If Chancellor Scholz does not want to go down in history as a “turning point”, the Bundeswehr must be reformed more quickly. Because our armed forces are by no means “combat ready”. This weighs particularly heavily, because there is no peace in sight in Ukraine. On the contrary.
The news of Christine Lambrecht’s impending resignation spread like wildfire in political Berlin on Friday evening. Finally the long overdue step. And in the Bundeswehr, some wondered if the news was really true – it seemed too good to be true.
Lambrecht will go down in history as the defense minister of the sad figure. It can’t get any worse and only Rupert Scholz was even shorter in office in 1988/89. Some experts were quite hopeful when, to the surprise of everyone, their name appeared on the cabinet list on December 8, 2021.
The experienced minister and fully qualified lawyer seemed capable of reforming the overly complex and scandalous armament procurement. But the magic of the beginning quickly dissipated. Lambrecht not only had no idea about the military, she also showed no interest in doing anything to change the situation.
In normal times, this attitude might still be acceptable – who in the political arena has ever really been interested in the Bundeswehr. But the Russian attack on Ukraine changed the coordinate system overnight. Now it was no longer enough to merely administer the pitiful current state of the Bundeswehr. The military department suddenly had a significance that it had last had during the Cold War.
What was needed now was a reformer who would quickly set the right course so that the Chancellor’s speech on the turning point of the era can also be followed by action. But the few decisions that Lambrecht made – such as the passing of the procurement acceleration law or the purchase of the MV shipyard in Rostock – were far from sufficient to turn the supertanker Bundeswehr on a new course.
Added to this were the helpless performances. The author of these lines will not forget her speech at the parliamentary evening of the Bundeswehr Association in June 2022. The Who’s Who of the armed forces gathered on this occasion, and it would have been a good opportunity to make clear statements: What are the armed forces for in these times, where is it going, what fundamental decisions are made by the cabinet. But there was no sign of that.
Christine Lambrecht gave a speech that could have been presented to a group of visitors at the Ministry. Apparently the holder of the power of command and command had nothing of importance to say in times of crisis and war.
Your tenure was a lost year for the Bundeswehr. This becomes clear not least in the “Critical Inventory”, for which State Secretary Margaretha Sudhof is responsible. Even the creation of the paper makes the lack of ambition of the house clear.
Sönke Neitzel has been a professor of military and cultural history of violence at the University of Potsdam since 2015. Before that, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the London School of Economics, among others.
Because: The problems of the Bundeswehr have been known for a long time. There is no knowledge deficit, only a lack of political will to eliminate the dysfunctionalities of the armed forces. It would have been very useful as an opening statement at the beginning of the legislature.
But after more than a year, it is not enough to present a paper that does not go beyond clumsily naming well-known problems. Ultimately, the “Critical Inventory” is no more than a smokescreen intended to feign bustle where there is apparently helplessness as to what to do first in view of the mammoth task.
It is actually a truism that the Bundeswehr, which is geared towards out-of-area operations, can only do justice to the tasks of national and alliance defense again through a real structural reform. And even with the best will in the world, it will take a long time before the armed forces as a whole are “combat ready”.
During the Cold War, it took over 15 years to reach full combat readiness, and it is likely to take as much time now. It is all the more important to go into the hard rudder position so that the tanker can gradually turn onto the new course.
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The minister and her state secretaries did not have the courage to do so last year and believed that they could achieve their goal with minor changes to the existing system. The argument that was heard was that major reforms could not be carried out during ongoing operations. Many think back with horror to the years 1999/2000, when the Weizsäcker Commission drew up proposals for a new structure and everything came to a standstill.
But such a step is not necessary today. In addition, many fail to recognize that the Bundeswehr has been constantly reformed over the 65 years of its existence. When the pressure to act is great, you have to think and act on a large scale.
The lost time weighs particularly heavily in view of the war in Ukraine. Because there is still no peace in sight. Russia has overcome the critical moment of autumn last year, when the Ukrainians launched surprisingly successful counter-offensives. Now the front is stabilized and Moscow has seized the initiative again.
There is fierce fighting over Bakhmut, and rocket and drone attacks on infrastructure have hit Ukraine hard. At the moment, everything points to a long war of attrition in which Russia could have the upper hand unless the West supports Ukraine more decisively and comprehensively.
The sanctions have failed to weaken the Russian armed forces to the extent hoped. Even on the intelligence scene, there is a tendency to underestimate the Russian army’s ability to regenerate. Certainly Moscow has suffered many setbacks and heavy losses. But the not inconsiderable losses are also noticeable on the Ukrainian side.
Bakhmut, where the Russians struggled for a long time, is now surrounded on three sides and the last access road is under Russian artillery fire. The capture of the city will not decide the war, but it would be a heavy blow to Kyiv. On the one hand symbolically – after all, President Zelenskyj was there personally – but also militarily, because the next line of defense is in unfavorable terrain.
Experts worry that the Ukrainians won’t be able to hold out there for long. There is no doubt that the Russians suffered very high losses in the battle for Bachmut – but this mainly affected the Wagner group and less so the Russian army, which was apparently saving its best formations for a spring offensive.
It should also be remembered that the mobilization has significantly strengthened the Russian armed forces. The bulk of the new recruits were not wasted at the front, but serve to replenish new formations. At the end of December, Putin approved plans to increase his armed forces from 1 to 1.5 million soldiers.
So, in the current situation, the key question is how long Ukraine can keep up this fight. The delivery of the several dozen battle tanks now under discussion will hardly put Kyiv in a position to launch a major offensive to liberate the country.
Rather, they serve to build up reserves for local counterattacks and thus strengthen the defense. Even more important than the concrete military benefit is the political signal that the West is ready to go a step further in supporting Kiev in order to deny Moscow a military victory.
The Chancellor’s hesitancy to deliver battle tanks to the Ukraine and his unwillingness to get the Bundeswehr really ready for action – i.e. ready for war – raise doubts as to how serious Olaf Scholz is about the turning point. “Too late, too little” is how one could describe the attitude towards deliveries of heavy weapons.
And when it comes to its own armed forces, serious doubts remain as to how Scholz intends to fulfill the promises he made at the NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022. From 2025, Germany is to have more than 30,000 soldiers, 60 combat aircraft and 20 ships on standby for 30 days for NATO’s New Force model.
If the current rate of reform continues, it will never, ever be achieved. Olaf Scholz does not seem to have understood that Berlin will no longer succeed with its previous policy of reporting Potemkin villages to NATO.
There is also no strategy as to how the seemingly pre-modern manufacturing system of the German armaments industry could be adapted to the new times – not to mention the question of how Europe could finally work together strategically in this area. So the new head of the Ministry of Defense has a lot to do.