Germany wants to strengthen its role in international affairs. But recent reports suggest the country’s weapons systems are in such disrepair that Berlin actually has very little to offer its partners.
Last week, a single person pushed Germany’s air force to the very limits of its capacities: Ursula von der Leyen, the country’s defense minister. Von der Leyen requested that two Transall military transport aircraft with missile defense systems be transferred to Amman, the Jordanian capital. The defense minister and a pool of reporters then flew for eight hours on Thursday morning in one of the aircraft to Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region. Back in Germany, the military had but a single additional Transall at its disposal.
After her arrival in Erbil, von der Leyen proceeded to the palace of the Kurdish regional government’s president. Her visit was to be concurrent with the delivery of German weapons, intended to aid the Kurds in their fight against Islamic State jihadists. Unfortunately, the machine guns and bazookas got stuck in Germany and the trainers in Bulgaria because of a dearth of available aircraft. One had been grounded because of a massive fuel leak. What could have been a shining moment for the minister instead turned into an embarrassing failure underscoring the miserable state of many of the Bundeswehr’s most important weapons systems.
No other member of the government has been pushing as hard for Germany to increase its role abroad since taking office last year than von der Leyen. From the very start of her term, she has sought to distance herself from the “military reserve” preached by conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and by former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. It is an approach which most notoriously manifested itself in Germany’s abstention during the UN vote to conduct air strikes against Libya in 2011. At the Munich Security Conference in January, von der Leyen even proclaimed that “indifference is not an option for a country like Germany.”
In recent weeks, von der Leyen has made it clear that Germany also has an obligation to intervene militarily if the threat of genocide exists somewhere. “Germany is even damned to take accept greater responsibility,” she said, alluding to the country’s difficult history. Von der Leyen wants to transform the Bundeswehr, the country’s armed forces, into an intervention army capable of mastering deployments like those in Kosovo or Afghanistan. But the idea of deterrence based on powerful combat units and heavy weapons has also gained currency as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.