Making Germany’s Military Fit for Purpose
If Germany’s Zeitenwende is to be a success, it is not only its security institutions that need to be reviewed. The processes that have been in place up to now also need to be scrutinized.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Having just taken office, he already seemed to have understood. A few hours after his appointment on January 19, 2023, Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, noted, “Most of the Zeitenwende still lies ahead of us.” Applied to a key policy area affected by the upheavals since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022—security and defense—Pistorius’ comment could not have been more apt. One year after Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” speech, Germany has, as yet, neither moved quickly nor substantially enough.
Nevertheless, Berlin has not been inactive either. Some changes have been initiated, first and foremost the establishment of a special fund for the Bundeswehr in the amount of €100 billion to modernize Germany’s armed forces—a decision that was long overdue. This sum will not be enough to make up for all the postponed innovations, but the special fund is a good starting point.
The Ponderous Logic of Peace
Closely related to the special fund is Germany’s renewed pledge, announced by Chancellor Scholz, to henceforth spend 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on defense “year after year.” However, these two political decisions and announcements also underline the fact that the mechanisms of the security and defense policy apparatus have not yet landed in the “other world” of which Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke on February 24, 2022. Many of the processes and procedures still adhere to a somewhat ponderous logic adequate during peace time.
If one parses the processes that followed the announcement of the special fund for the German armed forces, it becomes clear how slowly Germany is moving forward. It was not until late last year that the German Bundestag approved the first weighty acquisitions to be financed by the special fund. It took until mid-December to prepare the procurement contracts for the parliament's budget committee, whose members must approve every purchase that exceeds €25 million. The special fund’s €100 billion represents a substantial sum, to be sure; however, the money will be used to meet NATO’s 2 percent spending target.
In other words, Germany does not intend to permanently increase its regular defense budget to fulfill its long-standing obligation to the alliance. In the current medium-term financial plan, military spending is frozen at €50.1 billion. Even with the money coming from the special fund, Germany is not expected to reach the 2 percent goal until 2024 and 2025. Chancellor Scholz’ promise to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on the defense budget in the future rings hollow in light of Germany’s financial planning.
Both the sluggish spending of the special asset for the Bundeswehr and the failure to meet the NATO spending quota are emblematic of processes, institutions, and players that have not yet been sufficiently imbued with the spirit of the new era in which Europe finds itself ever since Russia launched a full-fledged attack on Ukraine. The mere fact that several months lie between Scholz’ announcement that the Bundeswehr is to develop “into the largest conventional army within NATO” and the first steps along this path in material procurement shows that bureaucratic and ministerial processes continue to date from the pre-Zeitenwende era. The reasons for this are manifold.
Cumbersome Test Loops
On the one hand, there is the much-maligned Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) and its underlying structures. In the past, the office has not distinguished itself with its speed and flexibility. As a result, procurement contracts were awarded to the defense industry at a sluggish pace. One reason for this can be found in the inadequate staffing: some 1,300 posts are unfilled, accounting for about 11 percent of the agency’s total workforce. Personnel bottlenecks have become even more pronounced since the decision to create the special fund, as an enormous sum of money has to be transformed into the necessary capabilities in a relatively short period of time.
In addition to personnel bottlenecks in the BAAINBw, the complicated legal framework conditions for armaments management make for protracted procurement processes. In addition, an over-bureaucratized apparatus in the Ministry of Defense, which often demands cumbersome test loops at many levels, contributes to the procedural sluggishness.
The leadership of the Ministry of Defense has recognized that slow and bureaucratic procurement processes are getting in the way of clearing the modernization backlog in the Bundeswehr’s equipment as quickly as possible. Consequently, steps have been taken to equip the German armed forces quicker to enable them to adequately fulfill their mission of territorial defense; a task which has once again become important.
Hence, last summer, the Bundestag adopted a law “to accelerate procurement measures for the German armed forces,” according to which, for example, more targeted use of European Union procurement law is feasible. Furthermore, the law no longer makes it necessary to put all intended procurements out to tender across Europe if the procurement serves national security and is urgently required. Moreover, 20 percent of the procurement office’s contracts can now be awarded directly—without time-consuming tendering. In addition, the threshold value for investments that do not require a tender has been raised from €1,000 to €5,000.
Adequate, but not Sufficient
All these decisions make sense in order to speed up procurement processes. At least that is the intention of the German government—to quickly put the Bundeswehr in a position to adequately perform its enormous tasks with the necessary material. However, these steps alone will not lead to a Zeitenwende in Germany's security and defense policy apparatus worthy of the name.
Zooming in on the political level, for example, one can recognize shortcomings that have so far prevented a sustainable change of course. Not only is Germany unlikely to be able to meet the NATO’s financial targets until 2024 and 2025—according to a study by the German Economic Institute, the German defense budget will move away from the 2 percent mark again after that.
Pointing out that the goal should not be to achieve a rigid spending target, but rather the acquisition of the necessary capabilities will not be able to hide the fact that investments in military readiness require enormous sums of money. In view of the fact that operating and personnel costs are likely to continue rising as well as the high rate of inflation, the necessary budget will most likely be considerably higher than 2 percent of Germany’s economic output. It is hardly surprising that discussions are already underway within the alliance framework as to whether the 2 percent target should not be set as a minimum—a decision on this could be made at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next July. It is no coincidence that Eva Högl, the Federal Commissioner for the Armed Forces, recently said that instead of €100 billion, a whopping €300 billion would be needed “to make significant changes in the Bundeswehr.”
Regardless of whether the transatlantic defense alliance agrees on a different spending formula, one thing is already certain: Germany needs to come up with far more money to ensure it has the necessary defense and alliance capabilities. But apparently the necessary insight, that defense capabilities are not a “nice to have” but a “must have,” is currently lacking. Otherwise, the necessary political will would be mustered—across party lines in the ruling “traffic light” coalition—to permanently increase the regular defense budget and not freeze it, as envisaged in the medium-term financial planning.
Acute Shortage of Personnel
A resilient and consistent “Zeitenwende in the minds” of political leaders would also require that thought be given now to the means with which major investments are to be made once the special fund of €100 billion has been exhausted. After all, NATO's demands on the German armed forces and their material readiness have grown again in the past year and will, in all likelihood, continue to rise.
Last but not least, the claim to want to lead militarily in and for Europe, as asserted by Chancellor Scholz and former Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, is fueling the expectations on part of Germany's allies. This proclaimed leadership role requires not only sufficient material and its operational readiness, but also capable personnel. At the same time, some 20,000 positions in the Bundeswehr have been unfilled for years.
The acute shortage of personnel is exacerbated by the fact that many service members will be leaving the Bundeswehr in the coming years and it is not yet clear how the modest numbers of young people leaving school will be able to fill this gap. In addition, despite the personnel shortage, the force is to be increased to a good 203,000 servicemen and women. While it is possible to point to efforts by the Bundeswehr to attract new recruits—for example, by offering “taster camps” in the summer to give an insight into the life of soldiers—these will not suffice. It would thus be worthwhile to think about a mandatory social year, also in order to bring younger generations into contact with the German armed forces and introduce them to a potential employer.
Becoming Strategically Capable
What must be done to ensure that Germany does not continue to get lost in the minutiae and that it shapes its security and defense policy processes and institutions in such a way that Berlin can meet the requirements of the new Zeitenwende era?
In addition to the steps already outlined, the debate on the establishment of a National Security Council has repeatedly and, at the moment, increasingly, come to the fore at a high level. There are many arguments in favor of replacing the Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat, or BSR), which has existed since 1955 and in its current orientation mainly decides on arms exports, with a body that brings and binds together the essential security and defense policy processes and decisions.
At the top of the list of arguments in favor ranges the possibility of using such a body to bring about interdepartmental coordination and decisions on all strategically relevant problems and issues. In this context, the formula of a policy “from a single mold” is often invoked, which not only reacts but also acts with greater foresight. In principle, this call sounds sensible—whether an entirely new body would be created or the existing BSR would be upgraded, including the provision of a permanent, supportive underpinning, is of secondary importance.
However, to ensure that such an institutional innovation does not fizzle out, acceptance from the highest political authority is essential from the outset. For this reason, it would be advisable to locate such a body within the structure of the chancellery. On the one hand, this would offer the chancellor the opportunity to take over the political leadership of this board. Also, the chancellery has in any case been responsible for many key areas of security and defense policy for years.
This does not mean, however, that a strategic mindset is a prerequisite for filling such a body with life in a meaningful way. Conversely, with the help of such an apparatus, in which people deal with security and defense issues on a daily basis from different perspectives, the emergence of a strategic mindset can be initiated and cultivated. If, in addition, there were a National Security Strategy that was constantly updated, this would help to make Germany strategically capable.
Measured against the pre-Zeitenwende era, there is no denying that Germany has come a long way. Yet, measured against the requirements of a sustainable and profound change in German security and defense policy, this has not been enough so far.
Two things are indispensable for an institutional and procedural Zeitenwende, not only in words but also in deeds: political will and assertiveness. Both qualities can create the conditions for the outlined recommendations for action to have a lasting effect and lay the foundation for the cultivation of a strategic culture.
If one understands such a culture, as outlined by Heiko Biehl, Bastian Giegerich, and Alexandra Jonas in their 2013 publication, “Strategic Cultures in Europe,” as “a set of shared beliefs, norms, and ideas within a given society that generate specific expectations about the respective community’s preferences and actions in security and defense policy,” then the establishment of a strategic culture sounds ambitious and designed to last for many years, if not decades.
If Germany wants to be a reliable partner in the long term and not wait until a crisis or war breaks out to think about the direction it wants to take, then a routine approach to security and defense issues is essential. The country has taken a tentative first step—has been forced to—since February 24, 2022. Since the Russian invasion of its neighbor, issues of military defensibility have dominated much more than in previous years. This momentum—as depressing as the occasion is—should urgently be used to initiate lasting, profound, and certainly uncomfortable discussions about what Germany’s priorities should be in its security and defense policy.
Aylin Matlé is a Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) Center for Security and Defense.