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Merkel peeks over Bundeswehr parapet

October 4, 2014

Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken publicly about the German military's equipment shortfalls, appealing for "all the facts" to be placed "on the table." The Bundeswehr's air force is particularly hard hit.

Merkel in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

German Chancellor Merkel briefly touched on the Bundeswehr's equipment woes during the Day of German Unity celebrations in Hanover on Friday, calling for swift explanations of the current shortfalls.

"What's clear is that all the facts belong on the table," Merkel said, in her first public comments on the Bundeswehr's recent problems. "They should also be put on the table so that we can solve the problems and overcome the difficulties."

Merkel also appeared to chide Hellmut Königshaus, a liberal Free Democrat politician and the Bundeswehr's special parliamentary representative, for suggesting that former Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere was partly to blame for the problems.

Tag der Deutschen Einheit 2014 Hannover
Merkel was speaking at a ceremony in Hanover celebrating German reunificationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Spata

"The person suffering from the problem is surely the last who should be making jokes," Merkel said. De Maiziere, a fellow Christian Democrat with roots in former East Germany, is a close ally of Merkel and is now interior minister; his cousin Lothar de Maiziere was at the chancellor's side in Hanover on Friday owing to his prominent role in GDR politics.

Spare parts running low, new models delayed

"I'm the last person who does not call problems - even those of the Bundeswehr and its supplies - by their names," Merkel said.

Much of Germany's military equipment is not currently combat-ready, with shortfalls particularly apparent among airborne and nautical vehicles. The problems have delayed deliveries of aid and weapons for victims of the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Ebola patients in West Africa, while also impacting on Germany's participation in the EU's anti-piracy mission off Africa.

Infografik Materialprobleme bei der Bundeswehr Englisch

The fact that many of the problems were identified months before the information became public knowledge has also come under criticism in Berlin. Rainer Arnold, the defense expert for Germany's Social Democrats - now junior coalition partners to Merkel's conservatives, but in opposition from 2009 to 2013 - told DW in a recent interview that his main frustration in this week's parliamentary defense committee meeting was "an attempt to whitewash" and sugarcoat the situation.

Replacement parts for old models have become scarce, and were discontinued in some cases in anticipation of new replacement planes or equipment. Some of these new key projects, however, are suffering major delays, causing a particular logjam for Germany's aging fleet of Transall C-160 transport planes - due to be replaced by Airbus' A400M.

Symbolbild Bundeswehr Ausrüstungsmängel
The military shortfalls coincide with German attempts to expand its international roleImage: imago/Christian Ohde

Like the parts and planes, a report is pending

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who took up the job after last year's general elections, is set to receive an external report on major Bundeswehr weapons acquisition programs - the majority of which have run over budget and past deadline in recent months. She admitted in the press last weekend that the difficulties had reached a point where Germany could not fulfill its defensive promises to NATO in the event of an attack on a member state.

The most famous example was on her conservative predecessor de Maiziere's watch last year: The high-altitude "Euro Hawk" reconnaissance drone project was cancelled - with the first plane ready to take to the skies on a test flight - when it became apparent the plane would not get flight clearance over Europe. A parliamentary investigation later revealed that concerns over this particular issue were put into writing by the air force as early as 1999.

With the spotlight suddenly on the German military, questions have been raised about whether Europe's wealthiest economy had been too miserly in military spending as it sought its first balanced budget in decades. In 2013 under de Maiziere, for instance, 1.5 billion euros ($1.87 billion) earmarked for the Bundeswehr to spend was sent back to the federal Finance Ministry in Berlin. Von der Leyen blamed these unused funds on the companies struggling to supply new equipment on time, saying the issue could be traced back to "delays, shortfalls and reduced numbers of units."

Germany has repeatedly expressed a willingness to take on a greater military and peacekeeping role abroad in recent months, following years of pressure from NATO allies for Berlin to do away with its staunchly pacifist military principles dating back to the end of World War II.

msh/dr (AFP, dpa)