WASHINGTON – Social Democrat Christine Lambrecht took over as Germany’s new defense minister on Wednesday, as allies await specifics about Berlin’s stance regarding issues from military spending to nuclear weapons.
Lambrecht’s appointment to the Cabinet of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, also a Social Democrat, comes weeks after a coalition agreement with the Free Democratic Party and the Green Party signaled continuity on major questions about German defense and foreign policy. But that pact, aimed largely at the respective party bases and their approval, also left much room for the kind of clarity that tends to invite intra-government kerfuffles once fully articulated.
When Scholz introduced Lambrecht on Dec. 6, she acknowledged her proposed nomination might be a “surprise for many.” She pledged to reform the Bundeswehr’s acquisition processes — an evergreen objective for new office holders — and to examine anew the rationale for Germany’s overseas deployments, stressing the need for an “exit strategy” in every case.
Scholz praised her managerial skills for previously leading two agencies — Justice as well as Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth — at the same time, saying the experience would help her in running Germany’s defense apparatus of roughly 260,000 uniformed and civilian.
The German change of government comes as Europeans grapple with a response to Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine, which has led intelligence agencies to surmise an invasion could be in the offing early next year.
That scenario and its longer-term implications could shape the early days of the new government’s international agenda, including Lambrecht’s portfolio, said Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“Further afield, there are equally serious concerns about the possible use of force to alter the status quo, with China’s pressure on Taiwan and fears that Beijing may envision military action to reunite Taiwan with China,” he said. “So the stakes for Germany, Europe and the trans-Atlantic community are high.”
Lambrecht inherits several high-profile acquisition efforts that have yet to be seen through. For example, a new heavy-lift helicopter program is mired in legal proceedings after the government walked away from offers by Lockheed Martin and Boeing last year. Fielding of a new, short-range drone-defense suite is also on the docket since predecessor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer sacrificed for it a longer-range antimissile weapon, dubbed TLVS.
And while the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System appears to be at least muddling along — though a final industry contract remains outstanding — the path forward for a complementary ground program, colloquially named the “Eurotank,” is more murky.
Then there is the thorny issue of a nuclear weapons-capable Tornado aircraft replacement. While the coalition agreement affirms Berlin’s general commitment to NATO’s nuclear sharing architecture — which includes American nuclear bombs stored in the country and German pilots deploying them in a notional war — some observers say the intricacies of a Tornado replacement program could throw cold water on those promises.
In short, the question of Germany’s continued nuclear-sharing role could become moot if the coalition government fails to line up a replacement aircraft, approved by the United States as the bomb owner, in time.
That is one area where Lambrecht will face headwinds from factions of her own party, said Rathke. “The left wing of her SPD party and the Juso youth organization are going to be difficult to manage,” he added, pointing to the cadre of young members that traditionally holds some sway in shaping the party’s direction.
Finally, the coalition agreement’s proclamations on spending 3 percent of GDP on defense, diplomacy and development leave open a degree of interpretation about which area would get how much.
As envisioned, the plan would “likely lead to a significant increase in defense spending, but this goal is characterized as ‘long-term,’ suggesting that this movement may not happen until later in this four-year legislative term, if at all,” Rathke said.
“An early visit to Washington would play an important role in moving these issues forward in ways that reinforce the German-American partnership and transatlantic solidarity in the face of the major security issues in the Euro-Atlantic area and globally,” he said.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.