy of the internal air force report. Ultimately, those figures were not used in the report given to parliament, and critics argue the Defense Ministry should have provided more differentiated information to the elected officials.
In that August letter, officials in the Defense Ministry blamed the bottlenecks on repair times that had been delayed despite commitments to complete them and on the inability to find replacement parts for outdated weapons systems. One inspector even admitted to parliament's defense committee that he assumed the situation would continue for another "two or three years".
Meanwhile, the series of mishaps continues. SPIEGEL has learned that a Tiger combat helicopter lost a weapons rack over a training area in Germany because its lock came undone on Sept. 8. Fortunately, no weapons had been mounted on it and the damage was limited.
In addition, the Bundeswehr unit currently operating the Patriot missile defense system in Turkey is literally eating into its own inventory. Because certain replacement parts are unavailable, the military is being forced to cannibalize equipment based in Germany in order to keep the Turkey-based Patriots in operation. The Patriots are being used to defend Turkey from possible cross-border attacks in the Syrian civil war. "A priority is given to making sure they get replacement parts, but that also influences the readiness of the Bundeswehr's other Patriots," Bundeswehr officials conceded in response to a query from a Green Party official.
It's not just old systems that plague the Bundeswehr -- there are also problems with new equipment. The Bundeswehr has waited for years for delivery of the Airbus A400M transport aircraft, which is intended to replace the aging Transall fleet, aircraft that began operations in the 1960s. The first planes may arrive later this year, but the Bundeswehr doesn't have a maintenance contract for it yet or a sufficient number of mechanics trained on the aircraft. The A400M could be back on the ground soon again not long after it first takes off.
Von der Leyen, it seems, has faced one setback after another in her aim to kick off a greater role for Germany in the international community. It's ironic, too, given the amount of face time she is getting these days with Chancellor Merkel to discuss the Bundeswehr's 17 current deployments around the world.
'Disarmament Through Wear and Tear'
Already, the defense minister has been forced to concede that Germany will not reach its 2014 NATO Defense Planning Process targets for its airborne systems. In the event of an Article 5 attack on a NATO member state -- in the Baltics, for example -- the Bundeswehr has pledged to make 60 Eurofighters available, but it is currently incapable of supplying them. If the allies come knocking at Germany's door for greater engagement in northern Iraq or Africa, the Bundeswehr won't be able to deliver there either. Indeed, it's possible that the world's fourth largest industrial nation and global leader in exports wouldn't even be able to provide six fighter jets to a US-led coalition in northern Iraq.
These days, a lot of scoffing can be heard about the military in Berlin political circles. One line goes, "We're practicing disarmament through wear and tear."
It's unlikely the overall state of the Bundeswehr will change anytime soon. In recent years, Germany eliminated its mandatory conscription and is now struggling to attract enough recruits. The Bundeswehr seeks to recruit 60,000 people each year, but the task is proving difficult, with a booming economy making modestly paid military service unattractive for many.
The Bundeswehr also lacks funding, to the chagrin of other NATO members. This year, the federal government has reduced the budget for the armed forces by €400 million ($504 million) to €32.8 billion. With Merkel insisting on a balanced federal budget by 2015, spending on the military is expected to drop to €32.1 billion next year.
A recent NATO ranking showed that Germany's military spending is 1.29 percent of GDP, far short of the 2 percent spent by Britain and 14th overall in a ranking of alliance member states. Other member states had sought a commitment from all in NATO to spend 2 percent of GDP, but it was downgraded to a "pledge" even before the summit and it is unlikely Germany will shift course anytime soon. Merkel, after all, wants to enter the next election campaign with the positive news of a balanced budget.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: While not disputing the figures published by Der Spiegel, the German ministry of defence