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Puma tanks unusable: Is Germany's military unfit for action?

December 19, 2022

Following Russia's attack on Ukraine, German leaders vowed to boost the Bundeswehr and take on a leading role in NATO. But now there is yet another debacle: All of the cutting-edge Puma tanks are unfit for action.

A Puma tank being transported across a river
The high-tech Puma tank has long been plagued by serious technical problemsImage: Philipp Schulze/dpa/picture alliance

The German military faced yet another PR disaster on Monday after reports emerged over the weekend that a training exercise involving one of its key weapons, the Puma tank, left not a single one operational.

The conservative opposition was quick to jump on the news as supposed evidence of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's mismanagement of the Bundeswehr, particularly under the control of Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht.

"It's a nightmare," Christian Democrat (CDU) parliamentary group leader Johann Wadephul told German  public broadcaster ARD. "The Puma is supposed to be a main weapon system of the German army. And if the Puma is not operational, then the army is not operational."

"The criticism from parliament is entirely justified," Lambrecht said in a statement released Monday. "Our troops must be able to rely on weapon systems being robust and stable in combat."

Lambrecht said she had commissioned the relevant departments of the military and manufacturers Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall to provide her with an analysis of what has gone wrong by the end of next week. The older Marder tanks will be used in NATO exercises for now, as had already been planned, she said.

The highly complex Pumas, which cost €17 million ($18 million) each, took over a decade to develop. Originally green-lit in 2002, the tank was meant to replace the older Marders, which Germany has been using since the 1970s. But the Puma was plagued with technical issues, including a leaky roof hatch, restricted sight-lines for the driver and electronics issues. Even when completed in 2015, not all the Pumas could be used.

Bullets running out

The new debacle comes on top of several alarming headlines in the German media recently about the state of the country's military. These suggested the Bundeswehr only has enough ammunition for two days of intense fighting — a figure apparently leaked by unnamed sources in defense circles. 

If this is true (and such information cannot be confirmed, as it is a state secret), German ammunition supplies are well below the standards expected by NATO, which requires each member to have 30 days' worth of ammunition. To make up that shortfall alone, defense experts say Germany needs to invest another €20 to €30 billion. 

The state of the Bundeswehr's hardware has long been a topic of concern: There have been several stories in recent years about tanks and helicopters that needed repairing, rifles that fail in hot weather and soldiers having to train in the cold without thermal underwear. 

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a "Zeitenwende" (turning of the times) which was hailed as a sea-change in the country's approach to foreign policy and military strategy.

To prove he meant it, Scholz announced an increase in the annual defense budget, making it the largest in all of Europe, as well asa €100-billion one-off "special fund" to modernize the military. 

Scholz announces €100 billion defense fund

Blame game

Nine months later, some are wondering where that mountain of money is. 

The ammunition row sparked an ugly exchange between the government and Germany's defense industry about who should have taken the initiative: Is it up to the industry to increase capacity first, or should the government have placed orders more quickly? 

"What I now expect from the arms industry is for capacities to be built up," Lars Klingbeil, leader of Scholz's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), told ARD in early December. "But to wait and say: Let's see what the politicians offer us — that's not an attitude with which we can reduce these deficits." 

"If the German industry can't manage it … then we have to see what we can buy from abroad, for example from other NATO partners," Klingbeil added. 

Hans Christoph Atzpodien, head of the German security and defense industry association BDSV, dismissed Klingbeil's statements as "pretty wrong." Atzpodien told the DPA news agency that major German arms companies had doubled their capacities in the weeks after the war in Ukraine began. 

"It's ridiculous this theater that is being played out between the defense industry and the government," Rafael Loss, a defense analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told DW. 

Loss pointed out that regulations are in place preventing arms companies from proactive production of weapons or asking banks for loans without a state contract. 

The analyst says Germany lacks a sense of urgency in reacting to the geopolitical implications of Russia's attack on Ukraine. "Other countries have moved much quicker, especially in Eastern Europe, in creating the relevant working groups between government and industry," Loss said. 

NATO partners in northeastern Europe have already expressed concern that Germany is not a military partner to rely on in a crisis. At a conference in Berlin in late October, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks asked his European colleagues, "We're prepared to die, are you?" Addressing the Germans specifically, he said, "A lot will depend on the military power of your country, and, I'm sorry, your military power is currently not there." 

"To be fair to Scholz, I think his turning-of-the-times speech indicated that he is implicitly aware of this momentous challenge," said Loss. "But it seems like the Defense Ministry and other institutions aren't really up to the task of keeping all these balls in the air." 

embers of German Bundeswehr 41st Mechanized Infantry Brigade Forward Command Element, 1st Panzer Division is unloaded military vehicles as they arrive at the seaport of Klaipeda, Lithuania, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022
The battle group of the NATO forward forces battalion deployed in Lithuania are led by Germany, and have been reinforcedImage: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo/picture alliance

Procurement has only just begun

Major new orders have been made under Scholz. Germany has signed a deal to buy 35 American-made F-35 fighter jets to replace its aging fleet of Tornados, at a cost of €200 million each. But it will take until 2027 before these are ready for use. 

Military procurement is always a long process, and other Western European countries face similar problems updating their peacetime procedures. Almost everything the military uses has to be ordered and then manufactured first. "You can't just buy certain systems off the shelf in the DIY store," Lambrecht told the Bundestag in the parliament's budget debate recently. 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has upended everything. The stories about Germany's ammunition shortages emerged partly because questions were raised about maintaining supplies for the weapons Germany is sending to Ukraine. 

"We need roughly 15 times more ammunition to ensure a sustained supply of ammunition for the weapons provided to Ukraine, while rebuilding the German armed forces at the scope required," said Loss. 

But there are also underlying long-term issues. In the past few decades, the Bundeswehr has sold off many of its Cold War-era storage bunkers — meaning that even if it did have the NATO-stipulated 30 days' worth of ammunition, the military would be struggling to find anywhere to keep it. 

Christine Lambrecht reviews the honor guard on the occasion of a welcome ceremony at the at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht is struggling to explain the persistent shortage in hardwareImage: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo/picture alliance

A history of shortcomings

For that reason, defense analyst Loss thinks the criticism from the opposition conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sounds hollow. "Things weren't different for the last 16 years when the CDU was in power," he said. "It's funny seeing the SPD and the CDU blaming each other for the sad state of the German armed forces, but I think both share roughly equal blame." 

Basic supply problems have long been an issue. The Bundestag's defense commissioner, Eva Högl, recently told Die Zeit national newspaper that German soldiers still have to train without all the necessary protective equipment, thermal underwear and other essentials. 

She spoke of a combination of logistical inefficiency, a post-pandemic hangover and bureaucratic inertia. "Unfortunately, there is also sometimes indifference and apathy on the part of the responsible officials in the Bundeswehr: 'We don't have it, be patient, it's not that big a deal, we'll send it soon enough,' that's what the soldiers hear all the time," Högl said. 

Eva Högl with Bundeswehr soldiers in the background
Bundeswehr Commissioner Eva Högl can recount a long list of things the soldiers are still lackingImage: Ulrich Stamm/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Some bureaucratic hurdles are now being fixed: Rules are being changed so that smaller orders don't have to go through a Europe-wide bidding process, and commanders are being allowed to spend up to €5,000 without having to go via official procurement procedures. 

Still, the government has now promised that basic equipment is expected to be delivered by the end of the year. With any luck, the German soldiers will be getting their new socks in time for Christmas. 

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

This article was first published on December 1, 2022. It has been updated and republished to reflect latest developments.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight