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'Unable to meet NATO commitments'

Interview: Friedel Taube / sgb
September 29, 2014

Large portions of the German military's inventory are out of date and unable to keep up with the competition. In a DW interview, SPD defense expert Rainer Arnold accuses the military of whitewashing the problems.

Lynx helicopter
Image: Bundeswehr/Björn Wilke/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

DW: The German military is now so poorly equipped that Germany can no longer fulfill its NATO obligations. Are you surprised by the actual extent of the deficiencies in the army?

Rainer Arnold: No, it doesn't surprise me when it comes to certain abilities. It's not that the military cannot meet its obligations as a whole. But there are shortcomings in specific skills. One can say in principle: Everything that flies is extremely problematic, and we are currently unable to meet the commitments we have made to NATO.

So if, for example, a country in the Baltic region was attacked and NATO invoked its mutual self-defense clause, Germany could not take part?

Not all of our skills would be available. If, however, Article 5 of the NATO treaty were invoked, different rules would apply. In that case, some things that are being seen as difficult for reasons of security, may be interpreted as not being as difficult. But this is an abstract debate. We don't assume that NATO will have to fight a war. The question now is whether we are in a position to make commitments in international crisis management. And here we see that there are currently significant problems.

When the military on Wednesday (24.09.2014) submitted its report to the parliamentary defense committee, you were apparently astonished.

Not only astonished, we were especially annoyed because it was again necessary for parliament to force the armed forces and the German government to put the facts on the table. The overall picture that was presented to us is, of course, overall problematic. But we were also annoyed again, because an attempt was made to whitewash and make excuses. Everything was categorized as "ready for action."

On closer examination, however, a much different picture emerged: A device that can be used in exercises, but which is missing parts or weapons even if it can fly or drive, is far from operational. This is not something that was made clear to us, but we had to ask persistently.

Did the military deceive parliament?

I wouldn't go that far - we won't let ourselves be deceived. We are already in a position to ask the right questions - so that's not the problem.

Who do you think is to blame for the situation?

In the armed forces, no decisions have been made for two years. Under former Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, it was a lost year. The main cause was his failed reform with its aim of "width before depth," which meant that we kept everything, but our management of everything was mediocre or just bad. This is not a clever structure, and certainly not with regard to our European allies.

Rainer Arnold
Rainer ArnoldImage: picture-alliance/dpa

We must strengthen abilities that are important to the alliance instead of lowering everything into mediocrity. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen must now say, "This reform contains mistakes and I will correct them."

But Ursula von der Leyen announced in February 2014 that she planned to reorganize the defense sector. What has happened in the time since then?

An external team examined processes, and its findings will be available in early October. Based on this, the minister must take appropriate action when it comes to structures and processes in the armed forces as well as to maintenance and spare parts. Decisions must be made so that weapons projects, which have been in the pipeline for a long time, will finally be put back on the track.

Is it possible that the defense committee wasn't persistent enough in dealing with the military?

We are persistent all the time. My working group presented a paper in the spring in which we described where the errors are. There were defense politicians who forced Mr. de Maizière to explain the situation surrounding the cancelled Euro Hawk drone - all the way up to the investigative committee. There is no shortage of questions from the defense committee. We often hear from people who describe what isn't working. Our expectation must now be to receive a proposed solution for every problem.

What needs to happen now?

There is a long list that we must go through. The most important thing was, first, to accept this reality and not sugarcoat the problems. I tell colleagues in the coalition not to turn a blind eye. We can't have mediocrity everywhere, but instead must set priorities. We need to strengthen not only the staff in maintenance. We must also take a look at the organization of the Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement in Koblenz. We must not retire paid, well-functioning equipment or flog it off cheaply as in the past.

De Maizière's target level was to retain only 80 percent of existing equipment. That wasn't a wise announcement. We need 100 percent! The old equipment is still available in part; it needs only to be reactivated. In the short term, it's necessary to strengthen the budget for repairs, while the long-term defense budget must grow again. And, finally, the industry has a responsibility. It's not keeping its promises. The ministry must meet our demands to set an example. That cannot all take effect tomorrow, but needs to be addressed now, otherwise we will experience the same drama every year.

Rainer Arnold has been defense policy spokesman of the Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group since 2002.

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