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Analysis

Afraid of a major conflict? The German military is currently unavailable

German soldiers participate in a ruck march during the European Best Sniper Squad Competition at the 7th Army Training Command Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Sept. 28, 2017.

EMILY HOUDERSHIELDT/U.S. ARMY

By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: January 24, 2018

BERLIN — Three years ago, Germany's military made headlines when it used broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise due to a shortage of equipment. The lack of real weapons in the European Union's most populous nation was seen as symptomatic of how underfunded its military has long been.

One Russian annexation later, if anything, the state of affairs has only gotten worse.

The parliamentary commissioner for the country's armed forces has now reached the conclusion that the German military is virtually "not deployable for collective defense," at the moment. Independent commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels also indicated in a recent interview that Germany was unprepared for the possibility of a larger conflict even though smaller operations abroad may still be possible.

Last October, reports emerged that not a single German military submarine was operational - at a time when Russian submarine operations in the Baltic Sea were raising new concerns.

The most commonly used German assault rifle stops functioning correctly in hot weather or if it overheats from too much use. Bundeswehr pilots are using choppers owned by a private automobile club to practice because so many of their own helicopters are in need of repair. And about half of all tanks were out of order as recently as last November, which left the country with only 95 functioning tanks.

By comparison, Russia is believed to have over 20,000, even though it is not known how many of them are currently operational.

"The hard currency, which should be used to measure the success of the minister, is the Bundeswehr's readiness for action," said Bartels, a Social Democrat. "And this readiness has not improved over the last four years but has only gotten worse."

Bartels was referring to the performance of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Christian Democrat. Even though von der Leyen has backed increases in military spending during her term, the repercussions of decades of funding shortages are only fully becoming apparent now as much-needed repairs are mounting at the same time.

In his role as parliamentary commissioner, Bartels acts as an advocate for servicemen and women and is expected to raise awareness for irregularities.

Germany is also still in the process of transitioning from a conscription-based model to a more professional military that relies exclusively on volunteers. Conscription was only abolished here about seven years ago, at a time when other EU countries were considering reintroducing it. But the Bundeswehr has so far been unable to fully fill its ranks with volunteers, and critics fear that equipment shortages could deter even more from joining.

In a history-burdened nation which has been among the most war-weary since reunification in 1990, the military is still viewed with more skepticism than elsewhere. Britain and France have filled the void as Europe's strongest military forces, even though cost-cutting has led to consolidation and lay-offs in both countries, as well.

Elsewhere, however, there is a rising awareness that decades of cost-cutting and relying on the U.S. military have damaged Europe's own defense mechanisms. Sweden, for instance, has recently reversed its passive military approach and redeployed soldiers to strategically important bases.

Low military spending in Europe have long raised concerns in the White House, with President Donald Trump taking to Twitter last March to publicly accuse Germany of owing the United States "vast sums of money" for NATO. At the time, Berlin rejected his claim while also questioning his understanding of NATO finances. Germany has long demanded that other investments, such as development aid, should also be included in defense expenditure calculations because they may help to make the world safer, too.

"What we want is a fair burden-sharing, and in order to achieve that, we need a modern understanding of security," von der Leyen said last March. But her critics fear that such calculations mostly hide the extent to which Germany's military is currently, literally, out of service.