The spotlight has turned on Germany’s military spending as calls for investment intensify

Germany is under pressure to increase its military expenditure in order to hit NATO spending targets. But, the shadow of history continues to shape its perspective on military matters

The country's politicians remain reluctant to increase expenditure, but Europe may well require a strong German military to help maintain the continent’s stability
The country's politicians remain reluctant to increase expenditure, but Europe may well require a strong German military to help maintain the continent’s stability 

Germany possesses the European Union’s biggest economy, has its largest population and runs the most substantial trade surplus. In one area in particular, however, it is not among the continent’s leading players: militarily, the country is lagging behind. Reports of under-equipped personnel and planes that are no longer airworthy are becoming increasingly commonplace. The primary problem is a lack of funding.

The chronic lack of funding that undermines the German military has deep roots

According to US President Donald Trump, Germany’s inadequate defence budget is more than just a domestic issue, having implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the security of the European continent. “If you look at NATO, where Germany pays one percent and we are paying 4.2 percent of a much bigger GDP – that’s not fair,” Trump said.

While the actual numbers are different – World Bank figures (see Fig 1) for 2017 put US military expenditure at around three percent of GDP and Germany’s at 1.2 percent – they aren’t enough so to discredit Trump’s original point. Germany could certainly do more to contribute to the West’s military alliance, and a country with its economic and political heft should not have to rely on others for its defence.

Simply committing to NATO’s two percent target will not be enough to overcome Germany’s military shortfalls: Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen will need to implement a strategic plan that overhauls a military enfeebled by years of underfunding. She will also need to convince members of the public that she is doing so in their best interests, not to satisfy the ranting of the US president. Furthermore, she will have to decide exactly what role an emboldened German military will play on the international stage.

Sleeper cells
Following a landmark summit in Wales back in 2014, it was agreed that each year a different NATO member would take control of the alliance’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) – a 5,000-strong spearhead unit that can be deployed rapidly in response to a threat to a member’s sovereignty. Next year, it is Germany’s turn to take the reins and, in theory, this should not be a problem.

The German Armed Forces, or Bundeswehr, is made up of 179,753 active service personnel and an additional 27,900 reservists. It also boasts more than 200 main battle tanks, 565 infantry fighting vehicles and approximately 200 artillery units. Collectively, this constitutes the third-largest military in the European Union. The German Navy, meanwhile, has roughly 65 vessels spread across two flotillas, and its air force, the Luftwaffe, possesses 14 large transport planes and a number of fighter jets.

But if Germany’s military strength looks imposing on paper, the reality is somewhat different. Last year, just 95 of the country’s 255 Leopard II tanks were in service, almost the entire fleet of Eurofighter planes was grounded for technical reasons, and reports indicated that vests, tents and winter clothing were in short supply. The Luftwaffe even had to rent civilian helicopters to ensure that its pilots could achieve the flight hours required to ensure their licences were not revoked. The Bundeswehr may have plenty of planes, tanks and warships, but whether they are combat ready or not is another matter.

“The main impact of military underfunding has been in terms of readiness,” explained Tony Lawrence, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security. “Germany does not have the people or operational equipment it needs to fulfil its defence tasks. The annual reports of Germany’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, contain some shocking statistics illustrating this lack of readiness in the Bundeswehr.”

The chronic lack of funding that undermines the German military has deep roots, but it hasn’t always been an issue. In 1960, Germany – or more accurately, West Germany – spent four percent of its GDP on defence, a figure that no NATO member is currently able to match. During the Cold War, the Bundeswehr’s 495,000 personnel made it the main player in NATO’s defence of Central Europe. If the decline is to be reversed, it will require a huge capital injection in order to do so. Nevertheless, throwing euros at the problem won’t be enough to make it go away by itself.

Target practice
Germany certainly needs to spend more if it is to catch up militarily with Europe’s best defence forces. As a whole, the country saves a lot but spends relatively little, and so bolstering its defence force represents one fairly obvious way for the country to invest its surplus. Although Europe is at peace now, if a country waits until it is under attack before increasing its military budget, then it is already too late.


Number of active Bundeswehr service personnel


Number of additional Bundeswehr reservists


Number of Bundeswehr battle tanks


Number of Bundeswehr infantry fighting vehicles


Number of vessels in the German Navy


Amount Bundeswehr was given for arms and equipment in 2017


Amount of Bundeswehr arms and equipment budget that went unspent in 2017

One of the most obvious areas to target is the amount Germany spends on military equipment. While Trump’s ire has focused on the two percent figure, there is another NATO objective that the country is failing to meet: namely, that all members should spend 20 percent of their defence budget on equipment. Currently, Germany is the only large European state that is not expected to achieve this in 2018.

If the German Ministry of Defence is to convince policymakers that it requires more funding, however, it will need to assure them that it knows how to best spend it. Last year, the German military was given €5.9bn ($6.7bn) to purchase arms and other equipment, and yet €600m ($685m) went unspent. If the Bundeswehr cannot make use of the budget it is already being allocated, there is little point in increasing it.

Lawrence agrees that there is a conversation to be had regarding the purpose of Germany’s armed forces. At the moment, Germany’s defence contributions include international operations in Kosovo, Lebanon and elsewhere, as well as participation in a number of NATO defence programmes, including the Baltic air-policing mission. With greater funding, however, the Bundeswehr could act more decisively in both domestic and international security issues.

“The immediate purpose of increasing defence spending would be to ensure that Germany is properly able to fulfil its defence commitments – about which there is currently some doubt,” Lawrence said. “But in the longer term, there is certainly a discussion to be had about the strategic role of a militarily stronger Germany, and how this fits with the roles of other key military powers such as France and the UK, and indeed the EU and NATO. This discussion is still very much in its infancy.”

For Germany to take more of a leading role will require something other than money. Buying updated equipment is relatively straightforward; training more personnel takes time. The Ministry of Defence is aiming to increase the size of the Bundeswehr by 20,000 personnel by 2024, yet it may find that this is a tough ask: the German economy is doing well, unemployment stands at less than four percent, and a career in the military remains unpopular.

A world in flux
Readers of the German weekend newspaper Welt am Sonntag were greeted by a headline on July 29, 2018 that would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago. Above the picture of a nuclear warhead decorated in the colours of the German flag were the words: “Do we need the bomb?”

Under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is illegal for Germany to acquire its own nuclear weapons, meaning that recent discussions have focused on ways that the country could help finance the modernisation of French or UK capabilities. The fact that this is being considered at all says something about how currents within domestic politics are warming to the idea of a more militaristic Germany. It says even more about perceptions of the US and its future role in the geopolitical landscape.

The US was as important a player as any in the creation of the Europe we know today. It took a decisive role in the outcome of the Second World War and then delivered billions of dollars of aid through the Marshall Plan. In 1949, by forming NATO with other western powers, it helped create a safer world. Later that century, its ideological victory in the Cold War helped to unite a divided continent.

The German economy is doing well, unemployment stands at less than four percent, and a career in the military remains unpopular

With Donald Trump as president, however, the transatlantic alliance looks shakier than it has done for a very long time. US contributions currently represent 72 percent of NATO’s military expenditure, but just how much longer it will be willing to bankroll Europe’s defence remains to be seen. In light of Trump’s criticism, Germany has had to consider whether it must take on more responsibility.

While a ramping up of Europe’s nuclear defences would be one way for Germany to increase its defence spending, it would represent a sizeable commitment – and a divisive one among voters. Though the true cost of building a nuclear bomb is difficult to determine – nuclear programmes are often secretive affairs – it certainly is not cheap. The most comprehensive analysis of the US’ programme indicated that $5trn had been spent on maintaining and developing the country’s nuclear arsenal between 1940 and 1998. Whether Germany would be willing to commit the funds required without even gaining its own nuclear weapons is a question that may soon need an answer.

If the US is retreating from the world stage, it could further embolden an increasingly antagonistic Russia. Unfortunately, Lawrence believes that Trump’s abrasive personality means this growing threat from the East may not be enough to convince the German public that boosting military spending is the right thing to do.

“Donald Trump has certainly amplified long-standing US complaints about Europe’s defence spending, and has publicly taken credit for recent increases,” Lawrence told World Finance. “But Europe’s defence spending began to turn a corner after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas. President Putin was more of a factor than President Trump. Trump is very unpopular in Germany – his threats and bullying make it harder for German politicians to advocate increased defence spending.”

Years of military underfunding in the post-Cold-War era now appear to have been shortsighted. The optimism that greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall is a distant memory.

The battle between communism and capitalism may be over, but that does not mean future skirmishes between nation-states are impossible: Russia’s destabilisation of Ukraine continues, and the Baltic states are looking warily over their shoulders. Tensions in the South China Sea remain unresolved, and the conflict in Syria is yet to conclude. The US used to be the arbiter of disputes like these – now it looks as though it may not have the appetite to continue. As it stands, Germany is not ready to take up the mantle.

History’s long shadow
The reason for the Bundeswehr’s lack of readiness partly stems from the fact that large sections of the German population remain suspicious of militarism. Angela Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are largely opposed to increasing defence spending, and a significant proportion of the public feel the same way. In fact, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre last year found that just 40 percent of Germans supported defending a NATO ally if it got into a military conflict with Russia.

Large sections of the German population remain suspicious of militarism

It is reasonable that a country that still bears the emotional scars of two world wars does not want to become a leading military power again. It is even more understandable that it does not have much inclination to prop up NATO financially – after all, the transatlantic alliance’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, famously declared that NATO was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.

After the Second World War, stringent restrictions were put in place to limit Germany’s military capabilities. It was only in 2012 that the country’s Federal Constitutional Court agreed that its armed forces could be deployed on German soil, and even then only if Germany faced an assault of “catastrophic proportions”. And it wasn’t until 2014 that Germany began arming irregular forces in a war zone. Following both these developments, there were noises of disapproval: it seems that the people who fear German military expansion most of all are the Germans themselves.

Germany’s overly cautious approach to military expenditure is also the result of bureaucratic hurdles. The country’s defence budget is the only aspect of government spending where every proposed expenditure above €25m ($28m) has to be approved by the budget committee. According to Der Spiegel, this threshold has not changed since it was introduced in 1981; at the very least, it should be increased to take account of inflation.

“The anti-militaristic strategic culture that grew as a response to Germany’s military past is an obstacle to doing more in defence,” Lawrence said. “However, Germany is now so locked into cooperative multilateral defence structures – bilaterally, in NATO and in the EU – that the fears of reawakening its militaristic past are almost certainly overplayed.”

The German people may remain reluctant to embrace a strong military, but the current geopolitical situation means that, realistically, the country’s politicians can no longer follow suit. In August, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Secretary General of the Christian Democratic Union and tipped by some to be Merkel’s successor, even raised the issue of conscription – something that was abolished in 2001 – during an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.

It is reasonable that a country that still bears the emotional scars of two world wars does not want to become a leading military power again

Depending on the proposal’s scope, reintroducing conscription would be logistically difficult and could cost millions of euros. Still, the fact that the idea is being mooted is a step in the right direction. Remarks by Merkel, von der Leyen and other leaders in support of increasing defence spending are also reassuring.

These developments indicate that the relationship between Germany and its armed forces is finally moving towards a state of normalisation. Following the end of the Cold War it may have been acceptable, and indeed politically expedient, to reduce Germany’s military spending, but today the country has responsibilities to its fellow NATO members that cannot be met on the cheap.

Taking command
Although it is right that Germany should spend more on its defence, Donald Trump’s threats and finger-pointing are unlikely to persuade politicians. They are also somewhat misleading: while it may be true that Berlin is failing to meet NATO’s two percent target, it does contribute heavily in other ways.

Many defenders of Germany’s military expenditure argue that the country’s support for UN missions and the fight against ISIS contribute to the West’s safety, even if they do not show up on NATO balance sheets (see Fig 2). In addition, Germany supplies more funding in terms of official development assistance, which plays a significant role in crisis prevention, than any other major European nation.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Germany is not the only NATO country failing to meet its two percent obligation: according to the latest estimates, only the US, Greece, Estonia, the UK and Latvia are on course to meet the target in 2018. According to Lawrence, however, Germany’s economic strength means it should shoulder more of Europe’s defence burden.

“Germany’s defence contribution falls some way short of that of France and the UK, Europe’s other leading powers,” Lawrence states. “But Donald Trump seems to have a particular bee in his bonnet when it comes to Germany – perhaps because he lays at Germany’s door what he claims is the EU’s unfairness in its trade relations with the US.”

Even pushing Trump’s trade concerns to one side, it is not right for Germany to allow its military to decline while expecting the US to pick up the slack. Although the German Government has committed to raising its military budget to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025, this remains below the levels of other major western powers. In order to catch up, defence ministers will need to produce a strategic long-term plan for the Bundeswehr’s future and reduce the bureaucracy surrounding defence procurement.

Germany’s military past should not be forgotten, but neither should it be allowed to weigh so heavily on the present. A strong Bundeswehr could not only help defend the country against an increasingly belligerent Russia, it will also shore up NATO should the US decide to act on Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. In order to bolster the strength of its armed forces, Germany must increase its defence spending to a level that befits a country of its size and standing. That may be the only way to guarantee the safety of its own people and the security of Europe as a whole.