As Eastern Europe has come under threat from a resurgent Russia the call has gone out to station more troops on NATO’s eastern periphery. Such a move is intended to reassure allies and deter Russia from meddling in the region. The problem is that many countries simply do not have the capacity to increase spending and build their forces in a way that will impact the broader strategic picture and create a credible deterrent in the east.
NATO’s southern members like Greece, Spain and Italy are struggling to keep budgets flat because of broader economic challenges. Nations in Northern Europe are doing better economically and have vowed to increase military spending, But many countries, like the Baltic states, Denmark and Belgium are too small to have the necessary impact.
What NATO needs is another great power to supply manpower and material; a nation that can actually fill in the role left by America’s pivot to Asia and Russia’s reemergence. That power can be none other than Germany.
The makings of greatness
With a GDP of 3.86 trillion dollars, the German economy is the largest in Europe, nearly double the size of Russia’s and a trillion dollars larger than France’s. If it spent the NATO required two percent of GDP on defense (currently it spends 1.1), Germany would have a 77.2 billion dollar military budget, putting it ahead of Russia in defense spending. Compare this to other countries in the region like Poland, or even Britain, which could only achieve 11 and 53 billion dollar defense budgets (respectively) with the same amount of national expenditure.
Germany is also major arms producer and exporter with the largest industrial base in Europe. Germany ranks fourth globally in arms exports after the U.S , China and Russia. German weapons are highly complex and renowned for their quality. Products like the Leopard 2 main battle tanks, Heckler and Koch rifles, Rheinmetall cannons and Thyssen-Krupp naval frigates have been exported around the world and are used by other NATO members.
The Federal Republic is also the most populous country in western Europe. With over 80 million residents, building up a professional military shouldn’t be a problem. Even though it is one the world’s oldest countries (median age 46) roughly 800,000 people reach military age annually and over 30 million are available for service. High technical competency and educational standards also create a large pool of talent to pick from.
A Paper Tiger
Despite having all of the assets needed to become a true great power, the German military is a complete disaster (excuse the the Trumpism). In one well known incident, the Bundeswehr showed up to a NATO exercise with no weapons and improvised by painting broomsticks black and pretending they were machine guns.
But the deficiencies go much further than that. Most of Germany’s weapons are not usable. Only one out of five submarines in the German Navy is capable of deployment and the Luftwaffe only has 80 working fighter jets out an original force of 198 planes. Helicopter readiness is even worse, with only about a third of helicopters in inventory in flyable condition.
The army is also in bad shape. Since the end of the Cold War it has been cut to only 60,000 active soldiers. Germany fields just 225 Leopard 2 tanks; less than 10 percent of the 2300 tanks West Germany operated in the 1980s. With this force, Germany can only field two understrength Panzer Brigades.
There is also clear lack of martial spirit, stemming from it’s defeat in the Second World War. As such, German priorities tend to shy away from military spending and adventure. While this means Germany is unlikely to start another world war, it also means that they are not doing enough to support and defend countries that they have been allied with for some 70 years since the last war ended.
Digging them out
Germany has accepted that the post Cold War “peace dividend” period is over and is planning to increase military spending by 5 billion dollars by 2020 and add an additional division’s worth of troops to the Bundeswehr. However, this increase will likely only be enough cash to dig them out of the hole they have put themselves in over the past few decades.
Much of this new spending will go toward fixing problems the German government has already created, not developing new capabilities. The air force will still be flying the same 4th and 3rd generation jets as before and the Navy will be using the same submarines. This, at a time when many NATO members are acquiring fifth-generation fighters and Russia is developing it’s own navy and air force. Germany isn’t planning to acquire such weapons until 2030.
Other necessary acquisition programs will likely eat up the rest of the increase. Germany needs to replace or upgrade it’s tanks with vehicles more capable of taking on Russia’s new Armata tank and find a replacement for it’s faulty G36 rifles. Then of course, it actually has to procure enough of these weapons so soldiers aren’t literally training with broomsticks.
By the time all is said and done, Germany will be in the same position it is today. The Bundeswehr may become a more ready force, but the structure will remain same. By 2019 the German military will still be less than half the size it was during the Cold War and unable to deploy significant forces beyond it’s borders.
It has become obvious in recent years that this additional capability is needed. The United States cannot afford to be providing 75 percent of the troops that will be needed Eastern Europe. America has it’s own fiscal constraints and defense needs. With troops deployed around the world and a pivot toward Asia, another five mechanized and armored brigades to Europe are not in the cards.
Germany should be the keystone of NATO’s European planning, A large, rich nation with a booming arms industry in the heart of Europe. Yet it’s military has become an underfunded joke and is far smaller and less capable than it should be. While it is understandable that a country as small as Latvia cannot field a fleet of F-16’s, it is not understandable why the richest, most populous nation in Europe cannot field three full strength armored brigades.
The idea behind NATO is that nations can deter mutual enemies and protect themselves through collective defense. But this only works when the threat of collective response is credible. Right now many of it’s members can’t even make small deployments. Germany itself has sent only a single battalion to the Baltic border. A German military resurgence would make NATO more credible, and preserve peace and stability in Europe.
It is perhaps ironic, that this time, Germany is a unique position to protect the post-war order they tried to prevent 70 years ago. Yet, what happened in the 1940s seems to be one of the reasons they are so reluctant to rebuild their army today.
However, a re-emergent Germany is one of the only viable solutions for bringing back NATO’s credibility. Germany has the means to build the capacity to take over some of the United States roles in Europe, helping to deter Russian aggression and preserve the world order. Moreover, it is the only nation with the means to do so.