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Will Putin's gamble lead to the revival of German military prowess?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Dr Marina Miron,

Honorary Research Fellow in The Centre for Military Ethics

09 March 2022

Over the past ten days all eyes have been on Putin’s ‘special military operation’ (the official term used by the Russian Ministry of Defence) in Ukraine. This ‘operation’ has caused huge devastation in Ukraine, and is already having significant consequences for its neighbours, most notably, in humanitarian terms as more and more people flee to these countries in hope of finding safety. However, as well as such effects on the immediate area, the ongoing hostilities will inevitably influence what happens on the wider European continent, and one of the countries which may see radical change is Germany.

Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has decided to abandon Angela Merkel’s previous policy towards Russia and once and for all end Germany’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. Moreover, Scholz is now investing some 100 billion Euro into revamping Germany’s armed force, the Bundeswehr. This investment should help Germany to reach, by 2024, the 2 per cent of GDP which NATO asks its member states to contribute in terms of defence spending. This would actually be the first time since the early 1990s that Germany has increased its funding for the Bundeswehr. Scholz’s move seems to have been unexpected if not, indeed, desperate given that neither the vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, nor the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, seemed to have been forewarned of his plans.

Despite the previous lack of military expenditure, it was decided in 2014 that German forces would spearhead NATO’s Response Force (NRF). But this looked like window dressing. In fact, in 2015, the Bundeswehr’s weaknesses were exemplified in the fact that, during a joint exercise in Norway, it came to light that GTX Boxer vehicles had to use broomsticks as gun barrels since they had no actual guns. Moreover, Bundeswehr’s helicopter pilots were losing their flight licenses due to equipment shortages and hence insufficient flight hours. In 2018, it was reported that the German Navy continued to suffer from shortages of vessels and equipment, making it difficult – if not impossible ­– to contribute to NATO’s missions. But it is not just the Army and the Navy. The Luftwaffe (air force), too, has received its fair share of negative press when it failed to deliver high political figures such as the former chancellor, Merkel, to important international meetings due to the failure of one of its aircraft (i.e. an Airbus A321). This called into question the Luftwaffe’s overall capabilities. In 2019, only 93 (some 25 percent) of its 359 Tornado fighter jets were actually available and combat-ready. Notwithstanding all such problems, military expenditure did not increase.

With all three branches of the Bundeswehr suffering from shortages, what perception of NATO’s capabilities would this underfunding have created? How far would this have hampered NATO’s missions and reduced its deterrent power vis-à-vis the likes of Russia?

But on February 7, 2022, Germany’s defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, proclaimed proudly that every country in NATO could count on Germany in response to the question as to whether Germany would deploy its troops to the Baltic States. But is this possible? On February 22, 2022, the Army inspector, Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, admitted that the German armed forces were completely ‘broke’.

How long it will take for the German Armed Forces to be now ‘upgraded’ remains to be seen, given that they have been underfunded for some thirty years. Will the new influx of funds be able to restore not just equipment levels and deployability but also the morale of Germany’s armed forces? How long will it take for a full transformation if the 2 percent target is to be reached by 2024? And how can Germany also cope with an increased military expenditure while trying to disentangle itself from energy dependence? Who will pay for all this?

Most importantly, will this radical shift undertaken by Scholz help NATO regain its credibility? And what consequences will it have not just for the Alliance but also for the broader EU political relations with a soon to be militarily stronger Germany?

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Marina Miron

Marina Miron

Honorary Research Fellow in The Centre for Military Ethics

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