Germany is the world's fourth-largest economy and the largest in the eurozone. When big crises like the Greek debt debacle and the Syrian refugee crisis hit Europe, Berlin calls the shots. Last month, Time named German leader Angela Merkel 2015's person of the year, dubbing her "chancellor of the free world."
Yet the German military is not fit for purpose, according to Hans-Peter Bartels, the German parliamentary ombudsman charged with overseeing the country's armed forces, known as the Bundeswehr.
"The military forces are tired," Bartels remarked in an interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt on Wednesday, a day after he released a report that depicted Germany's military as small, demoralized, and struggling to fulfill missions with malfunctioning equipment. "There are too many things missing."
Michael Moran, a managing director at the Control Risks security consultancy in New York, was unsurprised by Bartels's pronouncement. After the country's defeat in World War II, Germans felt ashamed of their role in the bloodshed and in the genocide of the Holocaust, and adopted a pacifist stance. Germany controversially rearmed during the Cold War, but only with the goal of defending against a Soviet attack. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has deliberately avoided reviving its once-vaunted military.
"They've never gone down the road to creating a warrior class," Moran said. "It's a very touchy topic."
Still, the parliamentary ombudsman's report contains shocking data about a country whose military preparedness has long caused concern among statesmen.
"For centuries, our main worry in Poland was a very strong German army," former Polish Defense Minsiter Janusz Onyszkiewicz told Foreign Affairs recently. "Today, we're seriously worried about German armed forces that are too weak."
Bartels found that only 38 of Germany's 114 high-tech Eurofighter jets are operational, Deutsche Welles reported. It also has 93 Tornado fighter jets, but only 29 of them work. The number of German soldiers was around 600,000 at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Today the country has just 177,000.
These deficiencies have led to embarrassing episodes among the few foreign missions in which German forces are currently deployed. Last week, the German tabloid newspaper Bild revealed that six of the country's Tornado jets that are conducting reconnaissance missions against the Islamic State in Syria cannot fly at night because their cockpit lights are too bright for their pilots' eyes.
The neglected state of Germany's military isn't new — but in a sense that makes it even more shocking. The wealthy, notoriously efficient country has tolerated a poorly equipped military for years.
Last year, a report from the German broadcaster ARD set off a wave of press coverage saying that German troops used broomsticks that had been painted black to stand in for a lack of machine guns during a NATO training exercise. In 2014, Der Spiegel magazine called the Bundeswehr "ramshackle." In 2011, Bild published an exposéciting internal government reports in which commanders complained that German troops in Afghanistan didn't know how to use their weapons.
Merkel is planning on increasing Germany's defense budget by around 4.2 percent this year to a total of around $37.4 billion, according to Foreign Affairs. The United States, which has a population that's nearly four times as large, spends roughly 14 times more on defense — $530 billion annually, according to Pentagon figures.
German defense officials have proposed spending 25 percent more to upgrade the Bundeswehr, Handelsblatt reported, but those plans aren't solidified.
Bartels supports moves to boost German military spending.
"We are short of almost everything," he told German lawmakers on Tuesday. "The army is at the turning point."
But talk of expanding the German military has in the recent past amounted to very little.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin began meddling in Ukraine two years ago, leaders in Berlin and elsewhere realized they had allowed their militaries to wither on the vine and were ill-prepared to counter Russia if not for the protection of NATO and the United States.
Last year, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter even began to publicly exhort allied European nations to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets.
"In general, our view is that they're not investing enough," Carter said. "We'd like to see more. We understand the economic circumstances in general, but still in all security is a very important thing to be investing in. And so we will be and I certainly will be continuing to argue that the Europeans should be making bigger investments."
Today, however, their vulnerability remains the same.
"The warning bells started to go off in Europe that maybe they had allowed this to go too far, and they were ignoring the potential threat from the east," Moran said. "That has been swamped by the refugee crisis that has been coming from North Africa and the Middle East."
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