NATO’s purpose, Hastings Ismay, its first secretary-general, once said, is “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” In terms of the latter, the military alliance has succeeded spectacularly well. Throughout the Cold War, the German Bundeswehr loyally played sidekick to Berlin’s more powerful allies, the United Kingdom and the United States. And since the Cold War ended, Germany has consistently cut its defense budget, leaving the Bundeswehr so poorly equipped that it has become a laughing stock among its allies and ill-prepared to counter territorial threats and participate in foreign missions.

Over the past year, that picture has brightened. “We’re seeing a major change,” said Michael Essig, a professor of military purchasing and supply-chain management at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich. “2015 was the first time since the end of the Cold War that the constant cuts were stopped.” In fact, last year, spending on the Bundeswehr’s equipment increased by 8.4 percent, to 9.5 billion euros (around $10.4 billion), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI); in 2016, SIPRI predicts a further 6.4 percent rise in equipment spending. According to the German Defense Ministry, maintenance spending will increase by 3.3 percent this year, to 2.9 billion euros (about $3.2 billion), and the Bundeswehr’s overall budget will grow by 4.2 percent, to 34.3 billion euros (about $37.4 billion). Given Germany’s low inflation, the increases are notable.

Over recent years, maintenance has been so neglected that much of Germany’s existing military equipment has been unusable.

They also present a radical departure from two and a half decades of cuts that saw the Bundeswehr’s budget shrink almost every year—from 3.2 percent of German GDP in 1983 to 1.2 percent in 2014. “It’s also a significant change because other long-time members of NATO, including the United States, are cutting their defense equipment spending,” Sam Perlo-Freeman, head of SIPRI’s Project on Military Expenditure, told me. “Britain, for example, has large arms expenditures only because of its very expensive nuclear program. With those expenses taken away, its equipment spending is decreasing.” In Germany, however, spending less on weaponry and maintenance is not a politically viable option. That is both because the Bundeswehr has already been embarrassed by its malfunctioning equipment and because the United States has been urging its European NATO allies to spend more on defense, in part to counter Russia, which has itself dramatically expanded military spending over the past few years.


Since the end of the Cold War, NATO members’ defense expenditures, which include arms as well as personnel and facilities, have dropped dramatically. In the United States, for example, defense spending has fallen from around six percent of GDP in the 1980s to 3.5 percent in 2014, and in France, it has fallen from almost four percent of GDP in the 1980s to 2.2 percent in 2014.

But none of NATO’s larger members have cut their defense spending since the Cold War more than Germany, whose spending measured as a percentage of GDP is well below NATO’s target of two percent—a deficiency that is especially striking given Germany’s position as the alliance’s second-largest economy. As Russia replaced the mighty Soviet Union—which had maintained a formidable presence of 500,000 soldiers, thousands of tanks, and hundreds of battle helicopters and aircraft in East Germany—Germany sold well-functioning tanks and other armored vehicles to former Warsaw Pact members at cut-rate prices.

German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen  with Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces  Volker Wieker in Berlin, December 2015.  The United States has pressed its European NATO allies to increase military spending.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen with Chief of Staff of the German Armed Forces Volker Wieker in Berlin, December 2015. 
Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS

The defense cuts have left the Bundeswehr so poorly equipped that even Germany’s former adversaries, once worried about Berlin’s own aggression, are alarmed at the country’s potential inability to help protect them from potential Russian advances. “For centuries, our main worry in Poland was a very strong German army,” explained Janusz Onyszkiewicz, who as defense minister in two Polish governments during the 1990s oversaw the purchase of some of the Bundeswehr’s equipment. “Today, we’re seriously worried about German armed forces that are too weak. The permanent underfunding of the defense sector could create the impression that Germany is not taking its commitments to NATO’s common territorial defense very seriously.” (Poland, no stranger to aggression on the part of its larger neighbors, was one of the first post-Warsaw Pact members to join NATO and has consistently spent around two percent of GDP on defense; last year, its defense budget increased by 20 percent, the world’s third-highest rate after Ukraine and Iran, according to IHS Janes.)

Missing the pipe for the ammunition compartment in one of their GTK Boxer armored fighting vehicles, German soldiers participating in the Noble Ledger exercise simulated one with a broomstick.

A NATO exercise in September 2014 made painfully clear the state of the Bundeswehr’s armor. Missing the pipe for the ammunition compartment in one of their GTK Boxer armored fighting vehicles, German soldiers participating in the Noble Ledger exercise simulated one with a broomstick they had painted black. More alarmingly, a report by one of the Bundeswehr’s inspectors leaked to a German television station last February noted that “100 percent” of the GTX Boxers that were going to be used by Germany’s contingent in NATO’s Response Force were missing ammunition. The force was also missing three quarters of the night-vision goggles and 31 percent of the MG3 machine guns it needed, the Bundeswehr inspector reported. Although the German NRF force would have been able to borrow the equipment from other Bundeswehr units, it was a highly embarrassing revelation given that the NRF is a rapid reaction force, described by NATO as one “that the alliance can deploy quickly, wherever needed.”

The elite force’s predicament is echoed across the Bundeswehr. The German military doesn’t just lack equipment: over recent years, maintenance has been so neglected that much of Germany’s existing stock has been unusable. Testifying to the Bundestag’s defense committee in September 2014, the Bundeswehr’s three top inspectors reported that only 42 of the force’s 109 Eurofighter aircraft were in deployable condition, as were only ten of its 31 Tiger attack helicopters. Of its 33 NH90 battle helicopters, eight were in usable condition, as were three of its 21 Sea King helicopters, four of its 22 Sea Lynx helicopters, and 16 of its 83 CH-53 Sea Stallion transport helicopters. (The Ministry of Defense was unable to promptly identify how many of the aircraft and helicopters are now operational.)“It’s not to the point where nothing is working, but the place has been completely neglected,” Essig said of Germany’ arsenal. “During the Cold War, it was almost irrelevant whether the Bundeswehr’s equipment worked or not, because it mainly served as deterrence. But today the state of the equipment does matter.” That is partly the case because, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has significantly reduced its military presence in Germany.

A German Eurofighter combat jet south of Berlin, June 2010. Germany's military spending measured as a percentage of GDP is well below NATO’s target of two percent.
A German Eurofighter combat jet south of Berlin, June 2010.
Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS

The reports of faulty and missing equipment shocked the public, but German defense officials had long been aware of the Bundeswehr’s problems. Indeed, the inspectors’ testimony was part of a Defense Ministry initiative called Agenda Ruestung (Agenda Armor) that aims to improve the state of Germany’s military equipment. As part of that initiative, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen commissioned the consulting firm KMPG to study the Bundeswehr’s major arms projects, which have suffered as Berlin has tried both to support German and EU defense companies and to save money on  arms purchases—goals that have often been incompatible.

In addition to commissioning the KMPG report, which was delivered in October 2014 and identified some 140 problem areas in the Bundeswehr’s structure, the Ministry of Defense replaced the Bundeswehr’s two separate armaments agency—one responsible for acquisitions, the other for maintenance—with an integrated agency that will be better able to consider future maintenance costs when making equipment purchases. A defense ministry spokesperson said that as part of Agenda Ruestung, the ministry will act on 117 measures to improve the state of the Bundeswehr’s equipment, with a particular focus on airborne systems, by, for example, hiring private firms to perform equipment maintenance and making the transfer of equipment between units easier. “In November 2015, the situation was still unsatisfactory, but we have managed to stabilize the development in our equipment readiness, and in crucial areas we have managed to reverse the [negative] trend,” the spokesperson explained.

Such changes, of course, will not make Germany a strong military power or even one able to defend its own territory without NATO’s assistance. But Berlin’s new attention to the Bundeswehr will, no doubt, send a signal to the country’s allies and antagonists that Germany is committed to its own defense—and that it takes the responsibilities of NATO membership seriously.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ELISABETH BRAW is a London-based journalist who writes for The Economist, Foreign Policy, and other publications. She also writes the Transatlantic Connection blog for World Affairs Journal
  • More By Elisabeth Braw