COLOGNE, Germany ― Federal auditors have flagged a coming chokepoint in the German military’s armored formations, warning that fully equipping the Puma infantry fighting vehicle will take years longer than previously thought.
Given the program’s bumpy progress and low availability rates, German ground forces should be prepared to use the predecessor tank, the 40-some-year-old Marder, beyond the envisioned replacement in 2024, they wrote.
The warning is included in a recent report to lawmakers by the Bundesrechnungshof, an agency comparable to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The document is part of a series of short papers meant to support ongoing budget deliberations in the Bundestag. The findings eventually will be made public, the agency said, but only once budget negotiations are complete.
Integrating all required features into the Puma, made by a consortium of Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, will take until 2029 if similar efforts of the past are any guide, according to the report.
Preparations for sustaining the Marder beyond its envisioned end of life in 2025 should include ensuring that enough spare parts are available. That has been a notorious problem for the German armed forces, wreaking havoc on readiness rates across the board in recent years.
Analysts report deployment-readiness rates of 48 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2017 for Puma vehicles, though they acknowledge that the weapon is brand new and only now in the initial delivery phase.
At the same time, the Defence Ministry set the bar low when vehicles as usable for deployment. Simply being useful in certain training tasks means vehicles are included in the lowest availability category of “conditionally deployable.”
Additionally, the Army has reported a lack of “system stability” of the Pumas, according to auditors. The weapon is known to often malfunction during training, and the failure source remains elusive.
Meanwhile, auditors note with “grave concern” that the Marder fleet’s availability rate also is trending downward.
Rheinmetall announced this week the delivery of the 200th Puma to the Bundeswehr. In a statement, the company praised the weapon’s “massive fire power and excellent network-enabled operations capabilities.”
The Defence Ministry already has several programs underway to improve the Puma and retrofit vehicles already delivered. But critical gaps remain, including a system offering improved situational awareness for vehicle operators and a camouflage feature that would reduce the vehicle’s radar signature, the ministry told lawmakers in a confidential report in April.
The price tag for the outstanding capabilities is expected to lie in the hundreds of millions of euros.
Defense officials announced in April that 35 Marder tanks are in line to get the anti-tank weapon MELLS, though a fleetwide program for all of the 1970s-era tanks also is under consideration. A portion of the legacy vehicles are slated to be part of Germany’s contribution to a NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, the ministry said.
The entire Puma fleet will also get the MELLS tank-killing weapon, eventually. In their confidential report, however, officials predicted a yearlong delay, from March 2019 to the second quarter of 2020. Following integration testing in early summer, the government expects to request money for the retrofitting from the Bundestag later this year.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.