Germany’s armed forces are lacking more than just equipment, by Paul Strobel
A patchy debate
In recent weeks there has been a heavy debate in Berlin about Germany’s Bundeswehr, and the way defence policy is strategised. Those familiar with German debates concerning military matters, or rather the lack thereof, will appreciate the rarity of the occasion. Sadly, there still is little reason for optimism.
What happened? On February 20th, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragter des Bundestages) published his annual report about the general state of the Bundeswehr. Painting a rather dark picture about the condition of all service branches, he especially singled out insufficient and broken equipment at the most basic of levels. One headline the next day read: “The Bundeswehr is lacking tents and ballistic vests”.
In the following days the press mainly focused on the miserable state of the main weapons systems: A lack of spare parts that is immobilising entire Panzer battalions, Navy ships stuck in the docks for the same reason and a readiness across the Bundeswehr’s helicopter fleet so low that pilots and cadets have to fly on civilian rescue helicopters of Germany’s automobile association to gain or maintain their licenses. Not only are Germany’s armed forces barely operational at home, the equipment crisis also calls into question their ability to fulfil commitments to NATO and UN missions, worldwide.
Germany’s recent coalition negotiations have put the Ministry for Defence under the spotlight, and for a while it seemed doubtful whether Minister Von der Leyen would be able to defend her post in a new Merkel cabinet. Turns out she succeeded and persists: “We cannot be expected to make up for in a number of years what has been dismantled and economised over the last quarter century.”
While this statement is hard to argue with, the public debate failed to cover the Bundeswehr’s woes in full. Indeed, one subject that was left out entirely could prove yet more prohibitive to turning the Bundeswehr into an effective and operational force again.
In a chapter of his report, titled ‘Leadership behaviour and error culture’, the commissioner criticised:
“Ever more often, soldiers complain that excessive rules and regulations get in the way of solving problems. The feeling of bureaucratic encirclement is increasing. The principle of mission-type tactics [Auftragstaktik] is therefore foiled. Instead, a climate of self-preservation and ‘merely doing what one is told to do’ is spreading” (Author’s translation, annual report, pg. 35).
Soft facts, hard consequences
Granted, such a “soft-fact” is as easy to overlook as it is hard to frame and debate. But it is by no means any less important than the state of the Bundeswehr’s equipment: Strangling their leaders’ freedom to act with initiative and tackle problems with creativity, the German armed forces today are in serious danger of finally abandoning their prized ability of independent leadership and operations planning.
Furthermore, a modern leadership culture could help defence minister von der Leyen reach one of her main political goals: to convince more young Germans to serve in the armed forces. Several years after the suspension of compulsory service, the public image of the Bundeswehr can only get better and soldiers’ job satisfaction would doubtlessly increase. It is easy to see why only preciously few high school graduates today want to work for an organisation whose old, broken, or even missing hardware makes it the nation’s laughing stock – and that is even before accounting for German society’s notoriously scepticism stance towards the military. But an armed forces in which soldiers don’t get any creative leeway or room to develop, and where employees are frustrated and don’t show any pride in their work will doubtlessly scare away even the last idealists.
The proposed solution is, ironically of course, that recruits at the time of enlisting should already come with a fully developed set of skills. The commissioner writes:
“That is why a developed sense of responsibility should play a larger role in the recruiting process. The ability to show composure, self-possession and respect, as well as an awareness that one is fallible, are important requirements” (Author’s translation, annual report, pg. 35/36).
This notion warrants intense scrutiny: How much can the Bundeswehr expect from young citizens? Or, put more bluntly: Don’t these values have to be taught and lived within the armed forces to start with? Should they not be a natural part of day-to-day service and training?
The report does however stress that the problem does not lie with will and initiative on part of the Bundeswehr’s troops:
“Many self-made rules within the Bundeswehr are rather easy to change. It seems that the experts for improved regulations are in many places the soldiers themselves” (Author’s translation, annual report, pg. 35).
This shows once again that those worst affected by oversized rule books also know best how their jobs ought to be done better. But again, questions ought to be asked: why does the report talk about improving regulations when the overburdening of the same seems to be the problem? It seems the rules-and-regulations-reflex sits deep within the entire German political system, not just the defence ministry.
Towards a new culture of leadership and error
The exact opposite is required: Freedom from exuberant rules and regulations would allow creativity and initiative to flourish. There can be no doubt that soldiers’ satisfaction with their work and employer would soar in such an environment. When leaders on all levels are granted greater freedom to shape and create their own service routines, a new leadership culture could grow organically. This in turn would lead to a new way of dealing with and learning from errors: It would make mission-type tactics (Auftragstaktik) come alive once again. But the prized values of composure, self-possession, respect and sense of fallibility need room to grow. Quintessentially, freedom to make mistakes is needed to be able to learn from them – an organisation that tolerates no errors will find no successes.
The Bundeswehr can do better – it continues to prove so itself. Where real objectives and real lives are on the line, in its numerous deployments worldwide, the German forces routinely do better than at home. On this the report reads:
“Soldiers evaluate the performance on deployments as much better than at home. Mission-type leadership, clear tasks, mutual trust and an environment where mistakes can be admitted without fear – this is how soldiers describe their situation on deployment” (Author’s translation, annual report, pg. 35).
This confirms the suspicion that a trusting, some would say modern (!), leadership style is not only possible, but standard practice once the forces operates far away from Berlin. This should give us pause and make us think.
Naturally, a new culture around leadership and learning from mistakes cannot grow over night; neither can it simply be ordered. Soldiers have to be granted the trust to fulfil their missions as independently as possible, guided mainly by the intention of their superiors, not their intervention at every turning point. While this became good military practice in many uniformed services across the Western hemisphere re-attaining such a culture in the Bundeswehr will doubtlessly require time to manifest itself on all levels of leadership. The willingness to listen to the soldiers on the ground and to learn from their feedback is central to this effort.
Defence Minister Von der Leyen has her work cut out for her: A change in leadership style can only happen if initiated by and backed from the very top. While the aim is to permeate all levels of the armed forces, the turnaround needs to start in the defence ministry, not with privates. The military bureaucracy will have to start trusting downstream departments, units and most importantly, its soldiers. This won’t be an easy process but there are positives to build on. After all, shouldn’t we be able to trust our women and men who have sworn an oath for our protection? One can only hope that a defence minister, known throughout Berlin circles for her controlling obsession, will tackle this problem despite her instincts. Recognising the problem as such and formulating the aim to solve it would be a promising start.
The author is a reserve officer cadet in the German Bundeswehr and works for an economic policy think tank in Berlin.