Turning a warship around, as the saying goes, takes time. For the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, it may take a little longer.
From delivering advanced weapons to putting socks on soldiers’ feet, the military is notorious for expensive and hamstrung purchases. Boris Pistorius, who took office as defense minister earlier this year, said change was his top priority.
“More than anything else, it’s about speeding up procurement for the Bundeswehr,” he said at a roundtable the ministry hosted with German arms manufacturers earlier this month. “There are gaps to fill.”
The comments fit into Pistorius’ very public effort to show he can succeed where his predecessors failed and make the Bundeswehr a battle-ready fighting force to be reckoned with.
First rule: Fewer rules
Pistorius said he wants to eliminate regulations that hinder research and development, and procurement, which have been funded for years and precede the requirements of the law. The difficult processes of approval and sign-offs from the top and bottom of the ministry hierarchy must be smooth.
Creativity, flexibility and initiative should be the new buzzwords that guide the military procurement office of more than 11,000 people. That’s six times bigger than the defense ministry itself.
At the end of April, the defense ministry published an internal document known as the Zimmer Decree – published on the news platform, Business Insiderand obtained by DW — stressing that the “time factor has the highest priority and it is, effective immediately, the key factor in all pending and new equipment projects for the armed forces.”
Path of least resistance
Despite the sense of urgency, the memo is just a piece of paper. Neither this nor Pistorius’s orders, by themselves, would rouse a sluggish bureaucracy into action.
“The paper does not know the time,” Christian Mölling, the head of the Center for Security and Defense of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW, referring to a German expression that is almost identical to the evidence of the pudding.
While the decree establishes a framework, he said, “the big question is that they activate the system?”
It could take up to two years to see changes, Mölling said. At that point, German politics will be gearing up for the next general election, and €100 billion ($108.64 billion) in additional defense spending will be available.
That puts Pistorius under pressure to show results. If he wants to convince lawmakers that his ministry deserves a bigger, normal annual budget, he needs to show that it can spend the money in a careful and effective way.
The path forward, as Zimmer puts it, is the path of least resistance. That primarily means doing it without special equipment, which risks exaggerating time and cost. Instead, the order requires the use of “off-the-shelf products.”
The move reflects one of the major criticisms of Germany’s military-industrial complex: It reinvents the wheel, instead of using cheaper options that are already available.
A heavy legacy
Germany’s defense sector welcomed the renewed focus on faster, smoother procurement, and fewer, rules imposed by the ministry, as it is consistent with many of its own recommendations.
“The consistent use of new requirements also enables us, as an industry, to provide the Bundeswehr with our products already on the market, which have proven themselves to other NATO customers,” Hans Christoph Atzpodien, the managing director of the Federal Association of the German Security and Defense Industry (BDSV), told DW in a statement.
The Bundeswehr’s struggle to equip and maintain its forces has long been a running joke in German policy circles. Its civilian leadership comes and goes, rarely with much to show for their stated efforts.
The roots of the Bundeswehr’s challenges run deep. Established along with the federal republic shortly after Nazi rule, “mistrust” in the military legally brought it to its knees from the start, Klaus Wittmann, a retired German brigadier general, told DW.
Article 87 of Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, places a wall between the armed forces and its administration. That puts purchasing authority for the military beyond the reach of the military itself.
Although West German forces were once more formidable during the Cold War, the political will to continue funding them disappeared with the Soviet threat.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 hastened the shift in thinking. A new sense of urgency, most concretely represented by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” speech a few days into the war, has increasingly reached German sensibilities about military power.
Unlike those before him, Pistorius has the wind at his back and is clear about the reality of the security he is entering. He showed an interest in learning on the job, Wittmann said, and listened to what his military counterparts said they needed.
“I’m very optimistic, and thinking [Pistorius] fell on the right foot,” he said.
Despite the goodwill, Wittmann said he will wait for the results — and feedback from the troops — before he’s ready to declare mission accomplished.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors gather what’s happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for Berlin Briefing’s weekly email newsletter.