Germany’s defence commitments: nothing but paper tigers?

Scepticism about Germany’s willingness to confront a revisionist Russia in 2014 has vanished. But there is new disappointment that the German diplomatic leadership has no military equivalent.

In 2013, the German government launched the “framework nation concept”, under which other NATO countries would be able to “plug” their own national units into larger German ones to help the former maintain the skills needed for collective defence. This was before Russia’s invasion of Crimea. As a bid to preserve the collective defence capabilities of Germany, this concept was more brainchild of bureaucratic politics born of the Bundeswehr’s continental defence culture than any strategic decision anticipating renewed Russian adventurism. The armed forces’ troubles were ones common to all European armies at that time: the Bundeswehr was too small to sustain larger formations at higher readiness, and it had degraded or abandoned key capabilities needed for collective defence (battlefield air defence, combat-engineering, anti-submarine warfare, to name a few). As a result, the German government had decided the most cost-effective way of preserving key capabilities would be to team up with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Romania (Later, Finland and Austria joined too).

When the war in Ukraine erupted in 2014, scepticism about Germany’s role in European security was predominantly political, not military. The SPD’s history of seeking a special relationship with Moscow cast doubt on Berlin’s political reliability, and Germany’s prominent role in the Normandy format was met with suspicion: eastern flank nations (not only Poland, but also Sweden, Denmark, the Baltic countries, and Romania) were reluctant to trust Berlin to speak to Moscow on Europe’s behalf. On the other hand, there was little doubt that the Bundeswehr could – if Germany wanted – play a major part in NATO’s renewed emphasis on collective defence.

In early 2018 the European Council on Foreign Relations convened a workshop with the Dutch embassy in Berlin to examine what expectations and experiences Germany’s neighbours have of the sensitive issues of security and defence. And the views held in 2014 have quite reversed. Suspicions that Germany would strike favourable deals with Russia at the expense of its neighbours are gone. Berlin’s effort to keep European Union member states on the same page on sanctions won favour in many EU capitals. With the great insecurity the Trump presidency has caused, the pragmatic way Berlin deals with Washington – not to use rising anti-American sentiment for domestic purposes but to work with the reasonable members of the current administration – has averted further splits in Europe. But while ‘political Berlin’ has met the expectations of its neighbours, ‘military Berlin’ has not quite.

Thanks to the emphasis it placed on collective defence as a primary task for the Bundeswehr, from 2015 onwards the German Ministry of Defence won modest budget increases to recreate war stocks of ammunition (if Russia had invaded Europe in 2014, the Bundeswehr would have run out of ammunition within just one week), to increase its readiness, to fill up the material stock of all units to 100 percent, and to expand the Bundeswehr in size. Germany promised NATO a number of things: a three-division army (out of which one division should be deployable within a relatively short amount of time); several fighter-wings, including some dual-capable aircraft for the nuclear strike role; an electronic attack wing; an escort group for transatlantic convoys; and naval assets for littoral tasks in the Baltic Sea.

Despite the “we need to take our fate into our own hand” rhetoric, the new grand coalition does not yet appear to be taking collective defence seriously

However, right now there are still more ambitions than capacities. Recent reports about the state of readiness of the Bundeswehr reveal that increasing the combat-readiness of the armed forces and expanding it at the same time has not worked. Even refurbishing old systems is behind schedule. All major acquisition programmes are late. But above all the Bundeswehr is bogged down by inefficient procedures, over-regulation, and flawed procurement processes.

This lack of capacities is deeply worrying for neighbours like the Netherlands that hoped that deeper defence integration with Germany would revive and restore their own collective defence capabilities. If the framework nation at the centre of Europe struggles, what should its European partners do? In the past this would have been a minor problem, as collective defence was to be primarily organised with the United States. Now, with Donald Trump at the helm, few states want to put all their eggs in this particular basket.

But, despite all the “we need to take our fate into our own hand” rhetoric coming out of Berlin these days, the new grand coalition does not yet appear to be taking the matter seriously enough. Promising to mirror any further increase in German defence expenditure with an equal rise in the overseas aid budget made the coalition agreement acceptable for pacifist social democrats, but revealed a dilemma: the German development budget is quite high, and in many countries the development agency has not even been able to spend all the money allocated to it in a sustainable and effective way. In contrast, the proposed annual €2 billion defence budget increase would not cover the cost of Germany’s already-committed contributions to NATO defence as well as the development of the next generation of weapon systems (tanks, aircraft, and so on) that it has committed to France. Will Germany withdraw its commitments? In addition, Germany has so far refused to fully exercise the deployment of large multilateral formations (division-sized) to the borders of allied countries. German officials – especially in the federal foreign office – are cautious not to antagonise Russia and stir up pacifism in the general public. But procedures not practised in peacetime do not usually work in wartime. Will Germany’s defence commitments remain paper tigers?

The issue of European self-reliance in defence will become more important over the coming years. Trump’s intention to use punitive import tariffs on steel and aluminium as well as picking unilateralist hardliners to replace key officials has reopened the debate about the US administration’s reliability. While the Department of Defence may still be the key decision-maker for many routine operations taking place in NATO, any big crisis would need to go to Trump in the White House. For Europe the tariff dispute is not only about trade. Whenever the international system has embarked on a path of protectionism in the past, larger states imposed trade preferences on their neighbours, ultimately leading to closed spheres of colonial pre-eminence. This would suit the Russian and Chinese ideas of a zone of preferential influence – exactly the kind of order Europe wants to avoid.

Decreasing Europe’s security and defence dependence on Washington, let alone trying to salvage the Western-led international order, is impossible without Germany at the core. However, in Berlin there are no signs that the federal government is preparing to mobilise public support for a more active role. Foreign policy was side-lined in the election campaign, as the government feared it would only inspire isolationist and pacifist popular sentiments to be exploited by the Alternative für Deutschland. Discussions in Germany about EU defence integration and strategic autonomy revolve around ongoing PESCO proposals, most of which are only marginally relevant and do not sufficiently address European defence needs. And, above all, Germany is again substituting a clear policy with vague bureaucratic processes and a fondness for making declarations. With America’s role and resolve in doubt, Europeans realise that its security must come from the forces available on their own continent. But so far Germany has not lived up to expectations as a European anchor on defence.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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