Ukraine War Compels Bundeswehr to Refocus and Rebuild, but at Too Slow a Pace
Since Russia launched its full-blown attack against Ukraine in February 2022, Germany has remained one of the Ukrainian military’s largest arms suppliers — incurring costs in the billions of euros. This spending and the decision-making behind it have thrown into stark relief at least two things: major shifts in German security policy, and the difficult balancing acts facing the country's leaders. In policy terms, the main consequence of the ongoing war in Ukraine is the realization that the collective defense of Europe — as well as each state's own defense — must once again take priority. For Germany, the challenges to achieving this in practice are both economic and political. First, while helping shore up Ukraine's defenses, Berlin must also figure out how to fund its own national defense capabilities and security commitments to allies, which are now getting the short shrift. At the same time, Germany will have to rebalance some of its past political relationships — namely, security reliance on the U.S., combined with growing economic ties to its rival China, and energy dependence on its adversary Russia.
What the War Has Revealed About the State and Focus of the German Military
When it comes to the West's military support for Ukraine, Germany has been the third-largest provider of such support. German equipment deliveries to Ukraine in 2022 comprised military goods worth a total of €2 billion (~$2.2 billion), including multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft tanks, self-propelled howitzers and air defense systems, among others. A further €2.3 billion (~$2.5 billion) in spending is planned for 2023. In late March, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will receive 18 modern Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks from Germany. Earlier this month, Berlin allowed Warsaw to reexport former Soviet-made MiG-29 fighters, which it inherited from the East German military. And most recently, Kyiv confirmed that Germany had delivered Ukraine's first Patriot air defense system.
This largesse has had a tangible impact on the Ukrainian armed forces’ capabilities, as did the military aid Kyiv received from multiple other NATO countries. However, it has also come at a significant cost for Germany’s own defense capabilities. One reason why Scholz's Leopard announcement was a significant and controversial move was that these tanks come from the Bundeswehr's immediate inventory, which will need to be replenished as soon as possible. Other German arms deliveries to Ukraine have likewise deeply affected the Bundeswehr's inventory, complicating the achievement of Germany’s other security goals. In fact, Germany is now in danger of neglecting NATO commitments and the necessary build-up of its own defense capabilities.
Russia's attack on Ukraine has fundamentally changed threat perceptions in Germany. For the first time since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago, the focus of German security policy is once again on the defense of NATO and Germany itself. The era of German peacekeeping missions abroad — most recently and most prominently in the Balkans, in Mali and in Afghanistan, where German soldiers were involved in classic combat with casualties for the first time since World War II — seems to be over. However, while the focus of German security policy is changing, the Bundeswehr lacks the capabilities to back that change. In fact, the Bundeswehr lacks almost everything — starting with the new recruits that it needs in order to expand its military personnel strength.
For one, there is a lack of armored and mechanized units, which have been severely cut back over the years, a shortage of ammunition and weaknesses in the logistics of depot stockpiling. Many facilities, including barracks, are in poor condition. The German defense industry must be re-enabled for serial production and the procurement of armaments must be accelerated, and Germany’s recently appointed defense minister Boris Pistorius has taken initial measures to this end. So far, however, numerous bureaucratic obstacles — such as directives on EU-wide tendering procedures, the awarding and acceptance of contracts, and the final approval of produced material — continue to hinder his efforts.
Nor is the establishment of a special fund of €100 billion (~$110 billion) for military refurbishments going to be a game changer in its current form. A tripling of that fund would be necessary to re-equip the Bundeswehr toward operational readiness, in my view. The necessary ammunition procurement alone would cost at least €20 billion (~$22 billion), while urgent fixes for the ailing infrastructure would call for an additional €50 billion (~$55 billion). And new frigates, tanks and F35 fighter aircraft have yet to be paid for.
Beyond these hardware-related risks lies an even greater threat: that of the dire shortfalls in personnel. In 1990 — that is, in the aftermath of the German reunification and at the end of the Cold War — the Bundeswehr had around 460,000 soldiers. Since then, it has been gradually reduced in size. The Two Plus Four Agreement on reunification set a ceiling of 370,000 soldiers for the Bundeswehr. With the suspension of compulsory military service in 2011, its personnel strength fell for the first time to below 200,000 soldiers. Today, around 183,000 soldiers, including 22,500 female soldiers, constitute the active-duty military personnel of the Bundeswehr, though the goal is to increase that number to around 203,000 by 2031.
In recent decades, the Bundeswehr has been cut to the bone. Meanwhile, the fulfillment of the Bundeswehr's defense mission remains in doubt and realistically, this will take years to change.
It Will Take Years to Restore the Bundeswehr’s Operational Readiness
In the past, Germany believed it could afford to neglect national and alliance defense because the threat situation was quite different. In retrospect, this was politically short-sighted. The fundamental failure was that Germany "imported" much of its national and alliance defense security, primarily from the U.S. At the same time, it generated a considerable amount of its wealth in China, the geostrategic rival of the U.S. and the West more broadly, and also imported cheap energy from Russia.
The Bundeswehr's foreign missions, first and foremost in Afghanistan, dominated the political spotlight and had to proceed, while the rest of the Bundeswehr did not seem to matter. Personnel and materiel were scrounged from hundreds of Bundeswehr locations for the ongoing foreign missions. Meanwhile, armament procurement concentrated on armored transport vehicles rather than on battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. This and the ever-decreasing quantities of new equipment also led to reallocation and relocation measures on the part of the defense industry.
Every past military reform in Germany has been intended not to make the Bundeswehr better in terms of national and alliance defense — but to make the force smaller and cheaper. In the end, the Bundeswehr has fewer battle-ready tanks than Switzerland and fewer ships than the Netherlands. This contradictory security policy, characterized at times by double standards, has been repeatedly and justifiably criticized and is finally coming to an end. Therefore, when the German chancellor speaks of a turning point, the essence is to put an end to this obsolete thinking and to restore Germany's defense capability within the framework of NATO as quickly as possible.
The hasty phase-out of conscription in 2011 exacerbates the Bundeswehr's personnel situation to this day. A return to compulsory military service is under discussion, but is not very realistic even though similar policies have been implemented in such frontline states as Lithuania. The suspension of conscription at the time was supported by the military leadership because it freed up tens of thousands of professional and temporary soldiers — who had previously been bound by conscription as instructors — for deployment in Afghanistan or the Balkans. In the process, however, massive personnel problems arose: Today, some 20,000 positions in the Bundeswehr remain unfilled. “The challenge for personnel is even greater than for equipment,” said Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, earlier this month. She has pointed out that the number of job applications to the Bundeswehr fell by 11% last year. German plans to recruit 20,000 more soldiers by 2031 are hardly feasible. And meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is experiencing a confluence of mismanagement, dysfunction and a lack of clear responsibilities in the Bundeswehr, as the latest reports of the military commissioners make very clear.
The obstacles we face today are not those of upgrading, but rather of refurbishing and restoring operational readiness, which will take years.
What the Future Should Hold for NATO
It is foreseeable that NATO — including new alliance partners such as Sweden (yet to be accepted) and Finland (already accepted) — will have to build up a completely new front line of defense against Russia, and, still in the background, against China as well — from the North Cape to the Black Sea. This is a long front line that must be defended if necessary. The NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which commits the signatories to refrain from the permanent stationing of substantial combat forces, is hanging by a thread, and it is unclear whether it will survive.
In any case, Germany will have to be prepared to deploy even more military forces to potential conflict regions in Eastern Europe than it did during the Cold War. In the future, the priority will be to strengthen the "frontline states." In all likelihood, Ukraine will — or may even already — be one of them, when it comes to the advance deployment of equipment, ammunition and material. In accordance with NATO directives, Germany must provide about 30,000 troops and 85 aircraft and ships at high readiness for NATO's defense of Europe by 2025. To this end, Germany would have to establish at least one mechanized division by then. In addition, it would have to provide a brigade for the Baltic States, which NATO now wants to be able to defend from Day 1, with a high level of readiness. Whether this is realistic remains to be seen. In any case, defense minister Pistorius has made it a priority to deploy a division and protect NATO's eastern flank. It will be an enormous feat. Furthermore, due to Washington’s ambitions in the East, Germany and its European allies can no longer count on our most important ally, the U.S., whose focus is the Indo-Pacific.
Moreover, the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war shows that NATO’s easternmost member states — especially Poland, and certainly Finland in the future — will play a strategically more important role in the transatlantic alliance. Germany continues to be an important logistical hub for NATO's European defense, but it is no longer a central frontline state as it was during the Cold War.
There is little time for European allies to organize the conventional defense of Europe by themselves, and Germany is no exception to this reality. The Russian-Ukrainian war has highlighted different threat perceptions and interests among the European allies, which will have to be balanced in the future. The new frontline states vis-à-vis Russia — above all Poland and the Baltic States — show very little willingness to compromise, while France in particular would like to end the war as soon as possible through negotiations.
While pursuing a substantial increase in the Alliance’s military capabilities, NATO strategists should also keep in mind that the integration of artificial intelligence as a universally applicable technology and robotics will change the nature of warfare. If we want to keep pace as a military power in the future, we must have technological leadership in the air, on and under the water, on earth, in space, and, above all, in cyberspace. NATO needs to adapt to this, and that means adapting the military contributions it requests from Europe. Along with digitalization, the domain of space is becoming increasingly important for all major world power. Satellites are intimately connected to the global web of communication. Recent developments in hypersonic weapons — which can penetrate all conventional defense systems — raise the relevance of space-based observation and cyber capabilities. Without space security, we cannot rely on digital security on earth. Technological leadership in networked digitalization will ultimately be decisive. However, Europe can only achieve this together with — not separated or autonomously from — the United States.
Limits of the EU’s ‘Self-Defense’
While calling for a peaceful resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian war, France’s Emmanuel Macron has also been advocating for greater self-defense capabilities for Europe, which, in my view, has never been more dependent on the U.S. in terms of security and military capabilities. Were Germany and other EU members indeed to answer France’s call and try to build up Europe militarily on its own, i.e., detached from and independently of the U.S., that would require them to spend between four and six percent of their GDP on defense — as compared with the two percent NATO is currently asking its members to spend. At present, I don't see sufficient political will among EU members to spend that kind of money, especially if common Europeans learn what the oft-repeated demand for more European “strategic autonomy” would actually cost.
EU states are already spending around 200 billion euros (~$219 billion) on defense every year. At market exchange rates, that is about 3 times as much as the Russian budget and it comes close to the Chinese budget, though it bears noting that the difference here would be less dramatic if one were to measure these counties’ defense expenditures with an eye to purchasing power parity (PPP). And yet no one is taking the Europeans seriously in the military field. What are the reasons for this? First, the EU states are wasting enormous sums in the defense sector through countless duplications of production lines, weapons programs, national certifications and general egoism — not to mention an overall lack of synergies. Combined, these factors result in constantly shifting security policies, to Europe's detriment – hindering its ability to act militarily and autonomously. Second, the EU is still a long way from achieving commonality in military equipment, joint logistics or coherent armaments cooperation. Third, the EU continues to lag behind the U.S. in terms of military digitization, the use of space, communications and reconnaissance, and especially in strategic air transport capabilities.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine and Germany’s response to it, including the provision of military aid, much of which has come from Bundeswehr’s immediate inventory to Kyiv, has highlighted the neglected state and outdated focus of the German armed forces. The war has spurred a much-needed change of this focus from peacekeeping missions to the defense of NATO and of Germany itself. As important, the German government has begun to invest in restoring the operational readiness of the Bundeswehr. But what has been pledged so far is not enough, for it will take years to restore that readiness at the current pace. More important, Germany cannot go it alone. Other European members of NATO should also up the ante to ensure their collective defense capabilities are adequate in the face of the new threats, especially as the U.S. focuses on the Indo-Pacific. In spite of this focus, however, the U.S. will remain indispensable when it comes to the defense of Europe. It is clear that without the United States, Europe cannot strategically balance powers like China or Russia, or even NATO partners like Turkey. Europe, in my view, will continue to rely on America’s nuclear umbrella, its digital, technological and maritime leadership, and its capability spectrum in cyberspace and outer space for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, enhancements of military capabilities alone won’t make Europe secure either now or in the longer term. Thus, while continuing to aid Ukraine, Germany, France and other members of the EU should join forces in undertaking a political initiative aimed at ending the war and finding a sustainable solution to the conflict.
Dr. Erich Vad is founder and owner of Erich Vad Consulting. He is a retired general of the Bundeswehr and served as German Chancellor Angela Merkel`s military policy adviser from 2006 to 2013.
Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, unless otherwise stated.