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More flak

Ben KnightOctober 13, 2014

Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has been criticised for deeming large parts of the country's defence industry as not "vital." And now her ministry is accused of hindering transparency on Bundeswehr troubles.

Pictureteaser Redaktionelle Themenseite Bundeswehr Von der Leyen
Image: REUTERS/T. Peter

The Defense Ministry is often considered one of the more thankless portfolios in the German cabinet.

The last few years have witnessed various defense ministers fall to a string of scandals - the death of dozens of Afghan civilians in an air strike ordered by a Bundeswehr officer put paid to Franz Josef Jung in 2011, and the cover-up tarnished his successor Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, while last year Thomas de Maizière was left to carry the can for a decade of mismanagement and overspending on the ill-fated Euro Hawk drone program.

No wonder, then, that incumbent Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen did all she could in the last few months to head off the brewing scandal over extensive equipment shortfalls in the German military - poorly maintained helicopters, broken tanks, missing spare parts. The fact that a delivery of weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters arrived too late to coincide with her visit to Iraq did not help.

Now she has triggered a discussion over which parts of the defence industry should be deemed vital to national interests. She argued that only sensor- and cryptotechnology were significant for future investment - a definition that was criticised immediately by Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel as too limited a selection.

Von der Leyen, who took office a year ago after the last German election, claimed that her predecessors were chiefly to blame, and ordered an independent report into the matter from leading auditing firm KPMG. The report, released a week ago, returned with a list of 140 problems in the Bundeswehr.

Ursula von der Leyen Peschmerga-Ausbildung in Bayern 02.10.2014
Von der Leyen's deliveries to the Peshmerga hit some snagsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Ebener

Nine major projects worth 57 billion euros ($72 billion) were either running late, or over-budget, or were delivered faulty, the report said, and von der Leyen promptly insisted that the results vindicated her assessment that her predecessors were to blame.

Own goal

But according to revelations published Sunday (12.10.2014) in news magazine Der Spiegel, the blame game maneuver seems to have blown up in the minister's face. Citing what it called "the unpublished long version of the KPMG report," the magazine said that many of the Bundeswehr's troubles and irregularities in fact stemmed from her tenure.

KPMG found that the plans to replace the failed Euro Hawk with a US-made drone named Triton were classified as secret "without a reason." As a result, the ministry destroyed a number of files on the project. The fact that Germany was planning to buy the high-tech weapons was only revealed last week and came as news to a number of politicians, who balked at the prohibitive costs involved - potentially in the region of 500 million euros ($630 million).

KPMG also complained that its work had been hindered by an internal "task force" set up by de Maizière to examine the Euro Hawk debacle and allowed to continue working under von der Leyen. This task force was also said to have impeded the "creation of transparency to parliament," the report said.

Bundestag Sitzung Debatte Untersuchungsausschuss Euro-Hawk Flugzeug unbemannt
The Euro Hawk drone was an ill-starred projectImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Flak from all sides

The newspaper reports are likely to sour von der Leyen's Monday morning coffee. Opposition politicians have not been slow to express their outrage. Green party leader Cem Özdemir told the Berliner Zeitung, "Von der Leyen's portrayal of herself as a heroine of transparency and someone who will muck out her own stables clearly doesn't measure up to reality."

Von der Leyen wasn't getting much support from her center-left coalition partners either. The Social Democratic Party's defense spokesman Rainer Arnold demanded that "these measures need to be cleared up." Considering the scandals that had dogged the last drone before, "the government has a great interest in transparency when it comes to the decision on what follows Euro Hawk," he said.

Von der Leyen has had to develop a thick skin in the past week. Even Horst Seehofer, head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, has criticized her manners: "You don't really do things like this," he told Der Spiegel. He said he knew what it was like to take over political posts and find himself having to clear up someone else's mess. But "I have never looked to the past and covered my predecessors with accusations. The blame game doesn't get you anywhere."

Just after last September's election, there was much speculation about Angela Merkel's future - would the chancellor contest a fourth election in 2017? Or would she end her serene chancellorship with a suitably graceful exit ahead of time? Last September many would have tipped von der Leyen to be the Christian Democratic Union's next candidate. She was seen as the most dynamic and talented of Merkel's inner circle.

Now that promotion to the defense ministry looks like a poisoned chalice.