How the Bundeswehr Should Spend Its Money
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision late last month to increase German defense spending to 2 percent of GDP and kick the increase off with a €100 billion (roughly $110 billion) spending spree marks a profound sea change in German defense thinking, which will have important consequences for European defense, the European Union, and NATO. It also raises immediate questions about how Germany will spend that money and what the post-splurge Bundeswehr will look like. This, too, matters a great deal for Germany’s allies: European defense is a team effort, meaning that if suddenly Europe’s sleeping giant decides to become a military powerhouse, the rest of the team might want to adjust their own spending and planning. Money on the scale that Germany is now committing to spending means not just fixing all the ways in which the Bundeswehr currently is broken, but also becoming something larger and more capable. But in what ways?
The priority for the Bundeswehr since 2014 ostensibly has been to reverse course from decisions made between roughly 2006 and 2014 to shrink the military while at the same time growing the number of deployable, expeditionary forces. The word one frequently encounters in documents from that period is einsatzfähig, basically “deployable.” (See, for example, the 2006 Weissbuch or defense white paper, published by the Ministry of Defense, the 2010 Weise Commission Report, and the various reforms proposed by Minister of Defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.) This meant not just cutting the Bundeswehr but disproportionately cutting its heavier units and the major weapons systems that were not appropriate for operations such as those happening at the time in Afghanistan. It was in 2010 that Germany ended conscription and cut the size of the Heer, the army, from 100,000 to 70,000.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Germany began incrementally to regrow the force while backing away from its tight focus on the lower end of the conflict spectrum. The 2016 Weissbuch, for example, articulated a real concern with the possibility of a state-on-state conflict in Europe and a commitment to strengthening the Bundeswehr’s conventional warfare capabilities. Even linguistically, there was a shift away from einsatzfähig or Einsatszfähigkeit (deployability) to concern with Einsatzbereitschaft (readiness). The German parliament and the German public, however, were not willing to pay for meaningful improvements and balked at spending anywhere near 2 percent of GDP. The Bundeswehr’s ambitions remained modest even to the point of renouncing in 2015 the goal of being fully equipped (Vollausstattung). Instead, according to Lt. Gen. Jörg Vollmer, at the time Germany’s highest-ranking army officer, the Bundeswehr’s real objective was to have “enough” to meet the army’s current requirements. It was during that period that the German army played with a rotational, dynamic sustainment system (Dynamisches Verfügbarkeitsmanagement) designed in effect to enable the army to get by with low vehicle availability rates.
As a result, all Bundeswehr watchers agree that the Bundeswehr suffers from poor capacity and yawning readiness gaps. Germans were able to sustain their operations in Afghanistan and participate in major NATO exercises and deployments only by cannibalizing various units, often at the price of reducing significantly the availability of major equipment for training purposes. One concrete consequence was that, as I argued in a RAND report in 2017, Germany would struggle to marshal a heavy brigade for a (now not so) hypothetical confrontation in Eastern Europe and maintain it in the field. More recent reports indicate that the Bundeswehr has made modest improvements, but still is nowhere near where any observer believes it needs to be. It would not have a significantly easier time generating and sustaining that heavy brigade, for example. Some critics discount the Defense Ministry’s more upbeat reports altogether. In 2019, Deutsche Welle declared that the Bundeswehr was “in a crisis,” and truth be told there is little to suggest that the situation has changed since.
‘Artisanal’ Arms Production
According to a German Ministry of Defense paper released in December 2021, 71 major weapons systems had an average operational readiness rate of 77 percent, which constitutes a significant improvement over years past. However, 11 systems had ratings under 50 percent. Combat vehicles stood at 71 percent (if true, this is a major achievement given that in 2017 the German press was reporting that less than half of Germany’s Leopard 2 fleet was operational). The equipment for the “combat units of the navy” stood at a readiness rate of 72 percent; combat and transport aircraft were at 65 percent; support vehicles at 82 percent; and helicopters at 40 percent. A significant portion of Germany’s vehicle fleets across the board also are aging or obsolete, including many of its armored vehicles. The Ministry of Defense assessed that the problem was particularly bad for aging systems and items of which there were only a few. Examples include Germany’s CH-53 helicopters and P-3C patrol aircraft. But also struggling were the Bundeswehr’s new A400M strategic lift planes, and its NH90 and Tiger helicopters. Likewise, the German navy was struggling. Less than 30 percent of the navy’s fleet, the report observed, was fully operational in the sense that all of the ship’s major systems were functional and up to high-intensity operations.
These 2021 numbers seem mostly positive. However, the situation is less encouraging when one checks the denominators. Percentage of what? The ministry’s paper underlined the difference between what the Bundeswehr had in its inventory and what it deemed “available” (verfügbar). The latter term applies to items that are in Bundeswehr hands rather than with the manufacturer being upgraded or repaired. In other words, the readiness rates mentioned above apply only to “available” items. This brings the numbers down significantly. For example, the report says that only 183 out of the Bundeswehr’s fleet of 289 Leopard 2s are “available” (63 percent). Of those, the stated percentage of tanks that are “ready” is 75 percent, or roughly 137, which is less than half of the overall fleet.
Improving Germany’s readiness means increasing the denominator. It also means investing in and restructuring the entire defense industrial edifice and its relationship with the military: German arms manufacturers, like France’s, have been geared not for productivity but to cut costs for the military while also keeping production lines open despite the small scale of overall activity. This means that the Bundeswehr has relatively little capacity to repair and modernize its equipment (which would require, among other things, purchasing and stocking parts as well as maintaining repair facilities). Instead, it returns many major items to the manufacturer. These do their work slowly, by design. The basic idea is that if one only has a small number of orders per year, one must drag the work out lest one end up having to close the production line or repair facilities and let workers go. For this reason, in many ways modern arms production in Germany is artisanal rather than industrial. Costs are higher, and industrial plants cannot simply switch speeds to produce more, faster.
Another fundamental problem is manpower. Germany ended conscription in 2011 and has since discovered that recruiting and maintaining an all-volunteer force is both more difficult and more expensive than it had imagined. The military must compete with other employers, and Germany does not benefit nearly as much as France and the United States from broad cultural support for the idea of signing up. Germany might find it easier to build more weapons than to coax its own people to operate them. A number of reports identify low morale related to the neglect of the military as an impediment to recruitment and retention.
Looking to the Future of Ground Combat
Rebuilding the Bundeswehr to make it more ready will cost an enormous amount of money, but with the new planned spending, there will be enough left over to grow the force and cultivate certain new capabilities. A general idea of what the German military wants to become can be found in a 2019 report published by the German defense ministry, the title of which basically translates as “Essential Principles for the Bundeswehr of the Future.” (The new defense minister has called for a new study, but thus far nothing about what it might contain is known.) The document is typical of its kind and of its time: One finds lots of talk of “multi-dimensions,” for example, and a pre-occupation with adversaries’ “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. However, the report deals in generalities: The Bundeswehr should be better integrated, have more robust and agile command structures, be more digitalized, and, in sum, be a solid player in Team NATO. This is something that distinguishes Bundeswehr thinking from that of the French military: There’s relatively little emphasis on autonomy or being able to conduct operations alone or even simply being the leader of a coalition. In addition, the overall scale is modest, calling, for example, for the ability to field a full division.
In that spirit, the Bundeswehr initiated a modernization scheme known as Division 2027. The basic idea was to be able to have a fully manned and equipped brigade on standby for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task force by 2023, a modernized mechanized division by 2027, and three combat-ready mechanized divisions by 2031.
Division 2027 now appears too modest. The truth, however, is that it might be best if the Bundeswehr aimed to make it a reality and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. My argument is thus for Division 2027+, with some additional specific investments. Besides, there are also some key investments that are overdue for the Luftwaffe and the German navy, investments that do not come cheap. The largest is the decision just announced by the German Defense Ministry to purchase 35 F-35As and 15 electronic-warfare variants of the Eurofighter Typhoon to replace its aging Tornado fleet. The F-35s alone might cost €4 to €5 billion. The German press is citing a price figure of €80 million for each F-35. The navy needs more hulls and currently is developing new frigate types, the F126 and F127. The F126 program alone will cost more than the F-35s. This is all the more reason for sticking with a relatively modest plan for the German army.
Land warfare these days requires numbers, which Division 2027 increases. One example is the Heer’s crying need for more long-range fires, a capability that suffered considerably during the post-Cold War budget cuts, as was the case with the British and French armies. In the Heer, the number of artillery units went from 70 during the Cold War to four as of 2020. To put the decline in other terms, the ratio of artillery to combat units went from 1:2 in 1990 to 1:9. Division 2027 calls for re-growing the artillery units, expanding them to three regiments (one for each of the three divisions the Germans wanted by 2031) plus a Multiple Launch Rocket System battalion. The German military has also been planning to pair its excellent armored PzH 2000 howitzers with a more mobile wheeled version, something like France’s CAESAR self-propelled howitzer, although possibly on an armored Boxer chassis. This arguably is not nearly enough, but it is a start.
In the Air
A trickier addition would be something absent from the Division 2027 plan: armed drones and loitering munitions, including larger drones operated by the Luftwaffe and smaller ones operated by the Heer. The performance of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in Ukraine appears to confirm their utility in a conventional conflict against a modern adversary. Germany would be wise to invest in them and can chose from a wide variety of American, Israeli, and Turkish options. (The Luftwaffe currently leases Israeli reconnaissance drones for long-range surveillance that also exist in armed variants.) Unique to Germany, however, is an almost visceral reluctance to do so, and the German parliament, which must sign off on such purchases, has for years put off decisions pending “further discussion.” However, Scholz declared as part of his defense spending announcement on Feb. 27 the intention, finally, to acquire armed drones, specifically Israeli Herons and eventually the Airbus “Eurodrone.”
The German military also needs to address its lack of short-range air-defense systems. It lost a useful air-defense capability in 2012 when it retired the Gepard Flakpanzer, an armored and tracked anti-aircraft system, which has twin automatic cannons mounted on a tank chassis. They are ideal for defending against certain classes of drones. Germany reportedly has some 50 Gepards in storage (Romania still operates some). Bringing them back might not be feasible, but making a new version based on a more modern chassis should not pose a major engineering challenge. Growing that capability also would be a meaningful way in which the Bundeswehr could complement its European coalition partners, who have been scrambling to come up with effective anti-drone capabilities. Generally speaking, all NATO militaries are weak on short-range air defense, a result of more than 20 years of operating in theaters without a serious airborne threat.
The old-school nature of the Flakpanzer underscores an important lesson provided by the Ukraine war. While Germany clearly has bought into the Western trend of buying the highest-quality items, as exemplified by the decision to purchase F-35s, this might be a miscalculation given, for example, Russia’s apparent inability to destroy Ukraine’s air force or its air defenses. It appears to be a question of skill — staff work, even. This lesson applies to all Western procurement efforts. Yes, F-35s make sense because of their ability to operate American-provided B-61 nuclear bombs, but they are not the only planes that are or could be certified to use those weapons. Meanwhile, the Ukraine war indicates that any of the current crop of Western combat aircraft (F-15/16/18, Rafale, Grippen) in skilled hands are more than adequate against Russia. How many of these planes can be had for the price of 35 F-35As? The answer is amazingly difficult to know, but one may presume the answer is “more.” Again, it might be a matter of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Whether the Luftwaffe has the required skill is another question, but there’s a very good chance that it does, especially when operating within a NATO coalition. The same lesson holds true for ground combat vehicles and naval vessels.
Implications for Europe
The above discussion suggests that the Bundeswehr, once its $110 billion makeover is complete, will likely be more capable and have greater capacity. It will not, however, be so good overall that it obviates the need for any of Germany’s allies to invest in their own capacity and capabilities. Fortunately, it appears to be the case that many if not most NATO allies recently have resolved to spend more, not less, on defense, and all because of Ukraine. In terms of complementarities, they become evident on a larger strategic level: Clearly Germany is (and should be) focusing on land warfare (though it should add air defense), and it would make sense for Germany to concentrate on defending its NATO allies to the east on the air and ground, leaving to the United Kingdom and France the problem of arbitrating between European defense and the imperatives of their more global ambitions. Both countries will want to nurture their expeditionary capabilities to a degree that Germany need not match. A revived German army means that Poland and others to Germany’s east will want to be particularly attentive to interoperating with Germany. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, and other allies will want to do likewise. Large-scale exercises involving Germany’s planned divisions should be on everyone’s agenda.
As for specific capabilities, in truth we must wait and see. Given the peculiarities of German politics when it comes to defense spending, we cannot assume that the German government will spending anything like the €100 billion and 2 percent of GDP that Scholz has promised, and those F-35s and F126s alone, if the Ministry of Defense goes ahead with those programs, will eat up large sums of money. Will Germany beef up its long-range fires? Will it acquire armed drones or loitering munitions? Will it improve its air defense capabilities? Will it be able to sustain in the field the units it builds? Can it recruit enough people for its three divisions and new frigates? We do not know.
A far trickier question than “what should the Bundeswehr buy” is how Germany and its allies should manage European defense industries, and whether they should persist in trying for multinational, cooperative programs or national efforts. In doubt presently — for many political and policy-related reasons, which are not likely to be affected by Germany’s spending boom — is the future of the Franco-German-Spanish “Future Combat Air System” program, intended to replace Rafales and Eurofighters, and the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System, which is intended to replace both the Leclerc and the Leopard II tank. We can add to this list any number of ships, armored vehicles, howitzers, and missiles being offered by consortiums. Consolidating Europe’s defense industries might lower unit costs and therefore enable the purchase of greater numbers of items. It might also result in greater capacity to ramp up production in a crisis. Lastly, major solo efforts like the British Tempest sixth-generation fighter program (in competition with the Future Combat Air System) seem implausible because of the staggering cost.
All this being said, the need to steer new defense spending toward domestic industries is compelling. My own bet would be against the Future Combat Air System and Main Ground Combat System, not unless Germany allows French companies like Dassault and Nexter to dominate those programs and make them effectively French, but it is hard to imagine Germany’s vaunted Krauss-Maffei Wegmann et al ceding their expertise and their custom any more than Nexter. Besides, Germany’s flirtations with limiting arms exports to unsavory clients runs counter to long French practice.
Perhaps this is all a long-winded way of saying that the extra money that Scholz intends to spend on the Bundeswehr certainly will improve it but is unlikely to make it into a military juggernaut or radically change its portfolio of capabilities. That being said, a healthy Bundeswehr with three mechanized divisions would represent a significant upgrade to NATO’s defenses and make Europe less dependent on America for conventional deterrence. Compare that vision to the current situation, where cobbling together a single armored brigade, though possible, nonetheless would represent a major effort. A regrown Bundeswehr also would be welcome news to the United States, which would feel less pressure to compensate for Europeans’ small numbers, and would not necessarily need to rush reinforcements across the Atlantic.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Lt. Gen. Jörg Vollmer as Germany’s highest-ranking officer. He was the German army’s highest-ranking officer, but not the highest-ranking officer in the Bundeswehr.
Michael Shurkin is a former CIA analyst and RAND senior political scientist. Currently he is the director of Global Programs at 14 North Strategies — an Africa-focused consultancy — and the founder of Shurbros Global Strategies.