For the largest economy in Europe, Germany’s military — the Bundeswehr — sure is small.
In fact, although smaller missions, like those in Afghanistan, remain possible, a larger conflict would likely catch the Bundeswehr off-guard, said Hans-Peter Bartels, parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, in an interview with a German magazine.
Although the budget has increased slightly following criticism by U.S. President Donald Trump, the operational readiness of the German forces has further deteriorated this past year.
“The hard currency, in which the success of the [defense] minister is measured, is the readiness of the Bundeswehr,” Bartels said. “And that has not really improved in the last four years, but rather has become worse.”
“While foreign missions with small contingents went well, the Bundeswehr as a whole cannot currently be used in the collective defense,” he added.
Reports of the operational ineffectiveness of the Bundeswehr has made its rounds, according to the Washington Post.
For instance, German military pilots are reportedly using privately owned helicopters to train because so many of their own are in need of repair. And as recently as November, half of the country’s tank force was out of commission as well, the Post reports.
In October, Defense News reported that the German Navy’s fleet of six submarines was completely out of commission after its only operational sub had an accident off the coast of Norway.
Bartels is a member of the center-left Social Democrats in the German parliament, or Bundestag. His party has been working to form a governing coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, according to the German public news service Deutsche Welle.
While both parties agree that the Bundeswehr’s standing force of only 178,000 soldiers and outdated material is ineffective, the scale of needed growth is up for debate.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen supports an increase in the defense budget of up to 2 percent by 2024 — the previously agreed upon mark by NATO member-states.
For reference, German defense spending this year will reach roughly $43 billion, or 1.26 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
But Deutsche Welle reports that the SPD is calling an increase in defense spending of that size “crazy,” and turning it into a campaign issue that could threaten the governing coalition.
Furthermore, the two parties are not in agreement as to whether the NATO spending marks are in fact binding. The CDU sees the 2 percent mark as non-negotiable, but the SPD has maintained that the number is more of a guideline than a hard rule.
The split is reflected in the political fighting between the parties, where the CDU has promised voters that it will meet the 2 percent goal, while the SPD calls that number an “unnecessary and unrealistic” increase to the defense budget.
Germany’s Bundeswehr has come under fire within the country for other reasons as well, such as the attempts to bolster recruiting by enlisting 17-year-olds, according to an earlier interview with Bartels.
“Incidentally, the average age of all new hires will tend to go up because the Bundeswehr is no longer just about recruiting young people, but also new hires and returnees,” Bartels explained in the interview. “I do not think that the proportion of underage soldiers will rise.”
The debate over the age of recruits, and whether Germany should meet the 2 percent quota at all, highlights the trouble the country faces in convincing its voters to grow their military.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.