Germany’s civil-military relations are a multi-partisan failure

The war in Ukraine heralded a drastic change in German defence and security politics. Years of austerity has stifled Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr, but Hager Ali argues that money is the least of it. Salvaging the Bundeswehr means reconfiguring German military professionalism – and fixing its relations with the public

The Bundeswehr is Europe’s second-largest military in terms of active personnel. Even so, it typically refrains from direct combat with NATO. Olaf Scholz has announced he will increase German military expenditure to 2% of GDP, and send arms to Ukraine. This marks a historic change of course in German security and foreign policy.

The invasion of Ukraine catalysed this turnaround – but the pressure has been building for years. Pundits and military staff consistently warned policymakers that the cash-strapped Bundeswehr cannot live up to Germany’s lofty foreign policy aspirations. What is behind Germany’s dysfunctional military? And is funding enough to salvage it?

Missing underpants and misdirected reforms

Germany’s military expenditure has decreased steadily since the end of the end of the Cold War, and currently falls short of NATO’s recommended 2% of GDP. There are several historical, political, and pragmatic reasons for Germany’s low spending on the Bundeswehr. Among them is the view that modern conflicts do not need conventional firepower any more. On paper, the Bundeswehr does indeed look like a large, well-funded army that was merely deprioritised in favour of peaceful diplomacy. In reality, it is a force undermined by chronic austerity.

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, reports surfaced that the German unit stationed in Lithuania lacked underwear and warm jackets. The army's Chief Inspector took to LinkedIn to declare the Bundeswehr pretty much broke and in need of urgent restructuring.

For years, German military aircraft and submarines were largely defective. Even the Bundeswehr's main G36 assault rifle was decommissioned because heat reduced the weapon's accuracy. Ombudspersons and military staff bemoaning faulty equipment and civilian mismanagement is common during foreign policy crises.

The Bundeswehr has severe problems with its chain of command, doctrine, and internal professionalism

Unfortunately, money and equipment are only the tip of the iceberg. The Bundeswehr is experiencing severe problems with its chain of command, doctrine, and internal professionalism. Its most recent military doctrine drastically expanded the portfolio of military operations to manage contemporary conflicts with limited resources. It also sacrificed endurance for long deployments to increase versatility.

Other reforms aimed to streamline overcomplicated structures between civilian Ministry of Defence and Military Command Council. The current chain of command still makes deployed troops poorly responsive to imminent danger and fast-changing operational environments. During the recent disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, German military personnel was paralysed by red tape.

The German people versus the Bundeswehr

Should military professionalism be achieved through strict isolation of armies from civilians? Or is it better to foster willing subordination through societal integration of soldiers? This is a notorious debate among military scholars. The US Military modelled itself on professionalism through isolation, as proposed by Samuel Huntington. German military professionalism is more complicated.

The litany of scandals reduced the Bundeswehr to a running joke and serious extremist menace in the eyes of the German public. The army partially dissolved its elite KSK unit because rightwing extremists stole several thousand rounds of ammunition, weapons, and 62kg in explosives. Only a few items were returned without consequences, which alarmed many civilians.

Rightwing extremists within the elite KSK unit stole ammunition, weapons, and 62kg of explosives

Over time, reasonable doubt about military capability and ideological leanings turned normal civil-military boundaries into hostile trenches. The Bundeswehr became isolated from society and politics, which sits at odds with its own configuration as parliamentary army.

Decision-making on German military deployments is at the discretion of all Members of Parliament, and subject to Realpolitikal dynamics. Politicians often shied away from military policies so as to not alienate voters who disapproved of the army. Others simply lacked the expertise. Even the Ministry of Defence shelled out over €150 million on consultancy fees, to taxpayers' dismay.

Who's to blame for the Bundeswehr's problems?

Germany’s conservative CDU party has for years presided over the Ministry of Defence. Many blame the CDU for the current state of the Bundeswehr because it reduced security politics to arms exports and counterterrorism. But Die Grünen and Die Linke were also in denial of the fact that conflicts are still fought with weapons rather than diplomacy.

The same parties that harshly condemn Germany's withdrawal or abstention from deployments have spent years campaigning against participation in peacekeeping operations. Between party politics and public perception, the Bundeswehr became a secondary character, even in policies directly concerning it. Germany could always rely on American military capabilities in conflicts far from Europe. It was therefore possible to continue this course until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The army must restore professionalism

One side of the political spectrum wanted nothing to do with military operations. The other side leveraged security for electoral purposes only. Germany’s dysfunctional civil-military relations are a multi-partisan failure. Fixing them must, first and foremost, be a multi-partisan effort, too. Reform-makers correctly recognised that conflicts changed over time – but sacrificing military endurance over operational range was not the right conclusion. It is precisely because conflicts lost spatial and temporal boundaries that a military needs the equipment, expertise, and resources to successfully conclude longer deployments.

Conflicts have lost spatial and temporal boundaries. The military therefore needs the equipment, expertise, and resources to successfully conclude longer deployments

Recent reforms also severely overstretched the Bundeswehr’s competences into civilian tasks. At the same time, the army has done too little to improve task-handoff to civilians. Developing synergies between civilian and military tasks is just as much the responsibility of civilians as it is of military personnel. It is essential, going forward, to improve collaboration between the Federal Foreign Office, Federal Ministry for Economic Collaboration and Development, and Federal Ministry of Defence.

Finally, right-wing extremism within the Bundeswehr's own ranks erodes not just its cohesion and the credibility of its mission. The serious threat emanating from radicalised officers to citizens isolates the army from the same civilian society that is meant to sustain, oversee, and command it.

Reforming and intensifying the civic education of Bundeswehr soldiers and officers to restore professionalism can no longer be an afterthought. Between political side-lining and civilian mismanagement, austerity is the least of the Bundeswehr’s problems.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Hager Ali
Hager Ali
Research Fellow and Doctoral Student, GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, Hamburg

Hager's research focuses on civil-military relations, regime stability, and authoritarian politics across the Middle East and North Africa.

She received her MA from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, where she specialised in comparative political science, and her BA in Political Science and Sociology from Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Hager is also a freelance journalist.

She tweets @ActuallyHager

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