Germany Can’t Manage Its Weapons
Tanks, ships and planes are late, too costly—and half of them aren’t fit for service
The German armed forces have come clean. They’ve admitted they’re incapable of managing arms procurement—and have systematically neglected the hardware that’s already in service.
Military procurement and management in Germany have been under heightened scrutiny ever since Berlin’s attempt to buy an European version of America’s Global Hawk drone ended in miserable failure in mid-2013.
In late September, the German military sent an explosive report to parliament, confessing that half of the armed forces’ heavy equipment is unserviceable and can’t deploy in a crisis.
The German navy, for example, possesses 15 Sea King helicopters, but 12 of them are grounded. The situation is similar with respect to the naval Sea Lynx helicopter—just four out of 18 can fly—and the heavy-lifting CH-53 helicopter. Sixteen out of 43 CH-53s are functional.
The Luftwaffe can field only 80 Typhoon and Tornado fighters, out of 140 on the books. So short of equipment, at present Germany would be powerless to respond if a fellow NATO member were to ask for military assistance.
And the bad news doesn’t stop there. On Oct. 6, Defense Minister Ursula Von Der Leyen released a report by an outside consultancy analyzing the military’s nine biggest weapons purchases.
The report is damning. Every single procurement effort suffers some combination of cost overruns, delays and technical shortfalls. And owing to the ministry’s unwillingness or inability to negotiate proper contracts, the government has had to pay for the overruns itself. The arms manufacturers waltz away with their full fees.
Projects including the Puma fighting vehicle and the A400M transport plane are years late and billions of dollars more expensive than the government originally estimated. Shady contracting practices and the overly-politicized management of arms deals are largely to blame.
For the Puma purchase, the army applied a standard contract template—basically the same type of contract the military would use to buy napkins or uniforms. It included only a minimal penalty for cost overruns.
And instead of initiating a bidding contest between Germany’s two tank builders—Landsystem-Häuser Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann—for political reasons the ministry gave the contract to a consortium of both companies. The absence of real competition is costing the army dearly.
To be fair, armies all over the world struggle with cost overruns, delays and mismanagement. But for the German military and political leadership, the weaponry woes come at a particularly inopportune time.
The government is trying to boost Germany’s international standing by pledging more engagement in times of crisis. The military plays an important role in this plan. Germany already participates in 17 U.N. and European military missions worldwide—and that number could grow.
But in their current state, the armed forces can’t handle the additional responsibilities the politicians demand.
For Von Der Leyen, the crisis could have serious personal and political consequences. She assumed office only recently and therefore isn’t responsible for the current situation. But it’s an open secret that she has plans to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
Von Der Leyen is a serial minister, having held top positions in education and family and social affairs in recent years. But defense is much harder. Two of Von Der Leyen’s three immediate predecessors left office in disgrace.
The political pressure for military reform is intense, but no one seems to agree on how to begin. Some politicians have called for more defense spending. Others want a top-down overhaul of the armed forces’ management.
Von Der Leyen wants to restructure the procurement process and shorten reporting chains. She’s betting her political future on her ability to tame the generals and military bureaucrats.
But the military’s own relevance is at stake, too.