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German military: Strangled by bureaucracy

June 7, 2022

Germany's military suddenly has €100 billion to spend on new equipment. Thousands of people in one of Germany's largest government agencies are tasked with procurement. But that may turn out to be a major problem.

Bundeswehr soldiers in the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battle Group
The procurement agency moves slowly to provide Bundeswehr soldiers with basic equipmentImage: Monika Skolimowska/dpa/picture alliance

The German army, air force and navy have long had to work with insufficient equipment. They lack mission-capable tanks, helicopters, body armor, backpacks, and night-vision gear. Even warm underwear for the troops on NATO's eastern front is in short supply.

Now the government wants to modernize the troops. It is planning a debt-financed special fund of €100 billion ($107 billion) for new and upgraded equipment. Money is no longer an issue.

But according to critics, the barrier might be the government agency responsible for procuring the equipment: the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology, and In-Service Support (BAAINBw). About 6,500 people work at its headquarters in the western city of Koblenz alone. In total, 11,000 people are employed at the agency across 116 offices. They regulate the purchase of everything from high technology to socks.

German military gets big spending boost

An inflexible behemoth of an agency?

The BAAINBw has long been considered in urgent need of reform. Several German Defense Ministers have tried and failed to do so. To summarize the accusations against the agency: it is a planned economy-oriented administrative juggernaut that delays processes rather than speeding them up.

For example, parachutists have been waiting for new helmets for 10 years, the German Bundestag's Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Eva Högl, told the daily newspaper taz. The holdup has been that the helmet, which is used in the United States, is "first tested again quite extensively, to see whether it also fits on German heads and really protects as well as we would expect according to German standards," Högl complained.

Högl also told German public broadcaster ZDF about a visit to a tank battalion that had to work with 30-year-old radio equipment and consequently was "not capable of leadership and communication" in maneuvers with other NATO units.

Infographic showing military fighter jets

Legal battle over a new assault rifle

Another example of problems with procurement is the G36 — the main assault rifle currently used by German troops. In 2015, the defense minister at the time, Ursula von der Leyen, decided to withdraw it after tests suggested it overheated and lost accuracy from intense use, or in hot weather. From 2017 onwards, efforts began to find its replacement. Then, there were apparently testing errors on the part of the bureaucracy. "Today, in the year 2022, the entire process is mired a legal dispute, with a decision expected in the [northern hemisphere] autumn at the earliest. That is far too long for a relatively simple product such as an assault rifle," Frank Sauer from the Bundeswehr University in Munich told DW.

Is the procurement process the source of all the issues surrounding the Bundeswehr's armament — because it takes German regulatory and quality standards to the point of excess? "Of course, the German defense bureaucracy is absolutely monstrous," said Sauer. "But just passing the buck to the BAAINBw does not really get us anywhere." The procurement office can only operate within the framework set out in the law, with little leeway.

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Peacetime luxury of over-bureaucratization

This is because the procurement office must comply with EU rules on tenders as well as with political decisions. "Many problems stem from outside the procurement office because it essentially does what it is told," Christian Mölling, research director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told DW. If the legal frameworks and political requirements changed, processes could be made simpler and faster.

The causes of the equipment debacle are also rooted in recent German history. After the Cold War ended, politicians imposed an austerity policy on the armed forces and the defense budget shrank. Many weapons and weapons systems became obsolete. The equipment was neglected, while the administration grew ever more bloated.

"Overall, we have set ourselves up very comfortably in peacetime, and in this context, we have completely over-bureaucratized many things. We feel the effects of that, painfully, now," said researcher Frank Sauer. This turning point also means "finally rethinking, becoming more flexible and agile — as demanded by the security challenges of the 21st century. This must start in the Defense Ministry."

The first steps toward reform have been taken. Germany's Cabinet decided that urgently needed goods can be procured directly without a big process, in accordance with an EU exemption. Direct buying also applies to all products that cost less than €1,000. "But there is a lack of improved processes and clear taking on of responsibility. Without more streamlined and faster processes, the sourcing of larger items of equipment will again take too long," Sauer criticized.

Everything is right and yet all wrong

The DGAP research director Christian Mölling views the projects which are due to be financed under the 100 billion euro special fund as a huge logistical challenge. "We have a mountain of procurement ahead of us, which requires an incredible amount of oversight and fine-tuning, for which the apparatus is obviously not prepared." Consequently, there was a lot of room for error. "We will experience unpleasant developments over many years," Mölling predicted.

He is concerned that the focus may not be on the quality of the procurement but on compliance. "In the end, it will then be: We have ticked all the boxes, all the regulations have been complied with, and the result is that the Bundeswehr is not capable of defense and deployment."

This article was originally written in German.

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