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German Defense Spending – Trouble Ahead? By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.







Back in August last year, approximately one month before the German elections took place, an increasing number of suggestions began to emerge from Berlin suggesting that Germany would soon increase spending on defence.

A long time laggard when it comes to defense spending, while Germany might be the economic powerhouse of Europe and its uncrowned leader, when it comes to defense spending in relation to GDP being just 1.2%, one is entitled to say that this vast, powerful and great country is merely a midget. By comparison, the UK claims to spend 2% of GDP of defence, Poland 2% and this rising to 2.2% in 2020 and France, 1.77% of GDP but this also now on firmly upward curve.

For a country the size, economy and political stature of Germany, suffice to say that the amount that the German government spends on defence is derisory. True, in total only five members of NATO from a total of 29 currently spend 2% or more of their GDP on defence, a situation that as far as I am aware has not changed since the 2014 NATO summit in Wales when all members signed up to work toward spending 2% of GDP as a minimum on defence.

While Germany has very high standards in respect of defence procurement it does not take much research to find that far too much of what it has is unserviceable and unavailable for deployment. True, Germany is not alone in that and the UK and France have had similar issues with serviceability and mainly due to obsolescence, unavailability of spares. But in Germany the situation is very much worse.

Take helicopters for example and where the Luftwaffe is still reliant on a fleet of 37 year CH-53 rotary aircraft. A total of 82 of these aircraft are being upgraded by Airbus Helicopter and while the German government has already approved plans to buy between 45 and 60 new heavylift helicopters – a process that last December kicked off a competition between Boeing which is offering the CH-47 Chinook and the Lockheed Sikorsky which is offering the latest version of CH-53K – the bottom line for now is that Germany remains very short of available rotary equipment.

Along with other NATO partners such as the UK and France, Germany is believed to have received around 16 Airbus A400M airlifters from a total order of 39 aircraft. However, delays in the programme have meant that the Luftwaffe is still operating a large fleet of Rolls-Royce Tyne engined Transall C-160 aircraft (built as a partnership between the then MBB, Aerospatiale and VFW Fokker) in the 1960’s. From a technical spares availability aspect, these aircraft may already be considered long obsolete.

It isn’t just aircraft and helicopters in the Luftwaffe fleet that are old or lacking in spares availability. If recent press reports are correct, less than half of the Bundeswehr’s fleet of 244 Leopard 2 battle-tanks are currently available for service. Worse perhaps, back in the air domain, is that German Panavia Tornado aircraft are still unable to fly at night because the cockpit display lights are not suited for night vision mode. This problem means that pilots wearing light amplifying goggles are being temporarily blinded. While the German Defense Ministry is starting to look for an ultimate successor for the Panavia Tornado from 2025 the importance of the aircraft being entrusted with deploying US atomic weapons for NATO in the event of a nuclear war has not been lost on Defense Ministry critics.

Germany currently operates a fleet of around 88 Panavia Tornado aircraft, the majority of which are in the air-to-ground multi-role capability form. In addition, the Luftwaffe is now operating a fleet of approximately 130 Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft. Complimenting each other well in respect of weapons capability and delivery, together these two aircraft types form the backbone of the Luftwaffe fast jet fleet.

With plans already announced to begin replacing the Panavia Tornado fleet from 2025, Germany is thought most likely to make its choice between that of acquire more Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft or to acquire the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. However, my understanding is that Boeing have also been invited by the German defense ministry to provide initial information in respect of the F-15E and F/A-18E/F fast jet capability.

Yesterday, Airbus submitted its bid to replace the Luftwaffe fleet of Panavia Tornado capability with a plan that envisages new Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft being delivered from 2025 and finishing in 2030 which is planned to be the final year out of service date for the Panavia Tornado.

In its statement following submission of the proposal to the German defense ministry ahead of the ILA Airshow in Berlin, Airbus said that “As the Eurofighter system is already in use by Germany, this system could seamlessly adopt the capabilities of the Tornado aircraft. In addition, increased use of the same type of aircraft would result in considerable cost savings in terms of support services and training costs due to economies of scale, which would also reduce per-hour flying costs within the German armed forces”.  

Holding the Luftwaffe and indeed, the Bundeswehr together ahead of upgrades and already agreed or planned equipment procurement is one thing. German Constitutional and Party Politics in relation to defence is quite another matter altogether. Germany remains bound by a post-war constitution that does not allow the nation to project military force. Limitations in respect of what Germany is prepared to do to support its NATO allies in respect of actual engagement/deployment has been a bone of contention ever since NATO was founded 69 years ago in April 194. And whilst there have been murmurings of changes in the wind in respect of the constitutional barriers, it seems to me very unlikely that with Angela Merkel now holding together a rather more awkward ‘Coalition’ government in Berlin that large scale changes in the constitution at this time are unlikely.

That said, there have been several amendments in respect of constitutional limitations on the use of military force. In 2001, for example, the courts turned aside constitutional challenges to the federal governments accession to NATO’s new, out of territory and non-defensive “strategic concept” which had emerged in 1999 when the NATO alliance was executing its bombing campaign against Serbia and that had followed deployment of German armed forces in support of the NATO led campaign in Kosovo.

The Serbia campaign was interestingly deemed to have been neither defensive or to have been concerned with NATO territory. Subsequently the tables seemed to be somewhat reversed when the court ruled that German air force AWACS aircraft deployment to Turkey (a NATO member) had been a constitutional violation of the law. The bottom line is that Germany is restrained from allowing its forces to be engaged in a foreign conflict framed under the basis of collective security concerns without authorisation of the constitutional court or parliament.

Even so, the argument that on the above basis Germany does not need the capability of others because of constitutional limitations hardly stands up in a period when the level of threats against NATO has increased. Germany certainly needs to spend more to replace outdated kit and it is already starting to do that. Personnel numbers are also an issue and with only 178,000 uniformed personnel the German Army (Bundeswehr) is hardly be regarded as being fit for purpose. The Bundeswehr lacks a rather a lot and it is now at long last receiving increased funding but not enough I fear to get personnel numbers above the 200,000 requirement being suggested by the Defence Ministry as now being a minimum requirement.

The message that more needs to be spent on defense has not been lost Christian Democrats.  Back in February, Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her call that “responsibilities need to be fulfilled” a reference taken to mean that in order to meet growing commitments and threats Germany needs to increase spending on defence.

It is also true that Germany’s Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), wants to put an end to the military’s budgetary shortfall. However, with Germany proceeding through a period of shall we say, delicate Coalition, this will be all but impossible to achieve. True, some of the CDU’s junior governing coalition partners such as the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD are prepared to support Angela Merkel in respect of increasing spending on defence but as far as I can see, on nowhere near the scale that the German Defense minister would like to see.

Although it is difficult to envisage this occurring as planned, the German Government has stated intention of raising defence spending so that it reaches 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024. This in my view is only attainable if the German economy falls short of its growth targets meaning that defence spending could rise as part of a declining overall GDP. That seems an unlikely prospect to consider.

In 2018 Germany has budgeted to spend EUR 37 billion ($43.5 billion) on defense – a figure that would work out to be approximately 1.3% percent of GDP. BY 2021 Germany intends to be spending EUR 42.4 billion on defense but even so, given the pace of the economy, even that would only account for 1.15% of GDP.

It is, I think, worth noting here that in order for German defense spending to achieve the planned 2% of GDP by 2024, expenditure would need to be in excess of EUR 70 billion in 2024. That figure is close to double what it is today and that would make the size of Germany’s military a daunting prospect for some of its allies. Moreover, I rather doubt that a military of that scale and size would be acceptable to the German people.

There can be little doubt that the bad election result last year wrecked chances of seeing a large increase in defense spending in the short to medium term. Fellow NATO members, particularly the US, will no doubt continue to remind Germany that it needs to scale up and play a larger part in defending Europe and playing its part as a large and wealthy EU economy. What Germany does not need now is deflections that take it further away from NATO. Most European NATO members spend far less than 2 percent of GDP on defense. Very few, the United Kingdom and Poland among them, spend more than 2 percent. The United States invests some 3.3 percent of GDP in its military.

However one looks at it the reality of Germany spending 2% of its GDP on defense by 2025 is impossible for me to even perceive. Even if the economy could carry that amount of cost on defence, it just won’t happen in my view because there isn’t sufficient will on the part of politicians or voters.

While the SPD is clearly a thorn in the side of Angela Merkel it isn’t the only Coalition partner that does not agree with the prospect of raising spending on defense to 2% of GDP as both the Green and other Left parties oppose it too. The Greens are apparently fearful of a new arms race and the Left party wants to disband NATO altogether. Thankfully, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), says that it remains “wholly committed” to NATO and to previous summit resolutions.

The business-friendly liberal party’s election platform says that Germany’s defense budget must continue to grow until 2024, although it avoids mentioning the 2% goal. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had been calling for “reinstating troop readiness,” the return of conscription and the strengthening European influence within NATO, without, however, saying what it would will be willing to spend to do so.

I have in this piece deliberately stayed away from talking about the planned German/French partnership to design a new generation of combat jet beyond Typhoon partly because I do not personally believe that without French and German voters knowing the true cost of designing and developing this on their own it might still never see the light of day. Partnerships in respect of design and development are certainly the way forward but from my standpoint, doing this without the UK fully on board makes little sense.

Neither, because my choice was to write only on the context of German defence spending and the issues and problems surround this, have I chosen to include long dreamed about, EU armies and the like. My hope and the hope of the vast majority of those that I speak to in relation to defence is that NATO will remain not only the cornerstone of Atlantic security and the continue to be the most important defence alliance between western nations, but also that it alone unencumbered will continue to be regarded as being best placed to ensure Europe’s continuing peace and stability.

CHW (London – 25th April 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon





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