Red-Faced Army

Somewhat Ready for Defense

von der Leyen Bundeswehr_distorted_DPA
What is the real state of the Bundeswehr, Madame Minister?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The international community wants Germany to undertake a larger military role abroad, but the country’s armed forces need to get battle-ready first.

  • Facts


    • Despite years of warning about neglect, the military has stumbled because of equipment failures.
    • A top-down army culture rife with cosmetic solutions and the minimization of problems played a large role in the missteps.
    • The honeymoon period for Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is over, and she better take action quickly.
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These days if you talk to active or former army soldiers, you will hear many troubling anecdotes. Stories of small, multi-purpose trucks whose windscreens fall out if the driver applies the brakes too hard. Or of trucks with rotten floors that collapse under soldiers’ heavy boots. And tales of desperate attempts by commanders to somehow get their rusty fleets through military inspections – with the help of lots of cover-up paint. Needless to say, no commander wants to look worse than his counterparts in other units.

Minimizing problems, cosmetic solutions, cover-ups: This attitude, maintained by inspectors of the armed forces, has gotten the German army in the situation it finds itself. The parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces himself and a few retired generals have warned for years about ramshackle barracks and rattling jets but to no avail. This is because of the top-down culture that has existed. The only way to have a successful career was to adapt to it and play the game. But to blame just the army would be too easy. After all, neither politicians nor society at large really wanted to hear about the state of their military – thus rewarding the moral cowardice.

The time is fast approaching when Ms. von der Leyen can no longer blame her predecessors for the mess and is accountable to the Bundestag and the public.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, has been in office only for nine months, so she cannot be held responsible for the state of material nor the tradition of cover-ups. However, it is her responsibility to see the problems addressed with great vigor. She recognized early that the flow of information about problematic projects tended to dry up before they reach top management levels in her ministry. She shouldn’t tolerate what happened last week, when her generals presented to the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, an embellished report on the military’s operational readiness.

Indeed, the time is fast approaching when Ms. von der Leyen can no longer blame her predecessors for the mess and is accountable to the Bundestag and the public. Next week, as soon as she has presented her reform proposals for military procurement, prepared with the help of management consultants, the honeymoon is over. Then every delayed aircraft delivery and every piece of information lost in communication channels happens on her watch.

The government’s Social Democrat coalition partners have already shown they aren’t going to make the minister’s life easy. Today’s partners are tomorrow’s competitors. As long as Ms. von der Leyen of the Christian Democrats is being considered her party’s candidate for chancellor in 2017, the Social Democrats will take every opportunity to detract from the image of a politician who is so at ease with her public role of “bella figura.” And her area of responsibility will give them plenty of opportunity. It won’t be easy for Ursula von der Leyen to survive the next three years unscathed.


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