Those who like their German words on the long side may relish the sesquipedalian heft of the country’s newest law: (the Armed Forces Procurement Acceleration Act).
In the early hours of this morning, while the rest of Germany slept, MPs began to debate what on the face of it was an unappetising alphabet soup of technical reforms regulating the way that the government buys weapons. In fact, the package cuts straight to the heart of Germany’s €100 billion plan to re-arm and modernise its misfiring military in record time, announced by Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine.
The Zeitenwende, or “dawn of a new era” in German defence policy, allows for a sum roughly equal to twice the annual defence budget being poured into nuclear-capable jet fighters, warships, armed drones and an elaborate new missile defence system. A full €20 billion will be spent on ammunition alone.
Today generals and ministers freely concede that their armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are in a much-diminished state and barely capable of mounting an effective defence of their own territory, let alone of Nato’s eastern reaches. After three decades of budget cuts and conflict-averse complacency their stocks of hardware have dwindled to the point where delivering even seven self-propelled Panzerhaubitze 2000 artillery pieces to Ukraine was a struggle.
The kit they do possess is so poorly maintained that at times scarcely a third of it is in working order. When the Free State of Saxony Mechanised Infantry Brigade was placed on high alert by Nato in case the Russians attacked earlier this year, it was so short of equipment that it had to scrounge anti-aircraft systems from the Czechs.
“The €100 billion special fund is the basis for giving the Bundeswehr its old strength back,” Christine Lambrecht, the German defence minister, told The Times. “With this fund we can finally make a substantial investment in rearming the armed forces. Now we have to make sure that this equipment gets to the troops quickly.”
That will be harder than it sounds. The Herculean labour of rebooting Germany’s military hardware in a matter of four years now falls largely to the occupants of a handsome old Prussian palace sitting on the conflux of the rivers Rhine and Moselle. This mansion in the medieval city of Koblenz is home to the high temple of German red tape, an authority that goes by one of the unwieldiest acronyms in officialdom: the BAAINBw, the national military procurement office.
Until a few weeks ago every item of expenditure over €1,000, from boots and ration packs to electrical maintenance and multiple-launch rocket systems, had to be scrutinised to within an inch of its life by the agency’s 6,500 staff.
This process can be so fabulously complicated that the results often read like satire. The paratroopers have been waiting ten years for a new helmet that is already available in the US but must be scrupulously tested to ensure it fits the average German head.
Defence ministry insiders say the authorities wasted another eight years trying to develop the perfect military rucksack when they could simply have bought one off the shelf. “It was supposed to be the egg-laying woolly-milk-pig,” one said, using a colourful German expression that refers to a thing with an improbable range of functions.
More seriously, last year it was reported that dozens of warships and submarines charged with keeping the sea lanes open if the Kremlin invades the Baltic states had been fitted with cheap Russian-made navigation devices, raising the prospect that Moscow might be able to track their every move in real time.
The most notorious example is the Puma, the world’s most advanced and expensive infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), which ran four and a half years late and cost double its original €3 billion budget.
Part of the delay was caused by a change in the German rules on air pollution, which meant that the crew on the inside could be exposed to no higher concentration of smog than a pregnant woman in an ordinary office. Then it turned out that the officials in Koblenz had been concentrating so hard on the precise levels of soot that they failed to notice that the main 30mm gun could not always be fired accurately.
After all the adjustments the Puma proved to be too heavy for its designated transport aircraft. In the end it was redesigned once again so that its armour could be taken off in pieces, while transport pilots were told to cruise at an angle of five degrees to the horizontal in order to keep their bulky cargo aloft.
“This is the sort of story that really shows how the troops see the procurement office in Koblenz as a completely useless thing, because they cared more about the air conditioning than the fire control,” said Gustav Gressel, a former Austrian army officer who is now a military analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “There’s an enormously high level of frustration within the armed forces about this process when these sorts of things are delayed for reasons they see as completely bonkers. There are myriad idiotic rules in Germany.”
Buying military hardware in the modern world is hard. Each country has its share of horror stories, from Britain’s infamously nausea-inducing Ajax IFV to the US Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer, which turned up without any ammunition.
The Germans, however, are in a class of their own. First, virtually every order, no matter how small, must be put out to tender across the European Union, with accompanying papers that frequently run to more than 300 pages of dense legalese. “Germany holds itself brutally, systematically or almost blindly to the tender regulations,” said Christian Mölling, research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Mölling said the priority in Koblenz was not so much to obtain top-notch equipment quickly or cheaply as to ensure that the paperwork was watertight so that none of the bidders could sue afterwards. A legal challenge can run through seven different levels of adjudication and rumble on for years.
One especially baffling example is the plan to buy a new standard-issue assault rifle to replace the misfiring G-36. The search began in 2015 but is still on hold because of a dispute between two rival arms manufacturers. The case revolves around a supposed patent infringement on a system for rapidly draining water out of the weapon when it gets wet. The punchline: this feature isn’t even included on the model the Bundeswehr asked for.
Often the orders are also extensively rewritten with new demands, making the hardware ever costlier and further behind schedule. They must also conscientiously follow the same workplace, environmental and health and safety regulations as any other German business, which helps to explain the air-conditioning fiasco in the Pumas.
As a result each project, ranging from underwear to futuristic combat jets, takes an average of five to seven years from conception to delivery. It is no wonder that the unofficial motto of the civil servants responsible for this muddle is said to be schieben, strecken, streichen: delay, drag out and drop.
Yet it would be unfair to blame all these troubles on the bureaucrats. Lambrecht, the defence minister, said the real issue was the tangle of regulations confronting them at every turn. “We need to get a lot faster at procurement,” she said. “The people in the procurement office are doing outstanding work. But they have to deal with extremely laborious legal processes that they’re obliged to respect. Now we’re breaking their chains.”
One official in her ministry said: “Fundamentally this isn’t really a specific problem with the procurement office at all. It’s a problem with German culture, because of course we always have to have the very highest level of legal certainty in every way, and no one actually wants to take responsibility.”
Hans-Peter Bartels, president of the Security Policy Society, agrees: “It’s more of a sociological problem than a political or legal one.” For a quarter of a century Bartels has watched the rot set in to the German military, first as a Social Democratic MP on the defence committee, and then as the parliamentary commissioner for the Bundeswehr, compiling annual reports on its shortcomings.
He traces the debacle back to the end of the Cold War. As the threat of invasion vanished overnight, Germany’s vast army of nearly 500,000 troops was largely dismantled. “All of a sudden there was too much of everything: too many soldiers, too much materiel. The thinking was it was only costing money and had to go,” Bartels said. “There was a certain logic to it: I mean, the world wasn’t how it had been before. No one thought there would be a land war in Europe again.”
For Bartels, the “original sin” came in 2011, when Angela Merkel’s government not only abolished national service and hacked the defence budget back to barely 1 per cent of GDP — down from 3 per cent in the early 1980s — but also introduced a new military doctrine. Units would no longer necessarily be fully equipped; instead, they would share hardware as they rotated in and out of overseas missions such as Afghanistan. At the same time maintenance was outsourced to the arms industry and spare parts would only be ordered when they were needed, rather than stockpiled in reserve.
These reforms were manna from heaven for Merkel’s bean-counters but left the Bundeswehr a hollowed-out husk that frequently fell short of its Nato commitments. The war in Ukraine is supposed to have changed all that. Scholz has promised Germany an “ultra-modern and capable” military, the strongest conventional army in mainland Europe.
Yet some of the old warning lights are already flashing. Auditors are beginning to circle around a deal to buy the navy two new fuel tankers for about €900 million. One insider said the defence ministry had originally wanted to pay a mere €300 million for a pair of mass-produced vessels from Southeast Asia. Because the Bundestag can veto any orders worth more than €25 million, however, MPs insisted on getting the job done much more expensively at a shipyard in the north German port city of Bremen, according to the source.
Other problems are looming. While €100 billion sounds like an awful lot of money, prices for armaments are rising precipitously because of shortages of skilled labour, the ever-inflating cost of raw materials and enormous demand for military hardware as half of the developed world beefs up its capabilities. Ukraine alone is said to have hoovered up virtually every single spare 150mm and 155mm artillery shell on the market. Some German officials worry that it may ultimately be impossible to buy every item on Scholz’s shopping list.
“We simply cannot afford years of delay in armament projects, unmet specifications and budgets running out of control,” said Henning Otte, an MP and defence spokesman for the opposition Christian Democratic Union.
There are also question marks about Lambrecht’s leadership. She is under pressure because of several ill-phrased public statements and the use of a military helicopter to fly her son part-way to a holiday island on the Baltic coast. Some disaffected officials in her department say the problems run deeper: they claim she spends too little time at work, has yet to get to grips with her brief and defers too readily to Scholz.
However, seasoned observers are broadly impressed by the way Lambrecht, 57, is beginning to cut through the Gordian knot of procurement. She recently raised the lower limit for tenders from €1,000 to €5,000, whisking thousands of petty orders out of the bureaucratic quagmire.
If it gets through the Bundestag unscathed, her new draft law will also remove some of the worst obstacles at the upper end of the scale. It allows the government to fast-track projects with an overriding importance to national security and speed up the complaints process. Crucially, it prioritises tried-and-tested armaments that are already available on the market over bespoke systems that can take a decade or more to develop.
“With the procurement law we’re now establishing clear rules that make the process simpler and quicker,” Lambrecht said. “These are rules that get rid of precisely the massive brakes we’ve had to deal with up to now.”
Since this is Germany, though, the bill also includes fresh stipulations for environmental measures such as reduced CO2 emissions. This elicited a weary sigh from Gressel, the military analyst.
“An Austrian friend of mine was deployed to Afghanistan alongside the German contingent,” he said. “He saw the German IFVs parked by the side of the road because they were non-operational. He was told that they had problems with their computer engine control and didn’t fulfil the German emissions standards.
“He was completely speechless. So we’ll see how that works out.”