Germany’s Much-Vaunted Strategic Pivot Stalls

Just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed to revitalize a German military that had fallen into disrepair since the end of the Cold War.

The centerpiece of that plan was a promise for an injection of 100 billion euros, or nearly $110 billion, and to raise military spending in a shift that amounted to an earthquake for a country that had developed an almost pacifist ethos since its terrible history in World War II.

But nearly two years later, experts and military officers say the “Zeitenwende,” or “change of era,” Mr. Scholz promised with such fanfare is barely visible to rank-and-file soldiers who still lack even the most ordinary infrastructure, ammunition and equipment.

Much of the money has either not yet materialized or is going to weapons that will not be in the hands of soldiers for years because of procurement delays and the need to ramp up long-dormant production lines.

The turnabout has been so slow in coming that some question whether it will happen at all, despite the growing threat from Russia and Europe’s belief that it has to mount its own defense and not rely on the United States. The doubts have grown as the war in Ukraine has dragged on, as Congress has delayed an aid package and as support for Ukraine in Germany — Europe’s largest economy — has shown signs of softening.

“The Zeitenwende is already fizzing out,” said Anton Hofreiter, a foreign policy expert and member of Parliament from the Green Party, which is part of the governing coalition. “Too many things are not being financed.”

Nowhere is the need for a speedy turnaround more evident than perhaps at the German Army’s artillery school, which takes up most of an army base overlooking picturesque Idar-Oberstein, in western Germany.

The base was constructed in the 1960s, when West Germany’s Army was rebuilding under Allied supervision during the Cold War. But its purpose — training artillery units that could support infantry with artillery and rocket fire — was made mostly superfluous once the Cold War ended and the threat of a land war in Europe receded.

Though the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed the threat perception in Europe, the school will have to wait until 2042 before its scheduled renovations are completed, according to the latest plan.

The school has not yet received the replacements it ordered for the 14 armored howitzers it sent to Ukraine, which it needs before it can expand its own arsenal. Some training must be limited because there is not enough ammunition.

Two of the base’s buildings are empty and awaiting demolition. Eighty-five percent of its buildings require renovation, according to the latest report by Parliament, which was published in February and put together by Germany’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Eva Högl.

During a visit to the artillery school last year, she and her team found windows that no longer closed, extensive water damage caused by broken pipes and leaky roofs, and bathrooms so dilapidated that they had to be permanently shut.

Ms. Högl has welcomed the special 100 billion euro fund announced by the government, but says she worries that the money is not reaching the rank and file fast enough.

“It is urgently necessary that the money reaches the troops, that the troops feel that something is improving,” she said in an interview.

Col. Olaf Tuneke, who runs the artillery school, says that the impatience for real change can be seen in some young soldiers and officers, who expected that more improvements would occur more quickly.

“They all hear Zeitenwende and say, ‘I got a new helmet and new backpack, is that it?’” the colonel said. “And of course that’s not it. You can’t build new weapons in a day.”

Still, he is optimistic. In October, he commissioned the army’s first new artillery battalion in more than three decades.

“I’ve been an artillerist for 30 years — for all that time, it has always gone downhill, until now,” Colonel Tuneke said.

“I really think we’ve reached the turning point,” he added. “The question is now how steeply will it go upward.”

There is still a long way to go.

But the longer spending is delayed, the less the army will get for its money, noted Roderich Kiesewetter, a former colonel who is now on the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. Inflation is raising the cost of weapons and ammunition and making the military more expensive to operate over time. Mr. Kiesewetter’s assessment was bleak.

“We are witnesses of a deception,” he said.

At the height of the Cold War, when Germany had nearly half a million active duty personnel, the army, known as the Bundeswehr in German, had 83 artillery battalions. When Russia attacked Ukraine last year, it had only four. The newly commissioned unit made it five.

Germany now has around 181,000 uniformed active-duty personnel, and it is looking to grow the service by another 22,000 by the end of the decade. Increasing the numbers has long been a challenge. But the government hopes that changing attitudes and greater acceptance of the role of the military — as well as the injection of new funds — will help.

Expanding the number of the artillery units, like modernizing the base, has been hobbled by what experts say is a cumbersome bureaucracy that Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, says he is aiming to make more efficient.

The military was planning renovations, expected to cost at least 250 million euros, at the school even before Mr. Scholz announced his Zeitenwende. But if the army more than doubles its number of artillery battalions, as it hopes, its growth may outstrip the capacity of the base before the renovations are completed.

“You can only plan infrastructure for the personnel structure you have,” said Lt. Col. Andreas Orth, the base commander. If the army halted the renovations to take into account the student increase it anticipates when the number of battalions increases, the updates would take even longer to complete, he said. “We’d have to start the whole process from the beginning.”

The same bureaucracy, according to a recent study, has slowed procurement of new weapons for the Bundeswehr generally. Before changes made by the Scholz government, anyone in the army wishing to spend more than €1,000 on any single order had to do so through a separate civilian procurement office, where requests could linger for years.

That threshold has now been raised to €5,000. But procurement remains slow, planning is overly bureaucratic and trained staff is lacking.

Another result of the slow procurement: Supplies of munitions and spare parts are still dangerously low and will cost billions to replenish.

Some critics say that much of the new money committed by the government has been put in the wrong places. A significant chunk was initially spent on big-ticket items, such as nearly three dozen F-35 fighter jets and the Arrow 3 missile defense system developed by Israel and the United States.

The amount of weapons and equipment that the German military has given to Ukraine has also made a huge dent, and replacement has been slow. Mundane yet urgently needed equipment — such as ammunition and spare parts for tanks and planes — has yet to materialize.

“The big problems that have traditionally held back the German defense sector, they’re still present and as of yet, they are not under control,” said Christian Mölling, a defense expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“The Zeitenwende is not happening as fast as it needs to,” he added.

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