The rhetoric of Donald Trump continues to dominate the headlines, including his press conference with Putin in Helsinki. This includes his criticisms of NATO, British Prime Minister Teresa May, and trade disagreements with the European Union. But more substantively, during a time in which Russia continues to undermine Ukraine and pressure NATO countries from Montenegro to the Baltics (what has been called the backbone of NATO), the German armed forces seem to be vanishing.
This is something that has been noticed for years and is only starting to break through the noise because of Trump’s insistence that NATO countries pay more. Trump has a very good point—Germany’s parsimonious spending on the military has eroded their readiness considerably. Analysts report that Germany has 93 Tornado fighter jets that need “immediate” and “extensive” upgrades. The planes lack NATO identification and communications equipment that could be intercepted. That means they can’t participate in NATO missions. Germany only has five transport planes that are deployable, but they can’t operate at night because their cockpit lights are too bright. In a 2015 Syria mission, German officials said only 29 combat planes were ready.
The problems extend beyond complex aircraft. The Defense Minister reported that German soldiers did not have enough protective vests, winter clothing, or tents to adequately take part in a major NATO mission. During a training exercise, German soldiers resorted to painting broomsticks black to give them the appearance of machine guns. Soldiers then attached them to tanks and other armored vehicles. The country only has 95 combat-ready combat tanks to face a reported 20,000 Russian tanks. In recent anti-terror operations in Mali, half the tanks deployed reportedly broke down.
At the end of 2017, no submarines were available for deployment. The Germans’ new F125 frigates suffer from design flaws that have continually delayed their commission. Even if they are launched, they lack sonar and torpedo tubes making them vulnerable to submarines, at the very time that Russia is increasing its submarine activities.
In short, the German military is in a dangerous state of unreadiness. Germany, of course, exhibited the other extreme during World War II, where a highly cultured and educated society instigated barbarous and aggressive policies that plunged the world into war. But the other extreme is just as dangerous.
To cite one example of the results of this danger, a key report by the RAND Corporation found that the lack of heavy forces deployed by NATO is critical. If Russia invaded places like the Baltic States, they would capture the capitals and overrun the countries in as little as 72 hours. As World War II Germany should know, weak countries that respond with feeble answers and impotent gestures in the face of aggression will be gobbled up by their neighbors.
As their military melts away, they are spending a small fortune on a new gas pipeline to Russia that will only give the latter more leverage. And Germany is providing benefits to literally millions of refugees—this is costing a small fortune. The German military is in dire need of additional funding and Trump is right to criticize their spending priorities. Don’t let the hyper-partisan overreactions to press conferences distract you from the military realities in Europe.