After news broke of shortfalls in German military equipment, especially in the air force, debate has raged on how to resolve the situation. The new head of NATO, on his first day on the job, has welcomed that debate.
Jens Stoltenberg had laudatory words for Germany at his first press conference as secretary general this Wednesday, even if the context of those words could become a thorn in the side of the new head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"We have seen that there are shortfalls […] in armed forces, that there is a need for more investments, and that this is an open debate in many countries, including Germany," Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. "We welcome this debate," he added.
Referring to Germany as a "staunch ally," Stoltenberg praised the "great contribution" made by Berlin with regard to security in the alliance. However, he acknowledged that changes had to be made. "As an alliance of 28 members, we all have to invest more on armed forces. We have to invest better."
Stoltenberg was responding to a question from a reporter regarding the current state of the German military - following news over the weekend that huge holes exist in equipment within the entire Bundeswehr apparatus, which comprises the army, navy and air force.
The latest instance of those naval shortfalls could be seen on Wednesday, when a military blog Augen geradeaus! posted that 150 Bundeswehr soldiers currently waiting (since last Saturday) to fly home from Masar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan simply had to sit and wait, because there weren't any Airbus A310 transport planes fit to take them home.
The blogger, Thomas Wiegold, wrote that Berlin was considering using the personal airplane of Chancellor Angela Merkel to get the soldiers home. The defense ministry has confirmed that report, stating, however, that there wouldn't be enough room on Merkel's "Air Force One" for all of the soldiers. Other options are currently being considered, Wiegold quoted the ministry as saying.
Too much at the moment
"With our airborne systems we are currently below the target figures announced one year ago, defining what we would want to make available to NATO within 180 days in the case of an emergency," Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told the "Bild am Sonntag" newspaper over the weekend. "Delays for replacement parts for our planes and the missing helicopters are the reason for this."
The bulk of Germany's air force is currently grounded. Only 42 of 109 Eurofighter planes are currently ready for service, while 38 of 89 Tornado fighters could take to the skies.
Earlier in the week, problems with Sea Lynx helicopters currently serving in the EU's anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa became public knowledge, months after the issue was first identified. As for Germany's fleet of C-160 transport planes, just over half - 24 of 43 - are in service; their replacement model, Airbus' A400M currently in development, is behind schedule. Von der Leyen said she would look into the possibility of leasing equipment to plug some gaps, saying it would take years to build up a full fleet of A400M aircraft.
The first German delivery of weapons for Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq arrived on Friday, delayed due to technical problems. Von der Leyen visited the region on Thursday, her trip embarrassingly did not coincide with the delivery's arrival.
Her predecessor as defense minister, current Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, suffered similar problems in the run-up to the 2013 general elections, when a costly unmanned high-altitude drone project was scrapped weeks before completion, due to problems gaining flight clearance.
Germany willing to take on greater international role
The Bundeswehr's woes could scarcely have come to light at a less opportune moment, following Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's recent remarks at the UN General Assembly. Berlin is ready to take on a "greater international role," he boldly stated. This has been a running theme for months, with President Joachim Gauck, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top politicians repeatedly laying the groundwork for a less passive German military in the 21st century.
Politicians in the governing coalition and in the opposition have called for the Defense Ministry to invest more to plug the gaps. This week, however, Merkel said there would be no new money for the Bundeswehr, which has an annual budget of 32.3 billion euros. By 2018, that budget is planned to increase only slightly, to 32.9 billion euros.
On Wednesday, leading Social Democrat politician Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel made a snipe at Defense Minister von der Leyen, asking her to concentrate more on the management of the armed forces than on making "photo opportunities."
Merkel herself quickly came to the defense of her minister: "I believe that Ursula von der Leyen continues to do great and important service, in particular, with regard to bringing transparency to the table," Merkel said.
Over the weekend, Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, a leading figure for the opposition Green party, said that if Germany intended to become more active militarily, it would have to provide its troops with the right equipment.
"Anyone who is talking about taking responsibility in the world must also meet their responsibilities to their own soldiers, who risk a great deal in the field and must be adequately equipped," she said.