Germans: Military Klutzes!

It happened under the radar, so to speak. The major German papers wouldn’t pick the story up, but a regional paper, the Rheinische Post, did. This concerned Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who in recent days has barnstormed through the US and Canada on a four-day trip. The thing is, he arrived at his first destination, New York City where he was due for a meeting of the UN Security Council, a couple hours late: the original airplane that was to carry him from Berlin’s Tegel airport turned out to be defective.

No big deal? It is if you have been paying attention! (To be clear: That’s not your obligation!) How about the G20 summit last year in Buenos Aires (30 NOV – 1 DEC 2018), when malfunctions in Angela Merkel’s official airplane (No, not Luftwaffe 1; it’s called “Konrad Adenauer” after post-war Germany’s first Chancellor) made her stop her flight from Berlin short in Cologne and then go on to Buenos Aires by herself on Iberia (that is, Spanish) airlines! And of course she was late for meetings there with her fellow heads of government/state, by around twenty-four hours.

But wait – there’s more, more in this sad tale of repeated failings when it comes to the basic task of getting top German politicians to where they need to go. Foreign Minister Maas himself had to cope with three separate airplane incidents within four months (FEB – MAY) earilier this year (although one merely delayed his flight back from Bamako, Mali, by twenty hours – nothing urgent awaiting back home, other than seeing his family, etc.). And at the end of May Bundespr√§sident Frank-Walter Steinmeier had to quickly switch to a private jet to go off on an official visit to South Africa, because there was a rip discovered in the cockpit of the official plane he was to have used. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has also suffered this sort of indignity, in the middle of a visit to Indonesia.

Bizarrely, @Team_Luftwaffe actually used Twitter to pat itself on the back concerning the latest Heiko Maas incident! Whereas for Merkel’s G20 trip it couldn’t come up with any official substitute plane, in Maas’ case “thanks to quick servicing by #Team_Luftwaffe he was also back in the air” in a replacement.

The excellent Germany correspondent for POLITICO Europe, Matthew Karnitschnig, published a piece last April (“Merkel’s Con Air”) on the subject of these flight mishaps, claiming in the piece’s lede that “it’s not a bad look for the German chancellor” to have these flight break-downs after all. In fact, he adds, it’s wrong to think they signaled “Angela Merkel’s waning influence at home and abroad.” Actually, Merkel and the German Establishment generally are secretly delighted at how official planes fail to work so often, claims Karnitschnig. It’s all “a reflection of how Germany, and particularly Merkel, likes to be seen in the world,” you see. This way, they get to look not particularly powerful, but instead hapless, maybe even lovable in a pitying way, when in reality everyone knows how powerful Germany. And anyway, the very first meeting at that G20 summit in Argentina that Merkel was forced to cancel was one with President Trump!

Come now! “[I]t’s not a bad look for the German chancellor”! Arriving a day late to a G20 summit? Having to go commercial last-minute to embark upon the next leg of your itinerary, so you leave all your staff behind (as Merkel did for that flight, but also Minister Scholz in Indonesia)? Of course it is! The Germans are supposed to be masters of machinery; Germany is supposed to be the place where things just work!

(Whisper It) The Germans Can’t Fight!

Neither are these incidents a reflection of Chancellor Merkel’s waning influence. (That idea is itself debatable.) What they do signify is easy to grasp if one simply recalls that @Team_Luftwaffe tweet: namely, it is the German military that is responsible for making these airplanes work flawlessly, and when they are supposed to. Normally, the true state of a military establishment’s readiness to fight only becomes clear once war breaks out, or to some extent when tested hard during training. Here at least we see clear evidence of the German military’s serious shortcomings, reflected in their inability to execute their basic transport responsibilities.

Now, that will also be a surprise to many people. The Germans were just supposed to “get” how to fight effectively; after all, they did that in both World Wars, especially in the latter, winning swift “blitzkrieg” victories over most of the European continent and then fighting effectively for a long time while heavily out-numbered on both Western and Eastern Fronts, to keep invaders away from the German homeland before succumbing.

But there does increasingly seem to be a problem here. There are alarming shortages of equipment, including tanks (which, by themselves, are of excellent quality), stemming from a reluctance to buy more but also failures in systematic maintenance to keep ready those that are there (sound familiar?). Then there was the Sturmgewehr G36 fiasco, whereby the Defense Ministry spent millions on a new combat rifle, found out it was useless when it heats up, and then could not even sue Heckler & Koch for damages. There are increasing questions about the quality of personnel (and remember: there’s no more mandatory national service, so all those officers and soldiers are volunteers, as in the US Army), with worries about an excess of far-right (i.e. racist/neo-Nazi/etc.) radicals within the ranks. The Defense Ministry can’t even get an agreement done with the national railways to allow personnel in uniform to ride for free! (Actually, the Deutsche Bahn has serious unrelated problems of its own.) Plus, they even made a mess of refurbishing the Gorch Fock, which is the enormous sailing-ship used to train midshipmen at the German naval academy!

OK, but what does all that mean? I would suggest at least two things:

1. Bad sign for the new President of the European Commission: That’s Ursula von der Leyen, who comes from being Angela Merkel’s Minister of Defence for six freakin’ years (2013-2019)! If it is true that the German military is now seriously falling short – quite apart from the aircraft failures which, again, I offer as epiphenomena signalling a broader malaise – then who else is directly to blame? “Well, she was hamstrung by reluctance to spend on the military” – then she should have ensured that the German military received anyway the money it needs to fulfill its vital responsibilities right there in the center of NATO on the North German plain!

Back not so long ago, when Von der Leyen surprisingly emerged as a compromise candidate to take over the Commission, all sorts of articles appeared doubting whether she really was that good at running large government organizations effectively – but those doubts were brushed aside, because finding a Commission President candidate on which everyone could agree was starting to become urgent. Nowadays Von der Leyen is preparing to take over her new high-profile role as of 1 NOV, and the heir to Angela Merkel as CDU chairperson, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has been made Minister of Defense in her stead.

(I do need to briefly comment on this new vogue for putting women at the head of Defense Ministries, has happened also in France, Netherlands, Norway: As a 7-year military veteran myself, including armed combat, I would posit that women no more belong at the head an organization whose personnel are expected to kill and die for their country than they do at the “bleeding edge” where that actually occurs. Maybe Von der Leyen never had a chance to succeed there at Defense.)

2. Trump is right! Oh I hate to write something like that, but mention has already been made of Germany’s reluctance to spend money on defense, which must be included as a key source of the Ministry of Defense’s current problems. As we know, there’s a goal of 2% of GDP for defense spending that all NATO member-states are at least supposed to hit within a few years’ time, and the American president keeps hammering on that, urging European countries even to reach it ahead of schedule. Germany has been a perennial laggard, and that’s hard to understand – it’s a rich country, running impressive budget-surpluses in recent years, and it manufactures top-notch military equipment, so most of any additional spending would go towards juicing its own economy.

But no. And that puts not only Trump in the right concerning what he says about Germany’s NATO obligations but, more the point, it does the same for the rather annoying fellow he put in as US Ambassador to Berlin, ex-Fox News commentator Richard Grenell. Lately Grenell has been threatening to move the remaining US troops stationed in Germany eastward to Poland, and he may well have the basis of an argument for doing so.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the Germans are still Meisters of machinery, as can be seen in their Mittelstand (i.e. world-renowned small- and medium-sized technical firms) and their world-champion export prowess. The problem seems mainly to involve their public sector. Is it incompetence there that is starting to show? I wouldn’t go that far; it is more likely to be that they are tight with public money. In any event, if you are fortunate enough to expect a visit from some member of the German government, check and re-check!

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