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Will €100 billion make Germany's army strong?

March 3, 2022

Following the Russian attack on Ukraine, Germany has decided to dramatically beef up its defense budget and give the Bundeswehr an extra €100 billion. What will it use the money for?

Bundeswehr's 9th Tank Brigade on the training grounds in Munster on February 07, 2022
The Bundeswehr has long been complaining about its outdated equipmentImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

At first, only two black dots are visible in the bright blue sky above the Eifel region in the far west of Germany. Then, the dots turn into the shapes of two F-35 fighter jets, the roar of their engines quickly growing louder. The jets are coming from the east, where they have been flying patrols over Poland near the Ukrainian border and are now heading back toward the US Air Force Base Spangdahlem.

That's where US troops have deployed 12 of the aircraft to monitor NATO airspace over Eastern Europe in the face of Russian aggression.

These stealth aircraft are considered the most advanced multi-role fighter jets in the world. The Bundeswehr would like to purchase some to replace 45 outdated Tornado aircraft from the 1970s, which can carry American nuclear bombs stockpiled in Germany.

Until now, that wish seemed to be unaffordable. But that changed on February 27, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz made the surprise announcement that the Bundeswehr would receive a one-time special fund of €100 billion ($110.6 billion).

Scholz: Putin 'destroying the European security structure'

"The F-35 fighter aircraft is being considered as a carrier aircraft," Scholz confirmed in his speech to federal parliament on Germany's reaction to the Russian intervention of Ukraine.

"We need planes that fly, ships that set sail and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions," he stressed.

His announcement stunned many parliamentarians and security experts. After all, Scholz's center-left Social Democrats (SPD) were in a coalition government with former Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right CDU for eight years until 2021. During that time, his party blocked major armaments projects.

"Our goal is to have one of the most capable, powerful armies in Europe in the course of this decade," underlined Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the business-focused Free Democrats (FDP). In addition to the special fund, the German defense budget is to be raised to 2% of gross domestic product, as stipulated by NATO.

 F-35A Lightning II on airfield in Spangdahlem
State-of-the-art stealth bombers like the F-35A Lightning II are on Germany's wish listImage: US Air Force/dpa/picture alliance

High-tech wish list

But the Bundeswehr isn't just eyeing F-35 fighter jets. It's also seeking financing for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), an aircraft Germany is developing together with France.

Next on the list are updated heavy transport helicopters and the modernization of the Patriot air defense missile system. Armed drones, for example from Israel, and modern warships are also on the wish list.

But security expert Claudia Major has warned that it will not be possible for the Bundeswehr to go on a big shopping spree right away, as the army has a backlog.

"There are already many armament projects that the Bundeswehr has already planned but couldn't finance. Now they can go through with this money," she said.

Following the end of the Cold War in 1990, the Bundeswehr shrank considerably. Although its budget has been increased to over €46 billion, it still suffers from a shortage of material and equipment. Planned purchases of major weapons systems — transport planes, helicopters and warships — have been repeatedly stalled. Money that wasn't spent by the end of the year was gone, and the Bundeswehr couldn't plan for the long term.

"As a result, defense projects were repeatedly unraveled and discussed all over again," said Major, who heads the security policy research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Heron TP (IAI Eitan) drone on exhibition at the Tel Nof airbase in 2021
Germany is seeking to purchase armed drones from IsraelImage: Abir Sultan/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

Low-tech needs

The Bundeswehr has more basic needs, too: there's a shortage of ammunition, and even of combat boots and underwear. A recent report by Eva Högl, the Bundestag's defense commissioner, on the situation of German NATO soldiers in Lithuania almost sounded like a bad joke. After a visit to the region in the cold Lithuanian winter, Högl detailed how the soldiers lacked thick jackets and underwear to keep them dry and warm. How can that be a problem for soldiers in the army of one of the world's richest countries?

But money alone won't be enough. In the past, the Bundeswehr's procurement of weapons and materials was often poorly organized and stalled by excessive bureaucracy. An order of 120,000 combat rifles made in 2015, for example, has been mired in a legal battle and has still not gone through.

The German arms industry is now hoping for large orders, and its share prices have risen dramatically over the past few days. But CDU foreign policy expert Roderich Kiesewetter has warned against hasty decisions. He said the German government must carefully consider on what it will spend the proposed billions, and what is most urgent.

"I'm worried that we'll be burning too much money without prioritization and without the basis of a national security strategy, which, after all, the government has announced," he said.

German soldiers, male and female, in Rukla Lithuania, February 2022
The Bundeswehr has personnel on the ground as part of a NATO mission in LithuaniaImage: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/dpa

Army looking for more personnel

Unlike other members of his party group in the Bundestag, Kiesewetter also opposes the reintroduction of compulsory military service. This was suspended under Chancellor Merkel in 2011. The Bundeswehr no longer had the capacity to train and equip conscripts and to be able to manage that again would be expensive and take time, he said.

"That would mean the €100 billion would be gone very quickly, without the Bundeswehr becoming more effective," Kieswetter told DW. He also doubts whether it would be possible to integrate conscripts into a high-tech army with complex weapons systems within only a few months of military service.

Nevertheless, the Bundeswehr wants to grow its numbers. The highest-ranking German soldier, Inspector General Eberhard Zorn, has named a target of 203,000 soldiers on ZDF television, 20,000 more than there are today. Despite expensive advertising campaigns, the Bundeswehr has so far had problems filling vacancies. In view of the tense security situation on NATO's eastern flank, it's now hoping for more applicants.

After the end of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr increasingly began to focus on foreign missions, for example in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Mali. Now, its role is shifting back to equipping an army that is focused on defending its own country and allies closer to home.

Criticism of Bundeswehr boost

The research institute Civey polled 5,000 Germans from February 28 to March 2 and found that three-quarters of them supported the planned special fund for the armed forces.

But critical voices have come from Germany's left-leaning politicians — also within the governing Social Democrats and Greens.

The issue of accountability was raised by Jessica Rosenthal, the leader of the SPD's youth organization that includes 49 Bundestag lawmakers. "There is no point in throwing billions more euros into a black hole," she told the national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The Green Party youth wing has similar concerns. "The supposed need for investment in the Bundeswehr results in particular from mismanagement, not from a lack of budget," Timon Dzienus, co-chairman of the Greens' youth organization told the Tagesspiegel daily newspaper.

Representatives of the peace movement are demanding that no F-35 fighter jets be procured for the Bundeswehr and that all US nuclear warheads be withdrawn from Germany.

Twenty of them are believed to be located at the Büchel base in western Germany, even though the German government has never officially confirmed this fact. The air base area there is secured with two barbed wire fences, guard walkways and cameras. When you approach the gate, guards politely ask you to leave as quickly as possible.

Not far from the entrance gate, activists have put up banners inviting people to pray for peace. They call for disarmament and a nuclear-free Germany, a rather solitary plea at the moment in view of the billion-euro plans for the Bundeswehr.

This article was originally published in German

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