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Germany: Defense minister battles Bundeswehr bureaucracy

May 18, 2023

Leaner, faster, better. Boris Pistorius is under pressure to show that he can succeed where his predecessors have failed: Cut bureaucracy, and turn the Bundeswehr into a serious fighting force.

A close up of a German soldier and his equipment
Germany faces the mammoth task of bringing its miitary, the Bundeswehr, back up to speed after decades of underinvestment.Image: Joerg Waterstraat/SULUPRESS.DE/picture alliance

Turning a battleship, as the saying goes, takes time. For the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, it can take even longer.

From delivering advanced weapons to putting socks on soldiers' feet, the military is infamous for costly and hamstrung procurement. Boris Pistorius, who stepped into the role as defense minister earlier this year, has said changing that is his top priority.

"More than anything, this is about speeding up procurement for the Bundeswehr," he said at a ministry-hosted roundtable with German arms manufacturers earlier this month. "There are gaps to fill."

The comments fit with Pistorius' very public effort to show that he can succeed where his predecessors have failed and make the Bundeswehr a battle-ready fighting force to be reckoned with.

Germany's armed forces face chronic problems

First rule: Fewer rules

Pistorius has said that he wants to do away with regulations that hamper research and development, and procurement, which have piled up over the years and come on top of statutory requirements. Arduous approval processes and sign-offs from up-and-down the ministry's hierarchy are to be streamlined.

Creativity, flexibility and initiative are supposed to be the new buzzwords that guide the military's procurement office of more than 11,000 people. That is six times bigger than the defense ministry itself.

At the end of April, the defense ministry published an internal document known as the Zimmer Decree — published by the news platform, Business Insider, and obtained by DW — emphasized that the "time factor has the highest priority and is, effective immediately, the essential factor for all pending and new equipment projects for the armed forces."

Path of least resistance

Despite the sense of urgency, the memo is just a piece of paper. Neither it nor Pistorius' commands can, on their own, jolt a lethargic bureaucracy into action.

"Paper doesn't know time," Christian Mölling, the head of the Center for Security and Defense at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW, referring to a German expression that is roughly the same as the proof is in the pudding.

While the decree establishes a framework, he said, "the big question is do they get the system working?"

It could take up to two years to see changes, Mölling said. By that point, German politics will be gearing up for the next general election, and the €100 billion ($108.64 billion) in supplemental defense spending may be used up.

That puts Pistorius under pressure to show results. If he wants to convince lawmakers that his ministry deserves bigger, normal annual budgets, he needs to demonstrate that it can spend money in a prudent and cost-effective manner.

The way forward, as Zimmer has laid out, is the path of least resistance. That foremost means doing without specialized equipment, which risks time and cost overruns. Instead, the decree requires making use of "off-the-shelf products."

The shift reflects one of the major criticisms of Germany's military-industrial complex: It reinvents the wheel, rather than making use of cheaper options that already exist.

puma vehicle in camouflage
In May, Germany announced a €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) contract for new Puma armored vehiclesImage: Florian Gaertner/photothek/picture alliance

A burdensome legacy

Germany's defense sector has welcomed the renewed focus on faster, smoother procurement, and fewer, ministry-imposed rules, noting that it aligns with many of its own recommendations.

"Consistent use of the new requirements also enables us, as an industry, to provide the Bundeswehr with our products already on the market, which have proven themselves with other NATO customers," Hans Christoph Atzpodien, the managing director of the Federal Association of the German Security and Defense Industry (BDSV), told DW in a statement.

The Bundeswehr's struggle to equip and maintain its forces is a long-running joke in German policy circles. Its civilian leadership comes and goes, rarely with much to show for their stated efforts.

The roots of the Bundeswehr's challenges run deep. Established along with the federal republic shortly after the end of Nazi rule, "distrust" in the military legally kneecapped it from the get-go, Klaus Wittmann, a retired German brigadier general, told DW.

Article 87 of Germany's constitution, the Basic Law, puts a wall between the armed forces and the administration of it. That placed procurement authority for the military beyond the reach of the military itself.

Though then-West German forces were more formidable during the Cold War, political will to keep funding it evaporated along with the Soviet threat.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 facilitated a change in mindset. A new sense of urgency, most concretely represented by Chancellor Olaf Scholz's "Zeitenwende" address a few days into the war, has largely overtaken German sensitivities about military power.

Boris Pistorius shielding his eyes, looking into the distance
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has his sights set on making Bundeswehr procurement fast and efficientImage: Heiko Becker/dpa/picture alliance

Unlike those who came before him, Pistorius has the wind at his back and is clear about the security reality he stepped into. He has shown an interest to learn on the job, Wittmann said, and listen to what his military counterparts say they need.

"I am really quite optimistic, and think [Pistorius] has gotten off on the right foot," he said.

Despite the goodwill, Wittmann said he will wait for results — and feedback from troops — before he is willing to proclaim mission accomplished.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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