The Giant Awakens:
German rearmament after Ukraine

DI FABIO LISSI

11/04/2022

The main power in continental Europe is coming back on the scene as the dominant military actor. Is it a definitive turning point or is it just a temporary claim that will soon fade away? Let’s examine together the complex military history of Germany.

Introduction

Putin’s move has proven to be ill-prepared in many aspects. From the unexpected resistance of the Ukrainian army to the firm response of the West in terms of economic sanctions, the invasion of Ukraine is becoming a real problem for the Russian president. There are, however, several consequences that will have a long-lasting impact even after the eventual unfolding of the crisis. Europe had to face the inevitable price of energy dependence and is now reconsidering different solutions ranging from providers’ diversification to regasification, from emergency coal-fuelled plants to nuclear plants reactivation. Moreover, on the defence side, NATO is reaffirming itself as an ironclad security provider, functioning as a coordination forum within member and partner states, but also with other institutions such as the EU. National parliaments have rapidly dropped their doubts about the 2% target and scepticism left place to strong commitment. But one major shift in security and defence policy concerning Germany is probably attracting the most observers’ attention: the decision of increasing the military expenditure by 100 billion euros (just for 2022) announced by president Scholz the 27th of February. The main power in continental Europe is thus coming back on the scene as the dominant military actor. Is it a definitive turning point or is it just a temporary claim that will soon fade away? Let’s examine together the complex military history of Germany.


A heavy burden

“Conscious of its responsibility before God and Men, inspired by the determination to promote world peace as an equal partner in a united Europe, the German people, in the exercise of their constituent power, have adopted this Basic Law”.

This is the preamble to the German Grundgesetz, the “basic law” (constitution) adopted in 1949, when the three allied occupation zones were merged. The responsibility of the two global conflicts is still more clear than ever in the minds of German and European politicians in the aftermath of the Third Reich fall: France is still diffident towards its new neighbour, and Federal Germany’s chancellor Adenauer himself refuses to talk about a reconstruction of the Wehrmacht when asked about the role of its country inside NATO. Consequently, the attempts to create a single European army that we all know ended badly. Eventually, Germany will join NATO and start rearming, reaching some 500.000 active military personnel in 1990, with a military spending of 3% on GDP basis. But this ended with the Cold War. With the Soviet threat gone, Germany’s spending shrank to a lowest 1% of GDP and its military remained in large part obsolete and undersized for an 80 million population country. Compared to Turkey, also a NATO member with a similar population, but with incomparable economic and industrial resources, Germany in 2022 had 184.000 active personnel against 425.000, 15.000 reserves against 200.000 and 266 tanks against 3022, although having circa double the purchasing power. Is this a problem of resources? It does not seem to be the case, looking at German financial situation and industrial capabilities, this result looks quite surprising. Instead, it was the political will to adopt a strict line of neutrality and pacifism that shaped the German military performance until now. Germany strongly opposed most military interventions, although it has taken part in NATO multinational battlegroups deployed in the Baltics and in ISAF mission in Afghanistan. It was also ambiguous in terms of armament procurement: although it has lifted the ban on German-made artillery exporting by junior partners, so far Germany has sent to Ukraine only infantry equipment like anti-tank and anti-air guns, and few armoured transport vehicles. This could be about to change in the forthcoming years, but there are still several questions that need to be answered.


The legacy of the German army

First, military diversification has always been a problem of the German army. Due to the high presence and variety of defence industries, German armaments have been concentrating on diversification. Just looking at the figures of World War II, the German army always developed new variants of tanks, artillery, and planes almost every year instead of concentrating on vast scale production (just look at the famous “competitions'' organised by Hitler and Speer between Porsche and Henschel prototypes of the Tiger tank). This resulted in a better sophistication, at a price of a lower effectiveness, especially in terms of repairing and spare parts interoperability. Nowadays, the situation has not changed significantly, with the new projects including a new Eurofighter still behind the American F35 and the European Main Battle Tank (Main Ground Combat system, presented in 2012 and revealed in 2018) trying to unite the designs from Leopard2A7 and Leclerc, that will be adopted just by few countries. Second, there are tactics and strategies. German generals invented the modern Chief of Staff itself as a concept, under the guide of Helmut von Moltke, giving field commanders high operational autonomy and flexibility. During two world wars they developed new doctrines now made famous like the battle of encirclement, the Blitzkrieg, the Schwerpuntk, the elastic defence, the Kampfgruppen, just to name a few. But now war has changed, and low investment in defence has also resulted in little research in this field, especially in terms of technology and hybrid warfare if compared to the American ally, but also to the Russian rival.  Third, the social role of the military is still a considerable obstacle. The public support has always been extremely low for the Bundeswehr since 1945, resulting in a weak chain of trust between soldiers, public opinion, and political administration. Even though this has now changed according to the surveys (78% in favour of the increase), and it is very likely to be exploited in the short term, rebuilding this link will prove to be a major challenge in the long term. Furthermore, war is not fought with weapons alone. As the two world wars should have taught Germany, a reliable network of allies and resources providers is going to be crucial in the future, especially at the light of the new role that Germany has inside the global world order (a status quo power, instead of a revisionist power).


What can we expect?

The legacy of imperialism brought Germany to assume a “reluctant hegemon” posture, with the declared aim of not alarming other EU countries. But this concept is now naïve to say the least. No allied country could fear being invaded by Germany, as none fears it from the US or France or the UK. German economic influence is indeed strong, and the army is just a basic instrument of defence of each world power, especially in a multilateral defence system such as NATO. The announced increase is likely to fill holes in the present structure, more than revolutionising the German army: concentrating on production efficiency instead of fast output from different military providers, fixing the structural problems, dealing with bureaucracy, assuring efficient ammunition reserves and logistic, air and cyber defence are just some of the challenges that a serious reform of the German army must face. Granting the money is the first but certainly not the last step, as the last increase’s scarce effect after the 2014 decision by Von der Leyen proves. Being aware of this, the government is now discussing with both chambers (Bundestag and Bundesrat) a proposal to amend the constitution and put the 2%/GDP ratio as binding, so that future governments could not withdraw from this target. Finally, Germany should find the political will to assume the guide of a new European foreign policy, always based on the principles of democracy and multilateralism, but shaped considering the realistic challenges that we will have to face in the forthcoming years, namely the new relationship with Russia after the war will be over.


Conclusion

Only time will say if this change of course is going to be permanent or just temporary. If Germany could retake its role as leading military powerhouse in the continent and if this is going to trigger unsolved diffidence from other countries. More realistically, German rearmament would be shaped in the form of a strengthened cooperation with EU partners, especially France, left alone after Brexit as the only European country with significant military power projection outside the continent. As it was theorised on the eve of XXI century, Germany could assume a central role in the Eastern periphery of the Union, while France could concentrate on the Mediterranean and Middle East. The Bundeswehr is not (and will not be) the new Wehrmacht, but the resources and men this country can mobilise are still there, waiting for being unleashed. Just to give an example: the army procurement office warned in 1939 that Germany would run out of fuel in a matter of three months. Instead, war went on (almost always in inferior numbers on every front), and soldiers kept fighting for 6 years, with tremendous consequences for the whole world. Whatever will be the future unfolding of this switch in foreign and security policy, it is now clear that Putin’s move achieved what decades of American insistence could not. If it is not always true that History repeats itself, in this case the quote of Admiral Yamamoto commenting on the Pearl Harbour raid is more than appropriate: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

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