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NATO upgrades: What challenges await the Bundeswehr?

July 10, 2022

NATO is rearming itself, and Germany is providing 15,000 combat-ready soldiers for the alliance's rapid response force in the east. But this also presents the German military with plenty of problems.

Bundeswehr soldiers of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group (eFP-Bataillon) during the Chancellor's visit to Camp Adrian Rohn in Lithuania in June 2022
Bundeswehr soldiers are part of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in LithuaniaImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The NATO Response Force is the alliance's "firewall." Its multinational combat units are kept constantly on standby. In the event of an emergency, the first units of what is commonly called the NRF are supposed to be capable of moving into crisis areas within 48 hours, taking on missions on the ground, in the air, or at sea.

The NRF is hoping it will have an even more deterrent effect soon. At the NATO summit in Madrid last week the alliance decided to strengthen its eastern borders by massively boosting the response force from currently 40,000 to 300,000 combat-ready soldiers.

Germany will contribute 15,000 soldiers, the country's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced, 3,000 to 5,000 of whom are to be stationed in Lithuania. Until now only about 1,000 had been stationed there. In addition, Germany is providing 65 aircraft and 20 ships, as well as special forces, or commando, units.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wants to see a large part of the new rapid reaction forces operational as early as next year, an ambition that is likely to put the Bundeswehr under pressure.

Christine Lambrecht addressing Bundestag parliament
Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht says Germany will step up its contributions to the NRFImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The struggling Bundeswehr

There is more confidence at NATO headquarters in Brussels now, because the alliance, once described by French President Emmanuel Macron as "brain dead," seems more alive than ever. But the reaction in Germany is more sobering. The current state of the Bundeswehr raises doubts about whether it can handle the new NATO tasks, not least because it has been considerably downsized since the end of the Cold War.

How bad things are in the Germany army was most recently revealed by Lambrecht during a debate in the German parliament at the end of April.

"On paper, we have 350 Puma infantry fighting vehicles, of which 150 are actually operational," the Social Democrat told politicians.

The situation is similar with the Tiger combat helicopter: Out of 51 machines, only nine could take off. There is also a lack of protective vests, backpacks and night vision equipment. Even warm underwear for the troops on NATO's eastern flank is reportedly in short supply.

Eva Högl, Bundestag defense commissioner and also a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left Social Democrats, expects the NRF boost to put a heavy burden on the Bundeswehr. "It is foreseeable that the demands on Germany will increase," she told the Augsburger Allgemeine daily. "For the Bundeswehr, this means an enormous challenge and requires great efforts in terms of personnel, material, equipment and infrastructure."

Soldiers of the tank brigade and their equipment
The Bundeswehr's tank brigade participates in foreign deployments, including in Germany's NRF contingent in LithuaniaImage: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Huge challenges

André Wüstner, chairman of the German armed forces association, the BundeswehrVerband, that represents the interests of the military's 183,000 servicemen and women, sees the army "facing the huge challenge of taking on this task, with the smallest Bundeswehr ever."

Wüstner thinks the €100 billion ($102 billion) special fund for the military, announced by Scholz immediately after Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, will not be sufficient for a structural reorganization of the force.

"If we want to achieve what NATO has in mind, we are talking about a volume of more than 200 billion," Wüstner told public broadcaster ZDF.

What exactly is to be purchased with that €100 billion is still being discussed by defense ministry strategists. But there is not much time left. The pace must be stepped up to make the armed forces fit. Otherwise, even the procurement of equipment could turn into a fiasco.

Bundeswehr Panzerhaubitze 2000, part of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group (eFP-Bataillon) in Camp Adrian Rohn in Lithuania
Tanks are not bought off the shelf, producing them takes timeImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Empty army

"The shelves are empty. That's how you have to think of it," warned Christian Mölling, defense policy specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "The market doesn't start producing anything available until they say they want to buy. It's not like you can get a tank off the shelf, like in a supermarket. They have to be made first."

Defense manufacturers may also have to work through pre-existing orders. "If the Bundeswehr wants to get the material it needs, then an order will have to be placed sometime soon for the tanks, the artillery and all the rest," Mölling told DW.

Above all, the soldiers will need command structures and logistics. "They need to be able to transport [gear] and —  this is the most important thing in the military —  the ability to communicate," Mölling added. That means new radios and a whole range of communications capabilities. "We have some catching up to do there too."

German military gets big spending boost

No doubt while at war

In peace time, such deficiencies can be dealt with, Mölling says. "But in wartime, they become brutally apparent. If you can't get a handle on them, then you're dead in the water."

In this rush toward progress, some also believe the Bundeswehr must see a change in mentality. One of the foundations of German security policy after the Second World War was military restraint, a consensus common to both German politics and society. During peacetime, the German military become comfortable. Many processes have become overly bureaucratic and decision making is slow. 

This is now taking its toll. Now that worst case scenario seems much closer, the Bundeswehr has to transform itself into a fighting force that can withstand tough battles.

"Times are changing yet again," said Frank Sauer of the Bundeswehr University in Munich, alluding to Chancellor Scholz' speech when the Russian invasion began.

"In principle, the NATO contingents that had been on the eastern flank in the Baltics were only meant to be a kind of trip wire," the military researcher told DW. The idea was merely to slow down a potential Russian invasion of NATO territory so that the alliance would gain time to organize.

"But in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, they are now saying: We can't just put up a trip wire," Sauer said. "We have to be capable of defending from the start. That's why this massive increase was decided."

For the Bundeswehr, he said, this is extremely significant in that it is not only helping to ramp up forces to defend, say, Lithuania, "but because Germany is expected to be the logistical hub through which everything will be handled." This, he said, is a major strategic realignment in Europe with lasting effects for the Bundeswehr.

As Sauer put it, "if the question is: can it be done? I would say 'yes.' But whether we'll be able to do it, I don't know, because it's such a challenge."

This article was originally written in German.

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