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Opinion

Opinion: The arms dilemma facing Germany's defense minister

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is shouldering the blame for political mistakes made by her predecessors. That means the bar is set high as she pursues her "own" major arms project, writes DW's Nina Werkhäuser.

Countries like the US and Israel have long possessed combat reconnaissance drones, and now European countries are set to join them. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is pushing the military project along with the French and Italian governments. It's the first arms plan that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) minister is spearheading - and it's sure to spark controversy. The last attempt at designing a drone has not been forgotten: It was a disaster. The "Euro Hawk" devoured millions in taxpayer money and was ultimately never given clearance for Germany's air space.

A new culture of mistakes

Ursula von der Leyen is now well acquainted with the pitfalls that can come with defense industry contracts. Since taking office, there's scarcely another area that she's had to delve into so deeply - thanks also to the Euro Hawk misery that almost tripped up her predecessor Thomas de Maiziere. She's instituted changes in response. Problems and shortcomings are no longer dealt with in a hush-hush fashion. Von der Leyen sent away pushy lobbyists and introduced an efficient controlling system for arms projects. That was long overdue.

Von der Leyen, who took office in 2013, brought in external experts and commissioned a report that mercilessly listed off shortfalls in the country's major arms initiatives. She did that both in the interest of the soldiers, who ultimately bear the burdens, as well as in the interest of her own career, which she doesn't want to see end suddenly due to an arms scandal.

Industry pulling the ropes

In taking stock of current projects, the defense minister discovered current contracts that were negotiated to extremely poor conditions by her predecessors. They stipulate that her ministry will use its budget in rather lavish ways: If a weapons system is delivered for a higher price or in worse quality than originally agreed, it's the taxpayer who generally foots the bill. That happened with the infantry fighting vehicle Puma and the military helicopter NH90. The industrial producers are the ones pulling the strings, while the armed forces face extensive mockery and scorn when their helicopters have to stay on the ground or their standard issue G36 rifles lack precision under certain circumstances.

Up to her to do things better

These missteps will follow the German military for some time because the old contracts cannot be changed in most cases. Von der Leyen will have to shoulder the blame for what's been done in the past. Due to the long running time of arms projects, that's the fate of any defense minister. However, her approach to the problems is refreshing - as forthright as possible, and as critical as is necessary.

When it comes to talks about a European drone, the bar has now been set high. The contract must be good. Otherwise, Von der Leyen's criticism of previous ministers' mistakes loses credibility. That would be a shame in light of the many positive changes that she has already put into place.

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