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Germany’s Zeitenwende: An underfunded military rearmament absent political strategy 

After decades of free-riding on US security guarantees, Germany is finally hitting NATO defence spending targets. But even this won’t be enough, and the Scholz government is still missing the strategic compass allies expect.

By: /
1 April, 2024
With the media closely following their every move, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when the latter paid an official visit to Germany in May last year. Image: The Presidential Office of Ukraine
Aaron Gasch Burnett
By: Aaron Gasch Burnett
Berlin-based German-Canadian journalist and Security Policy Fellow for the European Resilience Initiative Center

It was the speech that upended decades of wannabe pacifist German foreign policy – or so we thought.

Two years ago, just days after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed that Germany was “experiencing a Zeitenwende” – a hard to translate German word that means nothing less than a “sea change” or “epochal shift.”

In response to the Russian threat, Germany was going to at long last bring its defence spending up to two percent of GDP. It was also going to make a €100 billion (about C$147 billion) special fund available to modernise its severely under-equipped military, before incorporating the two percent target into future budgets. Only days before, it had cancelled the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to bring Russian gas to Germany – after years of ignoring warnings from Ukraine and its Central and Eastern European partners.

Allied capitals looked to Berlin and thought: “Have they finally got it?”

Recently, Germany confirmed that it was on track to hit NATO’s two percent target in 2024 – for the first time since 1992. But rather than celebrating, Germany’s allies are once again exasperated with Berlin over its unwillingness to deliver Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine. High-ranking parliamentarians from Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) now suggest that Germany work to “freeze” the conflict rather than help Ukraine win it. 

All this worries Berlin’s European allies – who wonder if the country is returning to old habits of underestimating the Russian threat. They ask, Germany may be getting more guns – but is Berlin willing to use them?

What’s more, it’s not clear that even the country’s big budget Bundeswehr promises will be nearly enough to make up for years of military neglect.

Starting from little – the Herculean task of Bundeswehr rearmament

Since successive German administrations started cutting German defence budgets at the end of the Cold War, it’s hard to identify something the Bundeswehr hasn’t run short of at some point in the past thirty years.

Soldiers have had to at times make do with a lack of protective gear like helmets and body armour. The military has run desperately short of helicopters – affecting not simply military operations but emergency relief capacity. At one point, the Bundeswehr was even running out of Band-Aids for first aid kits.

For all the protracted debate about whether to send higher-end weapons, like Leopard 2 tanks or Taurus cruise missiles, the country had 350 operational Leopard 2s before sending 18 to Ukraine. Out of its stock of 600 Taurus cruise missiles, only 150 are ready for deployment. The country’s new combat brigade in Lithuania is still not fully staffed or equipped.

Those numbers are a far cry from the 5,000 main battle tanks, 500,000 men under arms, and three percent of GDP in defence spending that Germany had during much of the Cold War.

By contrast, much of the new money will go to fulfilling long-deferred wish lists. The biggest portion – or €41 billion (about C$60 billion) – will go to the air force. New Chinook heavy transport helicopters and 35 new F-35 aircraft are at the top of the list.

The German navy is set to get €19 billion (about C$28 billion), with four F126 frigates on order and another two planned – to meet the needs of safeguarding the Baltic Sea, which some have recently dubbed “Lake NATO” due to Finnish and Swedish accession to the alliance. 

Finally, the German army is getting €17 billion (about C$25 billion). However, this is almost entirely dedicated to updating existing tanks and armoured personnel carriers – themselves in a state of disrepair. Another €21 billion (about C$31 billion) is being split between all three military branches for new communications technology, including equipment that is more resilient to cyber-attacks.

Roderich Kiesewetter, an MP and defence expert with Germany’s opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), recently said the Bundeswehr’s special fund would need to triple to address current needs and threats.

“It is completely clear that we need €300 billion instead of €100 billion for the Bundeswehr to be war-ready,” he told German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

The government – a three-way coalition between Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) – dismissed Kiesewetter’s call. But that doesn’t mean he’s alone in thinking Germany just isn’t investing in enough kit.

Parliament’s Defence Commissioner Eva Högl, who comes from Scholz’s governing SPD, herself said so last year. She’s also not the only member of a governing party who agrees.

“We have to do more for Ukraine and we have to do more for our own security,” Anton Hofreiter (Green), Chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee, told a recent press conference at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “For all of this, we need a lot of money. So, we have to put at least €100 billion more into our army and ammunition. I think we should have a European fund of around €100 billion to buy – now – from all over the world, ammunition and weapons for Ukraine. And then I think we should have another €100 billion to make our infrastructure secure. I think that is really needed fast, because the Russian army is preparing to test NATO.”

Does Germany understand Europe’s current threat level?

If Putin were to test NATO, how would Germany respond? Would it actually be ready to use its new weapons?

Unfortunately, that’s still not clear – to either Germans or to their allies. Scholz’s SPD is trying to turn themselves into a “peace party” – despite Putin’s clear desire not to negotiate, but to push with trying to conquer all of Ukraine. The Chancellor’s insistence on non-escalation with Russia has gotten so vehement that he suggested that French and British troops have needed to be in Ukraine to help its military operate Storm Shadow missiles. That drew public rebukes from both Paris and London, including from Emmanuel Macron himself.

Former UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace called Scholz “the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time” – accusing the Chancellor of potentially putting British soldiers at risk.

An open letter signed by more than 60 experts recently called for Scholz to change course, cautioning that if Germany doesn’t arm Ukraine to win – whether through more ammunition or through sending Taurus to take out Russian supply lines – Kyiv could fall. That, say the experts, would make a direct war with Russia more likely – requiring the three and four percent of GDP levels of defence spending seen during the Cold War.

“Scholz is effectively broadcasting that Germany is afraid, can be bullied and blackmailed, and that it is not willing to stand up for its values and interests via victory in Ukraine,” the letter reads. “Nor is Germany’s re-armament going anywhere near as far or as fast as it should.”

Ultimately, for all its talk of rearmament – years of neglect make the task of updating the Bundeswehr huge. Yet, deterrence requires not just capability but a clear willingness to use it – something that isn’t coming from Berlin’s current messaging. 

Until that strategic shift happens, Germany’s Zeitenwende remains in doubt.

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