The Sorry State of Germany’s Armed Forces
Trump’s calls to withdraw U.S. troops from the country are impulsive, but Germany isn’t blameless.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement—and subsequent confirmation—that he would reduce the 35,000 U.S. troops stationed in Germany by 28 percent provoked a barrage of criticism. And although U.S. politics remain as partisan as ever, the critics included both Democrats and Republicans.
Those who took issue with Trump’s announcement charged that it had blindsided the German government, with lawmakers in the Bundestag calling the president’s announcement “regrettable,” even “completely unacceptable.” The decision came without any evident coordination among foreign-policy and national-security bureaucracies, and it did not appear to be guided by a larger strategy.
These criticisms point to a familiar problem. In the Trump administration, impulse too often passes for policy. Even so, focusing solely on Trump’s abrupt decision lets Germany off the hook too easily. It obscures the larger context of this controversy, namely how NATO works today and Europe’s role within it.
To begin with, the German armed forces are in a sorry state, and that’s not because Germany, more important to NATO’s efficacy as a collective defense pact than any other European member state, lacks the means to fix this problem. It does not.
Germany’s gross domestic product, valued at $4 trillion, ranks fourth in the world and first in Europe. The country is also Europe’s technological powerhouse. Indeed, in 2018, the World Economic Forum hailed it as the world’s leader in technological innovation.
And yet the German military remains riddled with problems. A damning 2019 report (available in an English-language summary) issued by the Bundestag’s then commissioner for the armed forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, summed up the problem.
The number of recruits to the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military, has been falling and dropped to an unprecedented 20,000 in 2018, a trend that hasn’t been reversed. Moreover, thousands of officer and noncommissioned officer slots remain unfilled. Following NATO’s 2014 Wales summit, the German government had proposed increasing the number of soldiers to 198,500 by 2025, but given the dismal recruitment trend, that amounts to a pipe dream.
The Bartels report also highlighted other serious problems. Critical equipment such as body armor, night vision gear, radios for secure communication, and transport helicopters remains chronically scarce, as do spare parts. In consequence, the air force, army, and navy all have training and readiness problems. They’re faced with “fighter jets and helicopters that don’t fly. Ships and submarines that can’t sail,” quipped a 2019 piece in Politico. Other assessments likewise point in the steep decline in the number of tanks and combat aircraft owing to cutbacks in procurement.
Perhaps most embarrassingly, the development of the F-125 Baden Württemberg-class frigate, the much-touted replacement for the F-122 Bremen class, has sputtered. The effort started in 2007, but a host of software and hardware glitches delayed sea trials until 2017, after which the ship was deemed unfit for use. Although the lead vessel did eventually enter service in 2019, the frigate is widely understood to be unable to fulfill the mission that served as its original rationale: conducting protracted operations in distant locales while parrying threats from an adversary’s aircraft, destroyers, and submarines.
In many ways, the German military’s failures come down to insufficient defense spending. At the 2014 meeting in Wales, Germany and Washington’s other NATO allies agreed to devote at least 2 percent of their individual GDPs to defense spending by 2024. By 2019, however, only seven of the alliance’s 29 members (now 30, with the entry of North Macedonia this year), had either met or exceeded the two-percent target. Greece, at 2.24 percent, was furthest along. Germany came in at 1.36 percent.
German Chancellor Angela’s Merkel’s admission in 2018 that Germany would not reach the 2 percent mark enraged Trump, and his feelings were duly relayed to Berlin by his bull-in-a-China-shop ambassador, Richard Grenell.
Trump has tended to frame his displeasure as a failure of burden-sharing in NATO. But perhaps even more seriously, military expenditure that is low relative to GDP signals a lack of commitment to national defense. Such spending may have mattered less for a time after the Cold War, but now the circumstances have changed, and a NATO that sails along without a serious stocktaking will find itself in trouble.
The United States no longer dominates. Americans have become increasingly anxious about an array of festering problems at home, and COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis will add to their worries. The country may be less able or willing to come to Europe’s aid. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made substantial investment in beefing up Russia’s military might.
Against this background, the proposition that Europe should defend itself, not least because the European members of NATO together have a GDP of $18 trillion compared to Russia’s $1.66 trillion, is more appealing to both the Trump administration and the public at large.
All Europeans, and not just Germans, would therefore do well to understand that the discord within NATO over burden-sharing won’t magically disappear if Trump loses the presidential election this November. His plan or threat—call it what you will—to reduce the U.S. military presence in Germany represents a particularly fraught instantiation of long-standing frictions within NATO. And the changes that have occurred within the United States and in the distribution of power in the world will make it more contentious and harder to smooth over.
This much is clear: Left unaddressed, Europe’s insufficient military spending could well jeopardize the alliance’s future, and the standard appeals to common values and the hallowed tradition of Euro-Atlanticism won’t suffice to patch it together. Nor will the eventual departure of Trump.