German Leadership Arrives
In 1955 when the government in West Germany was allowed to re-arm under NATO auspices, the continent was apprehensive. Years of living with the threat of German military power and all the instability that a strong Germany had brought to Europe made the Europeans nervous for what rearmament might mean. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement on Sunday that he would be redefining Germany’s military and defense policy in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been met with celebration and relief from the capitals of Europe.
In a special address to the Bundestag, Scholz announced an increase in defense spending to above 2% of German GDP. Current German defense spending is €53 billion annually; this announcement would see it increased to somewhere in the €70 billion range. In addition, Scholz is requesting an additional €100 billion this year to update and modernize German forces and respond to the situation in Ukraine. The German Chancellor also announced an easing of restrictions on German arms sales. These announcements represent titanic shifts in German policy. Since West Germany joined NATO in 1955, the country has been very happy to let the United States, France, and United Kingdom do all the heavy lifting for their collective defense. The German Army, known as the Bundeswehr, is incredibly small for a country with the size and economic heft of Germany. The air force and navy are similarly ill-equipped relative to Germany’s political position and that of its neighbors.
"These announcements represent titanic shifts in German policy."
Many have criticized the size and composition of Germany’s armed forces. In a surprising public commentary, the highest ranking officer in the German Army, Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, bemoaned the state of the army and its role in NATO. Posted on his personal LinkedIn page, Mais wrote, “The Bundeswehr, the army that I am privileged to lead, is more or less bare. The options that we can offer the politicians to support the alliance are extremely limited.” The German army numbers around 60,000 active duty soldiers, fewer than Thailand or Morocco. The General’s comments are undoubtedly justified and the proposed increase in German military spending is welcome for those that desire a greater commitment by Europeans to continental security. But increasing the amount of money spent is only one aspect of increasing European security. What the money is spent on and in concert with whom will be the telling parts of this change.
A report from the Center for American Progress entitled “The Case for EU Defense” lays out the problem: “The problem with the current state of European defense is not fundamentally about spending. Collectively, European defense spending levels should actually be enough to put forth a fighting force roughly on par with other global powers. While it is difficult to compare in absolute numbers given the differences in purchasing power, when taken together, the EU spends more on defense than Russia or China, at nearly $200 billion per year. The problem with European defense is structural…”
These structural problems include redundancies in equipment purchasing across multiple countries, lack of interoperability, and a lack of power projection ability. European forces have a huge problem getting to the fight. Europe relies on American airpower and seapower to get them where they’re going. European air forces have capable modern fighter aircraft like the Rafale, Typhoon, and Gripen but precious few cargo or refueling aircraft. They also have hundreds of different types of armored vehicles, needlessly complicating their logistics, spare part supplies, and training. This means that European militaries are often unable to operate without significant support from the United States. This reliance is a major concern for both Europe and the United States, and its limitations have been starkly highlighted by the current crisis in Ukraine. The current American administration has made European security and alliances a priority, however this was not the case under the previous American presidency and might not be the case in the next. Europe has to prepare for a future in which the United States no longer does their heavy lifting for them.
But all is not lost for European security. Germany, even before the announced increase in defense spending, has made inroads toward increasing interoperability. In partnership with the Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Romania, joint units have been created to reduce many of the structural issues with European defense. If Germany is able to increase its collaboration with NATO partners, increase force projection capabilities through acquisition of transport aircraft, and develop routine rotations to eastern Europe, that would create a great deal more flexibility for Europe as a whole. This is the difference between strategic and tactical power: if Germany uses the increase in defense spending to buy a hundred more tanks and a dozen more fighter aircraft, it will not have increased Europe’s security in the slightest. But targeted investments in strengthening partnerships, training, and modernizing antiquated equipment could be strategically transformational.
"Germany has the power to reshape the face of European security. But if Germany uses the increase in defense spending to buy a hundred more tanks and a dozen more fighter aircraft, it will not have increased Europe’s security in the slightest."
German leadership in European defense could also benefit from the addition of new partners to old alliances. Both Finland and Sweden have made public statements that the possibility of their joining NATO increased with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Recent Russian statements threatening military action against Sweden and Finland have angered Nordic policy makers and renewed the debate over joining the alliance. One need only look at Ukraine to see what can happen to countries that border Russia and aren’t in NATO. While both Sweden and Finland are members of the European Union, their long-standing fundamentally neutral foreign policy has kept them out of the defensive alliance. That said, the debate has been alive in both countries for decades, and both country’s militaries have made significant efforts to standardize their equipment to NATO specifications, conduct joint exercises to build cooperative capacity, and hold regular discussions with NATO about military and defense matters. Their addition to the Western Alliance would deeply complicate Russian security planning, closing off a good deal of airspace, and giving Russia a huge new NATO-armed border in its North. The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that decisiveness is key. The long question of Ukrainian accession to NATO gave Russia the time it needed to develop plans to thwart it.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was designed to show Europe Russia’s military power and scare prospective NATO members away from the alliance. It has, thus far, done the opposite. In less than a week Russia has overturned 70 years of German pacifism and potentially Finnish neutrality as well. Even if Ukraine is lost to Europe, the consequences of increased German military preparedness will be with us for the foreseeable future, and if done right, can fundamentally shift the nature of security on the European continent.
Written by Andrew Gaboury
Edited by Owen Swift